Luther in German Historiography

Zachary Purvis

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter (peer-reviewed)peer-review


What does Martin Luther mean for Germany? Formulated in such a way, it is an impossible question, due in no small measure to the existence of many “Luthers” and many “Germanys.” But it also invites historical investigation. Luther has long held a privileged position in the writing of German history, stretching back to his own lifetime, even if the exact nature of that position has hardly remained static or uncontested. Luther’s position in the annals of Germany history testifies to the influence of social and political upheavals on the way in which historians understand the past—and vice versa. Each era’s critical events have encouraged certain of aspects of Luther’s person and work to be remembered and others to be forgotten.

Like swapping between telephoto and wide-angle lenses, historical perspectives have moved between a narrow concentration on the German reformer’s biography and theology and a broader focus on the Protestant movement he launched in Germany. Historians have regularly enlisted Luther in an expansive, sweeping vision of the German Reformation and the emergence of the modern German nation-state. Indeed, contemporary ideas of nation and nationalism have had a determining influence on Luther interpretations. This is true as much for German historians like Leopold von Ranke, writing towards the beginning of history’s professionalization as a full-fledged, independent academic discipline in the first half of the nineteenth century, as it is for those surveying Luther in the midst of the First World War, in the aftermath of the Nazi era, or on the cusp Germany’s “turning point” (die Wende) of 1989–90—and even for historians now situated in the twenty-first century.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationOxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther
EditorsDerek Nelson, Paul Hinlicky
Place of PublicationOxford
PublisherOxford University Press
ISBN (Print)9780190461843
Publication statusPublished - 3 Aug 2017

Publication series

NameOxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion


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  • Luther in 19th-Century Theology

    Purvis, Z., 3 Aug 2017, Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther. Nelson, D. & Hinlicky, P. (eds.). Oxford University Press, Vol. 2. p. 681–696 (Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Religion).

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingEntry for encyclopedia/dictionary

    Open Access

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