Luther made this protest as the Catholic Church had forgotten its founding idealism and usurped it with a naked commercialism epitomised by the sale of indulgences.
These recover-your-purity auctions celebrated the lucrative dogma that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be bought.
Luther rejected this. His protest was a germination moment for the great Christian schism — the Reformation.
That reorientation led to centuries of conflict between Catholic and Protestant. Millions of lives were lost when humanity’s savagery was set free, as it so often is, in those bizarre circumstances — the celebration of one god or creed over another.
It says something profoundly disheartening about humanity that a backwater version of that conflict still energises the hatreds confounding democracy in Northern Ireland half a millennium after Luther’s protest.
In a quirk of historical symmetry, another movement determined to advance what it regarded the highest ideals of equity, human dignity and the breaking-free from a rotten, oppressive, inhumane system reached a no-turning-back milestone more or less 400 years to the day after the Wittenberg protest.
Russia’s October Revolution — the Great October Socialist Revolution, Red October, the October Uprising or the Bolshevik Revolution if you prefer — began with an armed insurrection in Petrograd on October 25 (November 7, in the new calendar) in 1917.
It is beyond question that the Petrograd communists were, like Luther, motivated by the highest ideals. As he rejected the church of Pope Leo X, they rejected and were determined to end, the Tsarist system of autocracy and serfdom.
Like Luther, they lit a fuse that would cost an untold number of lives. Avoidable, contrived famine alone cost almost 50m lives in communist Russia and China.
Populations promised bread, a home, and dignity were brutalised and shackled with a new serfdom — an oppressive state security culture as happy to exile — or worse — dissidents to labour camps as any tsar or emperor.
Siberian gulags or Chinese labour camps were indifferent to the origin of their inmates; the tsars’ and Stalin’s enemies found them just as inhumane.
A century after Petrograd, but not yet a century after China adopted Mao’s Little Red Book, it is undeniable that communism failed. Like all theories of social organisation — like the Catholicism confronted by Luther — the world it promised could not survive the human weaknesses it unleashed.
Just as Leo X lived as an emperor, so too did Stalin and Mao. It is another human weakness to imagine that if one system fails its convex succeeds, but that is not so.
Today’s arch capitalists and data plutocrats who preside over escalating, unacceptable inequity and imagine themselves untouchable might consider the fate of communism, pre-Reformation Catholicism, the fate of the Romanovs, Stalin and Mao too.
If those great forces can be brought to book so can they.