View from Brussels: The second Gutenberg revolution

Exactly 500 years ago, Martin Luther broke up the thought monopoly of the Catholic church, thanks to the power of the first information revolution, Gutenberg's printing press. Today the internet has a similar revolutionary potential, and we are seeing this in European politics

There are few phrases in any language that send shivers down my spine. One of them is Martin Luther’s “Here I stand. I can do no other.” “Hier stehe Ich. Ich kann nicht anders.”

He made the remark at the General assembly of the States of the Holy Roman Empire in 1521, the event which had him excommunicated and turned into an outlaw by the Catholic establishment.

Luther is one of the most important men in European history and it’s his anniversary this year. He is being celebrated in a big way in Germany and Scandinavia, the countries where Protestant influence has been overwhelming. Five hundred years ago, as the story has it, on 31 October 1517, he spiked his 95 Theses to the church door at Wittenberg and challenged the foundations of the almighty Catholic Church, a conflict that bubbled on for a century before breaking out into the devastating 30 Years’ War (1618-48) between the Catholic Holy Roman Empire, centred in Vienna, and the Protestant upstart states in northern Germany. It ended in the stalemate known as the Treaty of Westphalia. Germany was split into two culturally, and religiously - the Protestant North and Catholic South - and Europe too was similarly divided.

Luther’s success in challenging the church would not have been possible without Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press. Looking back into history makes us realise just how much technology has transformed our lives. Before the invention of the printing press, books were extremely expensive to produce. Each page was copied by hand by monks and paper was scarce, as it all came from animal hides. It is estimated that the cost of the book was equivalent to several years’ salary of a working man. Not surprisingly, books were carefully hoarded and accessible only to the few.

The priests who spoke Latin, the language of intellectual discourse and book production, read the few books that existed and translated them into the vernacular for sermons to the public. This gave the priests enormous power. The Italian writer Umberto Eco has called the mediaeval cathedral a kind of permanent and unchangeable TV programme that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday lives as well as their eternal salvation. You could say that this was a convenient state of affairs for the church authorities.

Eco writes: “A book would have distracted people and encouraged unnecessary information, encouraged free interpretation of the scriptures and generated an insane curiosity.” As it was, the priesthood had the power of the narrative, which couldn’t be deflected by the dangers of independent thinking generated by books.

Ironically, Johannes Gutenberg thought the invention of the printing press – which combined four separate inventions: movable type, rag-based paper, the squeeze press and oil-based ink – would strengthen the church as it would lead to the production of Bibles in large quantities without the textual errors that were inevitable when monks sat copying new Bibles by hand. But Gutenberg’s prediction proved wrong. The printing press proved to be a highly revolutionary invention.

Before the disaffected young priest Martin Luther nailed his theses to the church door there had been a rising discontent among those in the know about the debauchery of a succession of popes. Historian Barbara Tuchman has described in detail the moral depravity of figures such as Sixtus IV, Innocent VIII, Alexander VI, Julius II, Leo X and Clement VII. At any moment the popes could have restored the Catholic Church’s authority by changing their amoral behaviour, she writes in March of Folly, but they failed to do so:

“Disregard of the movements and sentiments developing around them was a primary folly. They were deaf to disaffection, blind to the alternative ideas it gave rise to, blandly impervious to challenge, unconcerned by the dismay at their misconduct and the rising wrath at their misgovernment, fixed in refusal to change, almost stupidly stubborn in maintaining a corrupt existing system. They could not change it because they were part of it, grew out of it, depended on it.”

The disaffection came to a head in 1517, exactly 500 years ago, then, in the small German town of Wittenberg where the unknown young priest Martin Luther was working. A decade earlier he had entered a monastery and dedicated himself to fasting, prayer and constant confession of his sins. Dissatisfied by this lifestyle, he quit and became a teacher at the local university. Once there, he learnt about corruption in the church and complained by writing a letter to his local bishop. The focus of his anger was the so-called indulgences which allowed wealthy men to buy off their sins by paying the church to provide letters of forgiveness. Luther argued that the Church lacked such a moral authority – not least because it was led by morally corrupt church leaders – and added that salvation was a gift of God’s grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the German literary press in this anniversary year about who Luther really was. He was not the saintly freedom-loving democrat and friend of the people that some have argued. That’s a modern interpretation. He was rather, some critics say, a religious fundamentalist who wanted people to devote their lives to God. His kind of freedom consisted of being a good Christian and believing in nothing else. Unlike Erasmus of Rotterdam, the philosopher, he was not a humanist who believed in social progress and he rejected Copernicus’s view of a godless cosmos. He disliked Jews. Nor was Luther alone in his heroic resistance to church power. In England you had John Wycliffe and in Bohemia you had Jan Hus, who were also the reformers who were perhaps more appealing as individuals. Luther is the most influential of these rebels, though,

Luther’s letter, “Disputation of Martin Luther on the power and dignity of indulgences”, which he had nailed to the church door in order to raise local awareness, soon had an impact far beyond the Wittenberg region. It was rapidly translated and thanks to the printing press spread rapidly through Germany and within a year had reached England and Italy. The criticism of the Church had enormous impact. In the next few years, Luther also translated the Bible from Latin into German and it was printed in many copies in a way that was the enormously profitable to the new businesses of bookseller and printer. Although Luther wanted them to be better Christians, the actual upshot was that public could start to think for themselves and were able to interpret the Bible in a way that undermined the priests’ authority. The Church found its intellectual gatekeeper position much weakened.

Let’s fast-forward to our own time and the arrival of the internet 20 years ago. It’s not very original to say that the internet created a second Gutenberg revolution even though it is useful to remind ourselves of that from time to time. Its capacity for disrupting the gatekeepers of our own time – the high priests of the TV channels and big newspapers - was first highlighted probably during the Monica Lewinsky scandal in the United States 20 years ago when the internet was in its infancy. A reporter at Newsweek magazine had been investigating the relationship between the young attractive White House intern and then President Bill Clinton for nearly a year and his story was about to be published on a Saturday morning, 17 January 1998, when it was spiked by his editors. However Matt Drudge - a young, independent, right-wing online news journalist who ran a shoestring news aggregation service called the Drudge Report - got hold of the information and ran with the story. “Newsweek kills story on the White House intern”. Drudge ran not only the news that the president was having sex with an intern but that a large magazine had covered up the story of the scandal.

Drudge’s website couldn’t cope with all the hits it was getting and thus began the alternative news website movement.

What is the relevance of all this today? Well, we have seen an enormous proliferation of ‘Drudge Report’ type websites such as Breitbart and Wikileaks that purport to tell the stories that the elites would rather not see in print. The elites in the media and politics in Europe and United States are extremely on the defensive today. First there was Brexit, then there was Trump, both of which were revolutions from below as the public disregarded the advice of their betters in the think tanks and the media.

The elites fear an explosion of fake news on the media that undermines their authority. But is it really fake news or is it just news that they don’t want to hear, news that undermine the elites’ narratives about the banks, the EU, immigration, free trade and wars of intervention?

Will it be historians of the future decide who, if anyone, is the Martin Luther of today, who exposes the self-serving narratives of powerful people by spreading information far and wide via the new technologies, just as Luther did. I’d be called a groupie if I said Julian Assange was a candidate. He probably wouldn’t claim any such Luther rebel label for himself. But can everyone agree that information is power and the more everyone has of it, thanks to the internet, the freer we all will be?


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