Tiny Wit­ten­berg wel­comes two mil­lion vis­i­tors for 500th an­niver­sary of Luther’s plea

Regina Leader-Post - - TRAVEL - ELIOT STEIN

In ru­ral east Ger­many, Gunter, a hulk­ing tree trunk of a man, is pound­ing to­gether the steel frame of a look­out tower re­sem­bling a bi­ble.

“This is a big year for us!” he ex­claims over a cho­rus of jack­ham­mers. “The world is com­ing, and we want to build some­thing spe­cial so peo­ple re­mem­ber who we are.”

Wel­come to Wit­ten­berg, a tiny town with a big heart and an even big­ger bi­ble.

You might have heard about this place in his­tory class. Here on Oct. 31, 1517, a monk walked down the street from his clois­ter, nailed a piece of parch­ment to the door of a church and sparked a revo­lu­tion.

The rebel was Martin Luther, and his 95 the­ses rail­ing against church cor­rup­tion not only ripped Chris­tian­ity in two, but pro­pelled Europe from Mid­dle Ages dark­ness to Re­nais­sance hu­man­ism, in­spired the En­light­en­ment and ar­guably gave birth to the mod­ern Western world.

This year marks the 500th an­niver­sary of Luther’s plea that trig­gered the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion.

Mil­lions are ex­pected to at­tend more than 2,000 events through­out Ger­many hon­our­ing Luther’s legacy.

But the cen­tre of the ju­bilee is Wit­ten­berg, a charm­ing two-street town on the Elbe River.

By of­fi­cial es­ti­mates, up­ward of two mil­lion tourists will de­scend on Wit­ten­berg this year.

For the past 10 years, the 2,135 res­i­dents of Wit­ten­berg ’s his­tor­i­cal heart have been busy trans­form­ing this sleepy ham­let half­way be­tween Berlin and Leipzig into some­thing of a spir­i­tual and cul­tural cen­tre for the world’s 814 mil­lion Protes­tants and nearly 80 mil­lion Luther­ans.

This year’s an­niver­sary is eas­ily the big­gest thing to hap­pen here in the last 499 years, and the town’s de­ter­mined to nail it.

I quickly re­al­ized that Wit­ten­berg is Luther — lit­er­ally. The town changed its name to Luther­stadt Wit­ten­berg in 1938, and to­day it ex­ists as a sort of open-air shrine to the re­former who lived and preached here for most of his life.

I set out to re­trace Luther’s fa­mous march from his Au­gus­tinian monastery (now the Luther­haus mu­seum) to the Cas­tle Church.

Re­li­gion aside, Wit­ten­berg’s pic­ture-per­fect back­drop and up­beat spirit is enough to en­chant any vis­i­tor, even those with­out the slight­est in­ter­est in Luther. Cheery guides in 16th-cen­tury shawls and me­dieval hoods lead tours through the town’s pas­tel-coloured man­sions and steep-gabled tow­ers.

Bikes bounce along the cob­ble­stones and flow­ers burst out of boxes hang­ing over two trick­ling canals. Re­mark­ably, the town was largely spared from dam­age in the Sec­ond World War.

Even at 9 a.m., the out­side of the Cas­tle Church is buzzing with tourists.

A choir group from South Korea breaks into Luther’s fa­mous hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God, and is quickly drowned out by drilling noises shak­ing the foun­da­tion of the church it­self.

“You’ve come right in the heart of the tsunami,” says Wit­ten­berg ’s head of tourism, Kristin Ruske. “No one has ever hosted a 500-year ju­bilee be­fore, so we’re learn­ing as we go.”

The state of Sax­ony-An­halt, the Ger­man gov­ern­ment and the Euro­pean Union have poured about $78 mil­lion into Wit­ten­berg to help the town brace for this year’s flood of vis­i­tors.

On the river there’s now a float­ing ho­tel ship that can sleep 300 guests. The town is trans­form­ing its old prison into Luther and the Avant-garde, a con­tem­po­rary art ex­hi­bi­tion with paint­ings hang­ing in for­mer cells.

It seemed like every Wit­ten­berger I met was do­ing some­thing en­dear­ing to make their tiny town a more wel­com­ing place.

There’s Uwe Bech­mann, a tour guide who re­cently strapped a camp­ing stove to the back of his rick­shaw and now sells siz­zling “Luther­wursts.” (“If you like Luther and you like bratwurst, you’ll like Luther­wursts!”)

And then there’s Hei­drun Rüss­ing, a 69-year-old his­to­rian who ed­u­cates fel­low Wit­ten­berg­ers about the dates and events that set the Re­for­ma­tion in mo­tion, as well as po­ten­tial ques­tions that vis­i­tors com­ing from dif­fer­ent coun­tries might have.

I bur­rowed into an English-lan­guage guide that Rüss­ing gave me (and wrote). As it turns out, Luther was a pretty in­ter­est­ing guy.

Among other things, af­ter sur­viv­ing a light­ning-bolt blast, he promised a saint that he would quit law school and be­come a monk; he was fake-kid­napped by his pals and hid out in a cas­tle; he trans­lated the New Tes­ta­ment into Ger­man in 10 months; he smug­gled a nun out of a con­vent by hid­ing her in a her­ring bar­rel and later mar­ried her; he housed or­phans and refugees in his home in Wit­ten­berg; his writ­ings spiked Euro­pean lit­er­acy rates and stan­dard­ized the Ger­man lan­guage; and his 95 the­ses can be viewed as the world’s first vi­ral mes­sage.

But Luther was also a vi­cious anti-Semite. He penned a 65,000word trea­tise ti­tled On The Jews and Their Lies. And his anti-Jewish rhetoric is widely be­lieved to have sig­nif­i­cantly con­trib­uted to the devel­op­ment of anti-Semitism in Nazi Ger­many.

You can find Rüss­ing’s Luther guide in many of the mom-and-pop sou­venir shops lin­ing Wit­ten­berg ’s two main streets. And if you’re in the mar­ket for Luther socks, liquor, mugs, noo­dles, beer steins, key chains, jig­saw puz­zles, Play­mo­bil fig­urines, can­dles, choco­lates or Tshirts, you can find those, too.

“I think that, in the past, Wit­ten­berg­ers lived with the Re­for­ma­tion, but now some live off the Re­for­ma­tion,” said Jo­hannes Block, head pas­tor at the Town Church of St. Mary, where Luther de­liv­ered more than 2,000 ser­mons. “To­day only 12 per cent of Wit­ten­berg­ers are Protes­tant.”

Ac­cord­ing to a 2012 study by so­cial sci­en­tists from the Univer­sity of Chicago, east Ger­many is home to the high­est per­cent­age of athe­ists in the world, with just eight per cent of its pop­u­la­tion claim­ing to be­lieve in God.

Churches here are be­ing sold off at a blis­ter­ing pace and so many devo­tees are dy­ing off each year that Chris­tian­ity is ex­pected to be­come a mi­nor­ity re­li­gion in Ger­many in the next 20 years. Yet, like so many peo­ple here, Rev. Block re­mains op­ti­mistic.

“I have great hope that this year’s ju­bilee will en­cour­age peo­ple to get back in touch with the church.”


A canal trick­les to­ward Cas­tle Church, where Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 the­ses to the door.

The tiny town of Wit­ten­berg is some­thing of an open-air shrine to re­former Martin Luther, whose im­age graces even liquor bot­tles.


A statue of Martin Luther stands in the town’s Mar­ket Square.

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