How he invented the Apple Computer and reformed Islam

Martin Luther: How he invented the Apple Computer and reformed Islam

Media installation knowledge of the world
Media installation knowledge of the world
The Reformation began in Wittenberg with the 95 Theses: a big exhibition in the city presents 95 treasures from the world of Martin Luther and 95 people who treasured Luther. Some are very surprising.

Steve Jobs has already been claimed by many groups. Two years ago, when the refugee crisis was boiling over, apologists of open borders liked to point out that the founder of Apple was the son of Syrian immigrants. This was countered by pointing out that his biological father was not present in Job’s life. Steve grew up as adopted child in a middle-class Lutheran family.

Tetzel is everywhere

Even if he said goodbye to Christianity at an early age and flirted first with Hinduism and then Buddhism, the Macintosh man still took with him, we learn now in Wittenberg, a quasi-spiritual idea of “work” from his Lutheran upbringing. This is what the Jobs’s biographer Brent Schlender writes in the catalogue for the third of the national Luther exhibitions in the present Reformation Year. And we note, amused, that the co-author of Schlender’s book bears the suggestive name of Tetzel (!)

While the exhibition in Berlin portrays the global impact of the Lutheran Reformation (which lagged far behind that of Calvinism, although the majority of Lutherans are now no longer residents of Europe), and the one in Eisenach throws light on the relationship of the Germans to the founder of their religious world, the exhibition in the Augusteum of the Wittenberg Luther House focuses on the personal aspect. More precisely, on the man Luther, his surroundings at the beginning of the sixteenth century, and the figures who have been inspired by him – even if as indirectly as Steve Jobs.

Cloak of elk leather by Gustav II Adolf (1st half of the 17th century)
Cloak of elk leather by Gustav II Adolf (1st half of the 17th century) | © The Royal Armoury, Stockholm
Significantly more direct was Luther’s influence on King Gustavus Adolphus of Sweden, whose cloak of elk leather now lies in a Wittenberg showcase. On its right-hand side is the bullet hole that put an end to the life of the Lion of Midnight at the Battle of Lützen. His early death could not alter the fact that, without the intervention of the King and his Swedish forces, Lutheranism would have remained a temporary, just one hundred-year-long epoch in Germany history, and the posting of the 95 theses would hardly be so extensively commemorated as it is now this year.

The posting of the theses actually took place – but without a hammer

Speaking of the theses, in Wittenberg it is assumed that Luther actually stuck the 95 theses to the doors of the city church on 31 October 1517. Doubts about the historicity of this act, which have been voiced since the 1960s, are looked upon as allayed if not disproved. And rightly so: in the book Luthers Thesenanschlag – Faktum oder Fiktion? (Luther’s Posting of the Theses – Fact or Fiction?), already published in 2008 by the Luther Memorial Foundation in Saxony-Anhalt, the evidence is summarized. The printing and publication of such disputation theses corresponded to common practice at the University of Wittenberg. They were usually attached to the doors of churches. There is at least one contemporary who bears witness to the posting (the latter recollections of Melanchthon, who was not even present in the city at the time, don’t count). People liked to publish invitations to particularly important disputations on the evening before holidays. The day before All Saints’ Day would therefore have been deliberately chosen.

Hercules with a club

It is still doubted, however, that Luther himself put up the theses. That would rather have been the task of a university employee, the porter. And it is regarded as unlikely that he mailed the theses to the door with a hammer; the customary form was to attach such papers with wax. The hammer entered the iconography only in the nineteenth century, when people saw Luther as a kind of Christian Thor crushing the enemies of Germany. That this image was present from the start, however, is shown by a picture from Luther’s time, which portrays the reformer as a club-swinging Hercules soundly beating the heads of his opponents.

The picture is one of the treasures referred to in the first part of the exhibition title Luther! 95 Treasures – 95 People. Among the exhibits that afford a view of Luther’s religious universe, but also his everyday world, are things as different as a print of the “December Testament” (the second edition of Luther’s translation of the New Testament, which appeared in December 1522), some figures of saints (including a representation of Anna, the patron saint of miners, especially revered in the Mansfeld region), the splendid pocket watch of the co-reformer Melanchthon, a piggy bank of the time and region, a latrine seat such as the one on which the great reformer was sitting when he received the divine inspiration, and animal bones from the rubbish pits of Luther’s father’s Mansfeld house, which show that the residents were wallowing in luxury.

Piggy bank, 16th century
Piggy bank, 16th century | © Landesamt für Archäologie Sachsen, Ursula Wohmann
Among the people inspired or repelled by Luther are such predictable figures as the resistance theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Ricarda Huch, the author of the best literary account of the Reformation. But also surprises such as the artist Bruce Nauman (likewise a child of devout Lutherans), who has put the idea of “work” at the centre of his art. Or Pier Paolo Pasolini, who described himself as a “Lutheran” in the sense of a “rebel”, and wrote the Lettere luterane.

Luther fan Julius Streicher is not swept under the carpet

Relatively few people are probably aware that in the nineteenth century the Iranian theologian Jamal ad-Din al Afghani sought a modernization of Islam that bore a striking similarity to the Lutheran Reformation. Al-Afghani’s portrait now hangs in the exhibition next to other surprise guests such as the American children’s book author Dr. Seuss (the son of Lutherans of German descent) and Fyodor Dostoevsky, who has his Ivan Karamazov throw a glass of tea at the devil, who then mocks him as a Luther imitator.

It speaks for the self-assurance of the exhibition organizers and the Wittenberg memorial site that amongst the 95 people are also those who either were extremely critical of Luther or invoked the darkest sides of his mind. The first group includes Queen Christine of Sweden, the daughter of Gustavus Adolphus, who renounced her throne and converted to Catholicism; Michael Haneke, whose film Das weiße Band (The White Ribbon) depicts the Lutheran-influenced authoritarian cast of mind of the German imperial era; and Martin Buber, who felt that Luther’s translation of the Bible, for all its beauties, was a theft of Jewish tradition. Displayed directly opposite Buber, as a representative of the second group, is one of the worst rabble-rousers of the Nazi era: Julius Streicher, who liked to quote Luther’s anti-Semitic writings.

What is Protestant?

Crude hagiography is thus not the style of the exhibition here in, as it were, the Mecca of Lutheranism. And that is truly Protestant. To be Protestant means always to seek the guilt first in yourself. And there you will strike it rich. The Reformation, like all great liberation movements, freed people not only for the good, but also for the hideous.


Exhibition Poster „Luther! 95 Schätze – 95 Menschen
Exhibition Poster | © Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt
Luther! 95 Schätze – 95 Menschen (i.e.,  Luther! 95 Treasures – 95 People)
Augusteum Wittenberg,
13 May – 5 November 2017

Exhibition catalog:
Luther! 95 Schätze – 95 Menschen, Stiftung Luthergedenkstätten in Sachsen-Anhalt (eds.); 624 pages, 39,90 EUR

Matthias Heine

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
WeltN24 GmbH
May 2017

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