Religion in Germany

Martin Luther and the famous Karnival

Hand reaching towards glowing light from corner
Religion and Carnival - Would you have brought those two topics together?. Paper Boat Creative - DigitalVision@getty-images

For good reason, the intersection of the huge topics “religion” and “Germany” is understandably Martin Luther.

Luther was born in Eisleben, Germany, in 1483, and his family soon moved to Mansfeld, Germany. Luther received a superb basic education in Latin and German, entered the University of Erfurt in 1501, where he received his baccalaureate degree in 1502 and his master’s degree in 1505. Urged by his father, Luther undertook graduate work in law, but switched to theology within six weeks, owing, he said, to a violent thunderstorm that so terrified him (“besieged by the terror and agony of sudden death”) he promised God to become a monk if he survived.

Luther began his so-called priestly formation at the University of Erfurt, became a priest in 1507, transferred to the University of Wittenberg in 1508, and completed his doctorate in 1512, which the University of Erfurt granted based on his studies at Wittenberg. Five years later, the rift with Catholicism that became the Protestant Reformation began and the ripple effect of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses in 1517 changed the world forever.

Today, Germany is still a Christian nation, although, in keeping with religious freedom, there is no official religion. “Religionen & Weltanschauungsgemeinschaften in Deutschland: Mitgliederzahlen” analyzed results of the 2011 census and found that ca. 67% of the population identified themselves as Christian, i.e., Protestant or Catholic, while Islam comprised ca. 4.9%. There are very, very small Jewish and Buddhist groups that are barely measurable, so the remaining population, i.e., ca 28%, either belong to unidentified religious groups or do not belong to any formal religious group.

The German constitution (Grundgesetz für die Bundesrepublik Deutschland), which opens with these stirring words: “Human dignity is inviolable,” guarantees freedom of religion for everyone. The core of this guarantee of religious freedom is based on “. . . the freedom of religion, conscience and the freedom of confessing one’s religious or philosophical beliefs are inviolable.

Uninfringed religious practice is guaranteed.” But the guarantee does not stop there. The very nature and form of the government reïnforce and bolster that guarantee with many safeguards that strengthen one another synergistically, e.g., a democratic society, popular sovereignty, a strong emphasis on social responsibility, and binding federalism among the sixteen German states (Deutsche Bundesländer).

There is an excellent, in-depth discussion of religious freedom in Germany in Wikipedia which provides many details and examples for those who wish to know specifics. It is certainly worth one’s time.

The overall distribution of religious affiliations can be outlined roughly as follows: you’re more likely to encounter Protestants in the North and Northeast and Catholics in the South and Southwest; however, “Germany Unity”—the joining of the German Democratic Republic (the “DDR”) and the Federal Republic of Germany (the “BRD”) on 03 October 1990—skewed this rule of thumb. After 45 years of communist rule in East Germany, many, many families had drifted away from religion altogether. So, in the former German Democratic Republic, you’re more likely to encounter individuals and families who don’t identify themselves with any church affiliation.

Despite the rough geographic distribution of various religious adherents, many of the holidays that began as religious holy days centuries ago are still part of German culture, regardless of location.

Fasching”—also known as Karneval, Fastnacht, Fasnacht, Fastelabend—begins either a 11:11 on 11 November or on 07 January, the day after the Feast of the Three Kings, depending on your locale, and runs until Ash Wednesday (der Aschermittwoch), the beginning of Lent—the fortyday period of fasting and abstinence immediately preceding Easter. Knowing that they will have to set their frivolity aside during Lent, people party extensively; perhaps to “get it out of their system” (verrückt spielen).

The celebrations are mostly local and vary from village to town to city, but inevitably culminate in the week leading up to Ash Wednesday.

Participants dress in outlandish costumes, prank one another, and generally try to have a frivolous time. It’s mostly harmless, playful, and inconsequential silliness.

For example, Weiberfastnacht is the Thursday before Ash Wednesday, usually in the Rhineland, but there are pockets of Weiberfastnacht all over. Women kiss any man who catches their fancy, snip off their ties with scissors, and end up in bars to laugh, drink, and recount the day’s exploits.

There are parades of various sorts and sizes over the weekend before Easter weekend. Costumes abound, groups strut their stuff (“stolzieren ungeniert”), as they say, with lots of good-humored hooting and hollering.

Rosenmontag, the Monday before Ash Wednesday, has the most extravagant carnival parade in Cologne, but very respectable rival parades also take place throughout the Rhineland, all of which the German television network broadcasts, not merely nationwide, but to other Germanspeaking areas, particularly in Austria & Switzerland.

The next day, Fastnachtdienstag, additional parades take place, but the focal point of this day is the so-called burning of the “Nubbel”. The Nubbel is a straw-filled figure—a scapegoat—that the merrymakers fill with all the sins they committed during the carnival. When they burn the Nubbel, they burn their sins away, leaving them with nothing to regret during Lent.

After sacrificing the Nubbel and not wanting to waste a good Lent at their disposal, the revelers once more start partying into the wee hours of the night just before Ash Wednesday, in hopes of having something about which they can be a bit contrite, even remorseful.

This attitude is in keeping with a very human exchange Luther had with Philip Melanchthon, one of Luther’s companions and an early Protestant theologian. Melanchthon was a rather circumspect man whose unwavering mien annoyed Luther from time to time. “For goodness’ sake, why don’t you go and sin a little?” urged Luther in exasperation. “Doesn’t God deserve to have something to forgive you for!”

For the record, Martin Luther was a rather lusty, earthy monk who, after the Catholic Church excommunicated him, married and commented several times about how delightful it was to awake to find “braids on the pillow” next to his. Luther would have loved and sanctioned the very ethos of Fasching, for he said “Wer nicht liebt Wein, Weib, und Gesang, Der bleibt ein Narr sein Leben lang.” (“Who loves not women, wine, and song, Remains a fool his whole life long.”)