From Religious Reform to Global Conflict:
How Martin Luther Caused World War II
Martin Luther’s influence on history is common knowledge. However, the extent of his influence is not. One can simply look at the events following Luther’s actions to understand their real impact. Protestantism, initiated by Martin Luther, set off a chain reaction that eventually led to the American Revolution. That revolution, and its outcome, led the French to start a revolt against their own king. The French Revolution gave rise to the empire of Napoleon Bonaparte, who dissolved the Holy Roman Empire and turned the German states into French puppets. Both the American and French Revolutions served as templates for the later revolutions of the early nineteenth century. The Revolution of 1848 gave Otto von Bismarck his chance to rise to preeminence in Prussian government, and the previous abuse of German autonomy at the hands of Napoleon’s armies gave Bismarck the ideological impetus to unify the German states at French expense. The Franco-Prussian War, which was caused by Bismarck, caused increasing tension between France and Germany. That tension lead to the various alliances that created the “powder-keg” which, when “ignited” by the assassination of Franz Ferdinand, led to World War I. The Treaty of Versailles, which ended World War I, forced Germany to pay major reparations to the allies that defeated it and further increased the tension between France and Germany. That increased tension gave Hitler the grounds to seize power and eventually start World War II. Posted on the door of the Wittenberg Castle church on All Saints’ Eve in 1517, Martin Luther’s ninety-five theses set in motion a series of events that led to the most devastating war in the history of the world. Luther intended his theses to be a proposition for reform within the Catholic Church. What he felt needed reformed, or even abolished, was the Church’s practice of selling indulgences as a means to alleviate sin. Though his words eventually led to the reform he sought, Luther had no way of knowing how big an impact his ideas would really have on the future of the world. “Probably Luther did not see what he was doing as particularly important, since he had spoken on indulgences before. . .” (MacCulloch 123). Luther’s ninety-five theses sparked a zeal for religious reform throughout Europe that eventually culminated in the foundation of numerous Christian churches with no ties to the Roman Catholic Church. That period of remarkable religious reform, which has since been labeled the Protestant Reformation, started a domino effect that, four centuries later, brought about the destructive conflict we now know as World War II. So how did this domino effect get started with Martin Luther? Many people before Luther had written theses urging religious reform. Some of the more famous people who objected to the various practices of the Catholic Church, including the sale of indulgences, were John Wycliffe and Jan Hus. These men called for similar changes and they were branded heretics for it. The difference between Luther and earlier would-be reformers was the printing press. Invented in the fifteenth century, many years after both Wycliffe and Hus, the printing press allowed Luther’s views to be disseminated to a much larger audience. That audience, which included many learned people and even some nobles, was also largely disillusioned with the Church. “Superstition and the abuse of religion could not be assigned to any special groups. One can notice, however, many signs of the growing intensification and deepening of religious feeling toward the end of the fifteenth century” (Holborn 117). These people simply didn’t have the theological training and education that Martin Luther, who was a Catholic priest, had received. Because of this, when Luther’s ninety-five theses were published and sold throughout the Holy Roman Empire and the rest of...
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