Small town meets big world

A quiet Ger­man town, pop­u­la­tion. 2,135, wel­comes some 2 mil­lion visi­tors for Martin Luther’s 500th

The Hamilton Spectator - - TRAVEL - ELIOT STEIN

It’s 8 a.m. in ru­ral East Ger­many, and Gunter, a hulk­ing tree trunk of a man, is swing­ing a ham­mer over his head, pound­ing to­gether the steel frame of a 90-foot-tall 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, and if you’re any­where in Ger­many this year, you prob­a­bly will hear its name again.

It was here that, on Oct. 31, 1517, an ob­scure monk walked down the street from his clois­ter, may have nailed a piece of parch­ment to the door of a church and sparked a re­li­gious 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 public plea that trig­gered the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion. From May to Novem­ber, mil­lions of visi­tors are ex­pected to at­tend more than 2,000 events through­out Ger­many hon­our­ing Luther’s legacy as part of Re­for­ma­tion Sum­mer.

But the cen­tre of the global jubilee is here in Wit­ten­berg, a charm­ing twostreet town on the Elbe River that is best mea­sured in steps — ex­actly 1,517 of them, if you be­lieve the wel­come sign at the train sta­tion.

By of­fi­cial es­ti­mates, up­ward of 2 mil­lion tourists will de­scend on Wit­ten­berg this year — and that could pose a prob­lem. But for the past 10 years (dubbed the “Luther Decade” in Ger­many), the 2,135 res­i­dents who live in­side Wit­ten­berg’s his­tor­i­cal heart have been busy trans­form­ing this sleepy ham­let half­way be­tween Ber­lin and Leipzig into some­thing of a spir­i­tual and cul­tural “Rome” for the world’s 814 mil­lion Protes­tants and nearly 80 mil­lion Luther­ans.

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

“I like to think that we are the big­gest small town in the world,” says Wit­ten­berg’s mayor, Jochen Kirch­ner. “We have been pre­par­ing for this mo­ment for so long, and now it’s our time to shine.”

My in­ter­est in Wit­ten­berg is more struc­tural than spir­i­tual: how does a place with only 2,000 ho­tel beds in the sur­round­ing area pre­pare to host so many visi­tors? So, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of Re­for­ma­tion Sum­mer, I boarded a train in April and trav­elled 80 min­utes south from my home in Ber­lin to spend a few days and find out.

I quickly re­al­ized that Wit­ten­berg is Luther — lit­er­ally. The town of­fi­cially changed its name to Luther­stadt Wit­ten­berg (“Luther’s Town”) in 1938, and to­day it ex­ists as a sort of open-air shrine to the jowly re­former who lived and preached here for most of his life. Af­ter pass­ing by the tow­er­ing Luther bible at the train sta­tion, walk­ing down Luther Street and drop­ping my bag at the Luther-Ho­tel, 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, Re­nais­sance spirit is enough to en­chant those with­out the slight­est in­ter­est in the Re­former. Cheery guides in 16th­cen­tury shawls and me­dieval hoods lead tours through the town’s pastel­coloured man­sions and steep-gabled

tow­ers. Bikes bounce along the cob­ble­stones of the pedes­trian-only Col­le­gianstrasse, past four Luther­re­lated UNESCO World Her­itage sites. And flow­ers burst­ing out of boxes hang over two trick­ling canals that were re­cently un­cov­ered to evoke the at­mos­phere of Luther’s era.

Re­mark­ably, the whole place was largely spared from dam­age in the Sec­ond World War, al­legedly be­cause of ties to Lutheranism by many Al­lies.

Even at 9 a.m., the out­side of the Cas­tle Church is buzzing with tourists. As the sea of pil­grims parts, I no­tice that the wooden door where Luther al­legedly ham­mered home his 95 the­ses has been re­placed by two mam­moth bronze doors with his talk­ing points in­scribed in Latin. A choir group from South Korea soon breaks into Luther’s fa­mous hymn “A Mighty Fortress is Our God,” and is quickly drowned out by the drilling noises shak­ing the foun­da­tion of the church it­self.

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

In the past few years, the state of Sax­ony-An­halt, the Ger­man fed­eral gov­ern­ment and the Euro­pean Union have poured more than 70 mil­lion eu­ros (about $78 mil­lion US) into Wit­ten­berg to help the town brace for this year’s flood of visi­tors.

As a re­sult, most of Wit­ten­berg’s ma­jor Re­for­ma­tion sites have un­der­gone ren­o­va­tions or are scram­bling to fin­ish them.

Of­fi­cials re­cently parked on the Elbe river a float­ing ho­tel ship that can sleep 300 guests, and new ex­hibits and at­trac­tions are pop­ping up ev­ery­where — in­clud­ing an im­mensely pop­u­lar 360-de­gree Luther panorama; seven open-air Gates of Free­dom in­stal­la­tions; and an ex­hi­bi­tion that Wit­ten­berg­ers en­thu­si­as­ti­cally call “Luther! 95 Peo­ple — 95 Trea­sures.” The town is even trans­form­ing its old prison into “Luther and the Avant-garde,” a con­tem­po­rary art ex­hi­bi­tion with paint­ings hang­ing in the for­mer cells.

“Our tourism of­fice has also tripled its size and started print­ing pam­phlets in eight lan­guages,” Ruske says. “I re­mem­ber when it was just Ger­man.”

Since 2014, a mas­sive globe has been ce­mented to the town’s Mar­ket Square with a clock show­ing a three-year count­down un­til the start of this year’s Re­for­ma­tion Sum­mer kick­off, which came on May 20.

And since last Novem­ber, 15 vol­un­teers from Wit­ten­berg have been work­ing aboard an 18-wheeled “Luther Sto­ry­mo­bile” truck that is rolling through 67 Euro­pean towns and cities in 19 coun­tries to ed­u­cate peo­ple about the causes and last­ing ef­fects of the Re­for­ma­tion.

They’re far from alone. In fact, dur­ing my two-day stay here, 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!”)

There’s An­dreas Metschke, who runs one of the last his­tor­i­cal print­ing-press shops in East Ger­many and has taught him­self to greet guests in 17 lan­guages. (“Next up: Swahili!”)

And then there’s Hei­drun Rüss­ing, a 69-year-old his­to­rian who put an ad in the lo­cal pa­per in March and now leads 14 ea­ger par­tic­i­pants in a course called “To Be a Fit Host.” Each week at the town’s evening school, Rüss­ing 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 thought Wit­ten­berg­ers should be pre­pared to wel­come the world, not just with their hearts, but with their his­tor­i­cal knowl­edge,” he said.

Back at my ho­tel, 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 grew a beard and pre­tended to be a knight named Junker Jörg; 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.

Luther was also a vi­cious an­tiSemite. He blamed evil stares from Jews for the ill­ness that killed him; penned a 65,000-word 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.

The next morn­ing, I no­ticed that 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 of the Re­for­ma­tion,” said Jo­hannes Block, head pas­tor at the Town Church of St. Mary, where Luther de­liv­ered more than 2,000 ser­mons. “It’s a great con­tra­dic­tion, but to­day only 12 per cent of Wit­ten­berg­ers are Protes­tant.”

Iron­i­cally, the area around the Protes­tant mecca has re­cently made head­lines as the “most god­less” place on the planet. 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 8 per cent of its pop­u­la­tion claim­ing to be­lieve in God. Churches here are be­ing sold off at such a blis­ter­ing pace and so many devo­tees are dy­ing off each year that Chris­tian­ity is ac­tu­ally ex­pected to be­come a mi­nor­ity re­li­gion in Ger­many in the next 20 years. Yet, like so many peo­ple here, Block re­mains op­ti­mistic.

“I have great hope that this year’s jubilee will en­cour­age peo­ple to get back in touch with the church,” he says. “This is a once-in-a-life­time op­por­tu­nity for Wit­ten­berg, and just like the Re­for­ma­tion, we hope to feel the ef­fects for years to come.”

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

An­dreas Metschke op­er­ates a his­tor­i­cal print shop in Wit­ten­berg, one of the last such in the area.


A statue of Martin Luther looks over Wit­ten­berg’s main Mar­ket Square. This year marks the 500th an­niver­sary of Luther’s public plea that trig­gered the Protes­tant Re­for­ma­tion.

A bas­ket of Martin Luther-branded liquor. From May to Novem­ber, mil­lions of visi­tors are ex­pected to visit.

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