A small town cel­e­brates Luther’s 500th

A small town in Ger­many gets ready to wel­come 2 mil­lion vis­i­tors for Martin Luther’s 500th

The Denver Post - - LIFE & CULTURE - By Eliot Stein The Wash­ing­ton Post

WITTENBERG, GER­MANY» 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 honoring Luther’s legacy as part of Ref­or­ma­tion Sum­mer. But the cen­ter 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 last 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 trav­eled 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 16th-cen­tury shawls and me­dieval hoods lead tours through the town’s pastel­col­ored man­sions and steep-gabled towers. Bikes bounce along the cob­ble­stones of the pedes­tri­anonly Col­le­gianstrasse, past four Luther-re­lated 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 World War II, 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 cen­ter. “No one has ever hosted a 500-year ju­bilee be­fore, so we’re learn­ing as we go.”

In the last 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) 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.

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.”

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

And then there’s Hei­drun Rüss­ing, a 69year-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 anti-Semite. 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 an­tiSemitism 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, key­chains, jig­saw puz­zles, Play­mo­bil fig­urines, can­dles, choco­lates or T-shirts, 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 per­cent 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 per­cent of its pop­u­la­tion claim­ing to be­lieve in God. 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-ina-life­time op­por­tu­nity for Wittenberg, and just like the Ref­or­ma­tion, we hope to feel the ef­fects for years to come.”

Eliot Stein, Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

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

Pho­tos by Eliot Stein, Spe­cial to The Wash­ing­ton Post

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

A bas­ket of Martin Luther-branded liquor. From May to Novem­ber, mil­lions of vis­i­tors are ex­pected to at­tend more than 2,000 events through­out Ger­many honoring Luther's legacy.

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