On Reformation's 500th anniversary, a German town buzzes with 'Luther mania'

A visit to Wittenberg is about more than Martin Luther and the creed that split the Christian world. It sheds light on German thinking about politics, values, traditions – and language. 

Jan Woitas/picture-alliance/dpa/Newscom
The Theses Doors at the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Germany, are receiving special attention in the run-up to the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.

In this pretty town on the Elbe River, where Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the Castle Church doors on Oct. 31, 1517, a certain Luther mania has swept through as the world marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation.

The historic churches and buildings where Luther preached, married, and baptized his own children have been painstakingly renovated. The jubilee year has brimmed with art installations, history exhibits, books, talks, and concerts.

Some of the marketing gimmicks surely would not have pleased the austere monk: a Che Guevara-style T-shirt bearing Luther’s face and emblazoned with the words “Viva la Reformation.” Then there are the Luther figurines, Luther chocolate cake mix with cherries, and rubber duckies wearing his habit.

But a visit here is about more than the man and the creed that spread from Germany and split Christendom. It is also a lesson in what drives German thinking about politics, German values about freedom, work, and education, and even German traditions, including the simple love of singing together. “That comes from Martin Luther, to sing every day,” says Hanna Kasparick, director of the Protestant Preacher Seminary in Wittenberg, as she passes a room where pastors-in-training are singing hymns.

Sara Miller Llana/The Christian Science Monitor
Tourists gather around the Castle Church doors in Wittenberg, Germany where Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses 500 years ago. It is only one display of Luther mania sweeping Germany this year.

Downstairs, the adjacent Castle Church is filling with tourists coming to listen to a midday organ concert. As music fills the nave,  volunteer Jean Godsall-Myers, an American who is here for seven months with her husband, Steven, steers the international crowd to the pews.

Connie Goodfellow, who is leading fellow American Lutherans on a tour called “In the Footsteps of Martin Luther” with the educational travel company Ed-Ventures, says her group is paying homage to the man. “They want to understand more about him. If it weren’t for Martin Luther, we would not have the opportunity to worship the way we do,” she says.

Others are here out of historic curiosity – and aren’t exactly fans, especially of Luther’s anti-Jewish rants that were celebrated many centuries later by Adolf Hitler. Outside the City and Parish Church of St. Mary, where Luther preached, an anti-Semitic relief still hangs as testament to that age-old intolerance. Standing underneath it, Bernd Bohse, on a day trip from Berlin, says the more he learns about Martin Luther the more he is unimpressed. “As a role model, I think it’s Martin Luther King who is the good one,” he says.

Gerhard Wegner, a pastor and director of the Social Sciences Institute of the Evangelical Church in Germany, says their pavilion at the Reformation Exhibition, which wrapped up in Wittenberg in September, was very popular. It was about vocation, an ideal inspired by Luther and other reformers of the 16th century who believed it wasn’t only clergy who performed God’s work. “They believed everybody has a calling and therefore has a certain job in society to do,” says Pastor Wegner. That is reflected in the German language: Berufung [vocation] and Beruf [job] are the same. Traces of that thinking can also be seen in the work-study apprenticeship program that has helped keep youth unemployment the lowest in Europe.

It also shapes the German work ethic. “The very tough value of working hard and working efficiently and working all day and night, this goes back to the Reformation,” Wegner says. “Luther said that everybody has to work, and if somebody doesn’t like to work, he is not my neighbor. If someone doesn’t want to work, there is no reason to give him money. This is still influencing Germany.” That view was prominently in display during Europe's debt crisis, as Germans struggled morally to bail out Greece, which they believed had simply spent more than it worked for. Yet Luther also believed fervently in the social responsibility of the state, a philosophy manifested in the welfare states of Europe.

Luther also shaped views on universal education – fueling his drive to translate the Bible into German – and on excessive luxury. That explains some of the popularity of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran pastor. Germans love that she does her own grocery shopping. At a recent children’s press conference, she spoke of the cardigan as her favorite clothing item. "I grow my own potatoes, but haven't harvested this year's crop yet," she told the youngsters.

Wittenberg’s mayor, Torsten Zugehör, says the city has spent between 70 million and 80 million euros on the preservation of historic buildings and 20 million euros more on various special exhibitions. 

While it could help sustain the current spike in tourism it is somewhat ironic in a place with little religious fervor. Wittenberg was part of former East Germany, where atheism was the state’s official policy. And twinned with an increasingly secular modern era, only about 15 percent of residents are active Christians in Wittenberg, says Dr. Kasparick. Still, she says somewhat hopefully, about the same number of people have joined their choirs or church life even if they aren't formally part of a religious institution. She says many parents say they were raised without religion, so it's "too late" for them, but they want their children to know Christianity.

Mayor Zugehör has even loftier goals. “The spirit of the Reformation must continue,” he says. “It is not only for Protestantism, but also for the process of change we are facing, from climate change to democracy. I think worldwide there is a need for reformation.”

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