East German Lutherans Request Forgiveness from Anabaptists

Mennonites and the Luther Anniversary


During festivities to mark the opening of the Luther Year, East German (GDR) church officials expressed on three occasions regret concerning Luther’s and his adherents’ sins against Anabaptists. These celebrations took place on the Wartburg near Eisenach on May 4. In an address carried on national television, the bishop of Thuringia, Werner Leich, cited Fritz Erbe, an Anabaptist farmer, who died without recanting his belief after nine years of imprisonment on the Wartburg. He then added: “Our thankfulness for the legacy of Martin Luther is linked with a plea for forgiveness from all against whom our fathers in the heat of the Reformation sinned.” A liturgical prayer stated that “Martin Luther was a sinner like unto us and is therefore no less dependent on God’s mercy than we are.”


It was also mentioned that Luther and Lutherans had sinned against Jews and the peasant followers of Thomas Müntzer. In a press conference on May 5, Bishop Leich stressed that this year’s celebration of the 500th anniversary of Luther’s birth is to be distinguishable from previous ones through its rejection of all heroization.


Though its results have not yet been publicized, these statements are obviously a response to the recent dialogue between the Evangelical (Lutheran and United) Federation and the Baptist Union of the GDR. These talks concerned the further validity of the anti-Anabaptist article contained in the Augsburg Confession of 1530.


Knuth Hansen, pastor of the East German Mennonite church and an official guest at the Wartburg festivities, expressed satisfaction concerning the request for forgiveness: “It’s new that such a request is stated openly and not restricted to private halls of learning.” Yet, he added, GDR-Mennonites have no particular expectations concerning the Luther anniversary: “We’re too insignificant for the great Luther.”


On May 4, the viewers of East German television were for the first time treated to Bible verses such as: “It is better to take refuge in the Lord than to put confidence in princes” (Psalms 118:9). Fortunately, this was also the premiere for the live and joint East-West transmission of a church event into both German states, as such Biblical admonitions are neither particularly frequent in West German mass media.


Bill Yoder

Berlin-West, May 7, 1983


Written for the Mennonite "Meetinghouse" service in Pennsylvania/USA, 362 words.


Note from May 2022:

Werner Leich (born 1927) was Lutheran bishop in Eisenach, 1978-1992.

Knut (also Knuth) Hansen (1947-2019) was pastor of the GDR Mennonites from 1980-89. Following that, he served as an evangelical pastor in Berlin-Köpenick until his retirement.