May 25th in German History: The Diet of Worms Ends

Luther at the Diet of Worms. By Anton von Werner.

The Protestant Reformation was one of the most disruptive movements in German history. The teachings of Martin Luther spread around Germany and Europe, creating disunity and religious unrest throughout the continent. In an attempt to stop the spread of the reformation, the Holy Roman Emperor called the Diet of Worms to resolve the crisis and return stability to his realm. The diet ended on May 25th, 1521.

In 1520 Pope Leo X issued a decree detailing all of the perceived errors in Luther’s 95 Theses. Following this, Luther was summoned by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who obeyed after he was promised safe passage. The Diet began on January 23rd, 1521, and Luther arrived on April 16th. On April 17th Luther was asked if he would revoke his heresy and was given a day to contemplate his answer. The next day, Luther announced that he would not recant even if not doing so would lead to his classification as a heretic. Luther refused to recant his denunciation of the church as corrupt for selling indulgences, persisted in his declaration that salvation could only be found through faith, and usurped the authority of the church to interpret the Bible and determine god’s wishes. Luther left soon after and was not arrested by the authorities. Also his Prince, Frederick III, did stage an abduction in order to ensure that he would not be arrested. On May 25th, Charles V issued a decree which declared Luther a heretic, forbade anyone from protecting him or adhering to his beliefs, and called for his capture and punishment. Luther, however, escaped arrest and during his time at Wartburg castle translated the New Testament into German. The Diet also had more mundane consequences, namely Charles V made his brother Ferdinand an Archduke and thus the regent and governor of his lands in Austria. Ferdinand would later become Holy Roman Emperor and from then on all Holy Roman Emperors would be Austrian. Although the Diet ended on May 25th, its failure to end the Reformation and its declaration of hostility towards it would cause enormous consequences.

Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms had a great impact on many of the princes assembled there. One, George the Margrave of Brandenburg-Ansbach, would be the first prince to follow Luther’s faith. The Edict of Worms would never be enforced against Luther because of support for him among the population and the princes, and it would not be strongly enforced in Germany in general. However, in the Austrian Netherlands the Edict would be enforced because of stronger Hapsburg control in that region, leading to the burning of several of Luther’s adherents. Ultimately, the harsh treatment of Protestants would do little to prevent Northern Europe from joining Luther’s cause. The failure of the Diet of Worms would also lead to the Council of Trent, which would begin the counter Reformation that would keep Southern Europe Catholic. The end of the Diet of Worms would be only the beginning of a religious struggle that would define European history for well over a century.

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