Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld


Edited by Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

Thursday, June 4, 2015

What If Martin Luther Had Died Earlier? Another Clockstopper Counterfactual

I was recently in Germany and, while there, read an interview in the Süddeutsche Zeitung weekend magazine with former German CDU party chief from the 1980s, Heiner Geißler.

In the interview, Geißler touched on a wide array of subjects, including his pessimistic stance about the virtues of organized religion.  In one exchange with the interviewer, Geißler offered an interesting counterfactual about the thought of Martin Luther.  (For the record, Geißler is of Catholic background).


To the interviewer's question, "In his pamplets, Luther attacked Jews, knights, and peasants.  Can he serve whatsoever as a role model?" Geißler replied:

"One cannot justify the dark sides of [Luther's thought].  What he said about the Jews is a very dark and immoral story.  At the beginning of the 1520s, he wrote: Jesus is a Jew.  Later he believed that the Jews killed Jesus.  It would have been better if Luther had died a few years earlier.  I believe he had a homoerotic relationship to Jesus.  He concentrated completely on "my Christianity" and the Jews naturally did not reject Christ as the messiah.  Therefore, Luther could not forgive the Jews when they defended themselves from being converted.  He had a love-hate relationship to the Jews."

Geißler makes his counterfactual claim merely in passing, but it is worth reflecting on its implied meaning.  As I read it, Geißler wants us to understand that Luther's reputation would have been much better if he had died before the late phase of his career, which was defined by his siding with German princely authorities against the peasants and his condemnation of the Jews.  An earlier death for Luther would have preserved his reputation as a radical emancipator who challenged authority rather than sided with it against the cause of human freedom.

Stopping the clock in this way, of course, fails the plausibility test of a good counterfactual unless one can pinpoint a moment when Luther might have actually been removed from the historical stage.  I'm not aware, for example, if Luther had any major illnesses that might have done him during this period, but Geißler would have had to provide such an instance to make his counterfactual more vigorous.  This was not his agenda, of course, but his remark reveals how implied meanings are contained in even the most fleeting "what ifs."

In the end, his observation validates the truism that the meaning of an event is wholly determined upon the point at which one interprets it.  Whether it is the administration of a political leader, the conduct of a war, or an experiment in nation building, assessing an event's ultimate meaning is dependent upon the chronological vantage point of analysis.  Premature interpretation (ie. before an event has reached its conclusion) distorts the past.  Raising counterfactual questions about how an event would have been viewed had it ended before it really did does open up interesting interpretive possibilities, but "stopping the clock" of history has to be done plausibly for the insights to carry much interpretive weight.

See, for comparison, my post about Adam Tooze's counterfactual from 2013.


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