Richter Scale

Martin Luther and the Eurozone: Theology as an Economic Destiny?

Could Martin Luther’s life have provided a suitable rule of thumb to identify which countries should be in the eurozone and which should not?

Credit:Oliver Hoffmann/


  • Too much Catholicism, it seems, is detrimental to a nation's fiscal health, even in the 21st century. Indulgences then — and an inability to properly manage public finances now.
  • Tax evasion and widespread bribery can be viewed as stemming from a tradition of offering money to have one's transgressions overlooked. In other words, sinning is okay, even if it is mostly fiscal these days.

If a European country turned from Catholicism to Lutheranism (or, more broadly, to Protestantism) after the early 1500s, when Martin Luther (and a few other reformers, such as Zwingli and Calvin) launched the Reformation, that would have been a good indication that the nation would qualify for the adoption of the common European currency about five centuries later. If it had stayed predominantly Catholic, or even Greek Orthodox, then not.

With few exceptions, that simple rule would have saved hundreds of millions of people around the world a lot of despair, along with much of the animosity and frustration that now prevails — never mind trillions of euros in asset value.

Obviously, Germany would have been in the eurozone under that rule, as would Denmark, Sweden and Norway. Interestingly, financially solid Switzerland would have been in, too. So would, even more tantalizingly, the United Kingdom.

Ireland? Spain? Portugal? Italy? No. Never mind Greece, that highly (un-)Orthodox country when it comes to conducting a clean and proper economic policy.

Luther, if asked at Maastricht, would have nixed any suggestion of including these countries straight away. “Read my lips: No unreformed Catholic countries,” he would have chanted. The euro, as a result, would have been far more cohesive — and the European economy in far less trouble.

The interesting cases, and possible exceptions, to consider against the backdrop of the “Luther Rule” are Austria, France and Poland. The first two have adopted the euro, the latter not yet, even though its fiscal policy and economic management have been truly impressive. It would be a strong addition to the eurozone.

With regard to Austria and Poland, two truly Catholic countries, one could of course argue they are the exceptions that prove the rule. But one could also say that they, as well as France, are immediate neighbors of the country that was Luther’s home base, Germany.

Located as they are in Germany’s direct orbit, some would claim that Germany simply didn’t leave its southern, eastern and western neighbors any other choice, that it imposed its will on them. Since that is very hard to do (although the Germans certainly did try that aplenty in past eras), the far more likely explanation is that these three nations saw it in their self-interest to adapt themselves to their broader environment. Catholics perhaps, but with a healthy dose of fiscal Protestantism.

What helped further, no doubt, was the positive example of the nations to Germany’s north, in Scandinavia and even the Baltics. Without exception small, but very Protestant in character, these nations gave the other, bigger countries next to Germany the confidence that one doesn’t have to be big to have a solid fiscal policy.

Viewed from the opposite perspective, look at the countries that never managed to overcome the Catholic Church’s cancerous practice at the time of demanding indulgences (money donated to the church in exchange for forgiveness of one’s sins). Too much Catholicism, or so it seems, is detrimental to a nation’s fiscal health, even today in the 21st century. Indulgences then — and an inability to properly manage public finances now. (I speak as somebody who was born Catholic and therefore cannot be said to engage in any interfaith bigotry.)

Fiscal transgressions

When viewed from that perspective, massive tax evasion and widespread bribery (witness Italy and Greece) can be viewed as stemming from a cultural tradition of offering money to have one’s transgressions overlooked. In other words, sinning is okay, even if it is mostly fiscal these days.

Before the idea of considering this analysis as a serious case of religious stereotyping sets in, let me point to some very important nuances that break the pattern suggested above. Take Slovakia. The Slovaks are Catholics and have always had a vastly superior work ethic, contrary to Max Weber’s notions or the Luther rule presented above.

And what about Italy? There isn’t a single entity called Italy. There are two completely different Italys. In the one camp is the old Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies, starting at Rome stretching south. It remains a corrupt sinkhole. Then there is the other camp, northern Italy, including Tuscany, which is one of best-run and most efficient industrial economies on earth. And they’re both Catholic.

How to resolve the riddle? Simple. Think of it as a blend of the adaptation principle from biology. Even though Luther failed to take hold in these places, even core Catholic areas like France, Slovakia, Austria and northern Italy have gradually adapted the economic values, work ethic and integrity of Dr. Luther and John Calvin.

That makes Martin Luther today a fiscal prophet in high standing in Catholic as well as Protestant Europe.

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About Stephan Richter

Director of the Global Ideas Center, a global network of authors and analysts, and Editor-in-Chief of The Globalist.

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