THE TOWN THAT GAVE BIRTH TO THE MODERN WORLD
Tiny Wittenberg welcomes two million visitors for 500th anniversary of Luther’s plea
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.