The Luther Decade: On the Trail of Martin Luther

  • The year 2017 marks the 500th anniversay of the "big bang" of the Reformation, Luther's legendary posting of his theses on the church door in Wittenberg. The Luther Decade is an occasion for celebration and reflection.

Luthergedenkstätten in Wittenberg Enlarge image (© DZT/Jochen Keute)

Wittenberg is a pretty, almost sleepy medium-sized town. It is close to the border between the eastern German states of Saxony-Anhalt and Brandenburg, and with less than 50,000 inhabitants one might be inclined to call its a largish small town, which would of course insult the citizens of Wittenberg. After all, the town is not only located on one of Germany's longest rivers, the Elbe, it also has a proud history. And this is tangible everywhere. There is no shortage of testimonies to the Renaissance in Wittenberg.

Luther, the Reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546), is inseparably linked with Wittenberg, which is why one should really refer to the town as Lutherstadt Wittenberg. Which only very few people do, because this long title is simply too awkward. What is more, many people seem to think: why all the fuss about a renegade monk called Luther?

Luthergedenkstätten - Eisleben Enlarge image (© DZT/Jochen Keute)

Yet at the moment it looks as if all this is gradually changing. Luther, who has always lived on in the hearts of Protestants, is being brought closer to other inhabitants of the town and its surroundings step by step. Not least because so many tourists, especially from abroad and overseas, come here in search of Martin Luther's trail. After all, the Luther monuments in Saxony-Anhalt have been under UNESCO protection world heri­tage sites since 1996. Luther tourism is certainly an economic factor and a very welcome one, not only in Wittenberg, but also in Eis­leben (Wittenberg's little sister in the Mansfelder Land district, between Halle and the Harz district, where Luther was born and also died), as well as in Eisenach in Thuringia.

Die Wartburg Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/dpa)

It was there, up in the Wartburg, that the person the Roman Church outlawed as "Junker Jörg" lived in hiding for a time and in 1521 and 1522 worked on his German translation of the Bible. This was a momentous cultural act, of that there can be no doubt. For many people, the Book of Books is as topical today as it was then – even in eastern Germany where, during more than 40 years of Communist rule, the citizens had their faith driven out of them. This was successful to a degree, which is something that the Christian churches of both major denominations - Catholic and Protestant - unanimously lament.

So the imminent jubilee of the Reformation is coming just at the right time. For this jubilee, the Evangelical Church in Germany has instituted a special position for a prelate, which has been filled by the theologian Stephan Dorgerloh, whose task is to coordinate and manage events on site. His office is in the Town Hall of Wittenberg - there could scarcely be a more prominent place for it.

Lutherhaus in Eisenach Enlarge image (© picture alliance/ ZB)

The Luther Decade? This refers to the period up to 2017, the year that will mark the 500th anniversary of the "big bang" of the Reformation, Luther's legendary nailing of his theses to the door of Wittenberg's Schlosskirche. In those 95 Theses, Luther denounced the Roman Catholic Church's sale of indulgences - and criticized the conditions that prevailed at the time with pertinent references to the Bible. The posting of the theses took place on October 31, or Reformation Day, which is a public holiday in the mainly Protestant central German states of Saxony, Saxony-­Anhalt and Thuringia.

Holidays are always welcome everywhere, even in more secular times. And if traders then sell a tasty morsel called a Reformation Roll, as they do in Wittenberg, then this is also very welcome. But what does Reformation actually mean? And what does it mean today? These are topics which the Reformation Decade will be devoting attention to – and not just for the tourist industry, which already brings welcome revenue to the citizens of Wittenberg, Eisleben and Eisenach.

Kulturlandschaft Gartenreich Dessau-Wörlitz Enlarge image (© picture-alliance/HB Verlag)

Initially, it seemed as if both these issues were non-starters. The global economic crisis put a stop to travel, especially among the many Christians in the United States; and the debate about the current meaning of the Reformation got going only very slowly, at least in the public eye. Yet the consequences of the work of Luther and his friend and ally, the theologian Philipp Melanchthon, can be felt everywhere: first in the development of the German language and German thought, then in the upheavals extending from the Enlightenment to 20th century modernism. Two outstanding testimonies to it are only a few kilometers away from Wittenberg: Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Kingdom and the Bauhaus.

Die Bauhausstätten – Dessau und Weimar Enlarge image (© DZT/Jochen Keute) Nevertheless, it was still some time before Luther's protest against medieval restrictions and impositions was seen in the context of emancipation and liberation, and consequently as something very contemporary and timely. And before it was accepted as something that not only went far beyond the framework of a local event, but was also worthy of our greatest attention and should be celebrated and subsidized with state funds. After all, as Stephan Dorgerloh pointedly put it in 2010, this is about more than just a town festival in Wittenberg.

Meanwhile, however, things are really moving: a pilgrim path follows Luther's trail through central Germany; theme years and various events are being organized to structure the decade, up to and including the major celebrations; and in early 2011, the state government in Magdeburg held out the prospect of tens of millions of euros, among other things, for the refurbishment of Wittenberg Castle.

Once again, it was an artist who played a vital role in getting the public discussion off the ground. "Aided and abetted" by Dorgerloh, in summer 2010 Ottmar Hörl set about occupying Wittenberg's Market Square with 800 colorful Luther gnomes - representing the missing larger-than-life father of the Reformation, whose monument otherwise dominates the square and now has to be refurbished.

The public outcry, not only from the circles of conservative theologians, was enormous. However, the enthusiasm was just as passionate. Hörl had not actually toppled the figure of Martin Luther from his plinth and trivialized him, but had merely humanized the Reformer with his army of faithful plastic copies, and in doing so had also recalled those questions which many people, also in Wittenberg, prefer to avoid answering: the question of Luther's anti-Semitism, for example. Yet concealment does not suit the image of the Reformation.

Thanks to Hörl's action, the protected Luther came down from his pedestal, so to speak, to stand at eye level with people. Children found this astonishing, teenagers and tourists thought it was funny, and many believers regarded it as disrespectful. But suddenly a debate had been initiated, a bit of a rumpus raised. Luther's temporary "descent" from his plinth certainly did no damage to the idea, or the commemoration, of the Reformation - nor to the sale of various souvenirs. The state of Saxony-Anhalt is sure to become Luther State, and its capital is called Wittenberg.

By Andreas Montag for Deutschland Magazine