Wittenberg in the spotlight: Luther rules, 500 years after Reformation
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Today is exactly 500 years since Martin Luther famously (or, for exacting historians: reputedly) nailed his 95 Theses to the door of Wittenberg’s Schlosskirche, turning a rumbling religious rift into a roaring ecclesiastical schism and starting what became to be known as the Reformation. Without Luther, the course of history would be unrecognisable. Yet without Wittenberg, a hive of pioneering intellectual debate in late-medieval and a prosperous power centre of the Holy Roman Empire, Luther would neither have developed his rebellious ideas nor enjoyed the political support to propagate them against the long arm of the papacy.
Within a century of the Reformation, however, Luther’s fame had eclipsed that of the town, and the town responded by capitalising on his reputation. As early as the 1590s, for instance, English travel writer Fynes Moryson noticed an inscription in a scholar’s room there: “Here stood the bed in which Luther gently died”. “See how much they attribute to Luther,” wrote Moryson, mocking the spurious claim, “for this is not the place where he died, neither was there any bed, yet suffer they not the least memory of him to be blotted out.”
Day visitors to the town today can easily leave with much the same impression. Named Lutherstadt Wittenberg in 1938, it has traded under a variant of that ever since: the anti-clerical GDR post-positioned the attribute, but didn’t dare remove it entirely, even celebrating Luther as a kind of communist avant la lettre on his 500th birthday in 1983. Since German re-unification, Lutherstadt has been back at the head of the name and costumed choleric monks now patrol the lovingly restored town centre providing tourists with that period kick.
The annual Wittenberg festival in June commemorates the marriage of Martin Luther to Katharina Bora and souvenirs include punning socks sporting Luther’s most celebrated quote (“Here I stand, I can do no other”) and T-shirts advertising that the city has been “Protestant since 1517”. Unsurprisingly, Wittenberg has not let 2017 slip by unnoticed, with a whole summer of celebrations involving international heads of state and church groups from around the world; the Reformation Jubilee will culminate today on 31 October in the presence of Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel and President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Wittenberg in numbers
-12% Difference in population 2017 measured against 1981 (from 54,000 to 48,000)
172,514 Number of overnight stays annually (most recent figures: 2014)
15.1% Percentage of Protestant residents (Catholics: 3.5%, no religion: 79.5%)
4 Number of Unesco world heritage sites on one single thoroughfare
History in 100 words
Strategically situated on the Elbe, Wittenberg rose to importance in the patchwork Holy Roman Empire, blossoming around 1500 under the Electors of Saxony, patrons of Renaissance men such as Dürer, Cranach, and of course Luther. Its university was renowned Europe-wide: languages like Finnish and Hungarian owe their first transcriptions to bible translators trained there and it attracted intellectuals through into the 1700s (notably: Lessing, Amo). Its academic star waned after the Prussians turned the university into barracks in 1817, but industrialisation brought new wealth – and military production. Despite this, its historic centre survived the second world war and decades of GDR neglect unscathed.
Wittenberg in sound and vision
Several world-famous Renaissance portraits were painted here – mainly of Martin Luther and Philipp Melanchton, mainly by Cranach the Elder or the Younger. The poetic Luther is also responsible for the text of several hymns: the title of the most famous, Eine feste Burg ist unser Gott, is emblazoned on the Schlosskirche tower. It still echoes through the city on a regular basis – sometimes in translation as a “A Mighty Fortress” when sung at the English language services put on for international visitors.
Due to his anti-Semitic outbursts in later life, Luther is also anachronistically associated with the Medieval Judensau – ‘Jew pig’ – carving on the exterior of the Stadtkirche. In a controversy reminiscent of “Rhodes must fall” at Oriel College, Oxford, there is a conflict between the concerns of today’s Jewish community and the danger of sanitising history. In 1988, a plaque in memory of the persecution of the Jews was laid below the image to contextualise it and a cedar tree planted as a symbol of peace. Wittenberg also takes part in the Germany-wide “” project to commemorate the victims of National Socialism.
Throughout 2017, local filmmaker Peter Benedix has been documenting the Reformation festivities. have been published ahead of the feature length film, set to appear .
Wittenberg’s most popular on-screen appearance was in 1983 in (The Long Ride to School), a fantasy film from GDR days in which a dreamy young boy gets distracted on the way to class and ends up riding across the prairies, his bicycle transformed into a mustang.
How liveable is Wittenberg?
Despite its secular bent (only the truest believers withstood 40 years of communism), the population is proud of its heritage, of its resplendent historical centre, and of the 2017 Jubilee; yet a slight disquiet makes itself felt. Some older residents mention the 1983 celebrations, for which the East German government had the fronts of the town’s historical buildings refurbished, leaving the actual substance to decay. “Some people are worried that 2017 could be the next 1983. Another attempt to make the town a showcase – followed by more neglect,” says Alexander Baumbach, a journalist at regional daily Mitteldeutsche Zeitung.
Baumbach freely admits that his fear is probably unfounded. The houses once inhabited by Luther and Melanchton as well as the two churches are Unesco protected, and the centre generally is in visibly good shape. General satisfaction with life in Wittenberg is high: in the 2001 survey of residents, only 55% of those living centrally were happy with their surroundings, with 8% registering their discontent. By the 2015 survey, 68% were happy and only 1% dissatisfied. The same survey also records a sharp increase in the number of town-centre residents spending more than a third of their income on housing, however, as the flip-side of the extensive renovation work.
“Against other comparable towns in the former East, Wittenberg is doing really rather well,” Baumbach adds, alluding to the nearby city of Bitterfeld, with its desolate shopping streets, 20% unemployment, and staunch support for political extremists. At 7%, joblessness in Wittenberg is above the nationwide average, but below the regional rate; following two tough decades in which East German industrial companies reeled from exposure to international competition and ruthlessly expansionist western firms, chemicals firms are now creating jobs in the town again. Meanwhile, combined with the increasing popularity of German destinations both internationally and domestically, the lasting interest in Luther means that there is no shortage of work in the hospitality and tourism sector.
Inside city hall
At the recent federal election, support for the far-right AfD ran at 20% – above the nationwide share (13%), but by no means comparable with strongholds in the party’s former GDR heartlands. “This is still the East, though,” Baumbach adds, “with all its problems.” An overstretched police force spent much of 2016 struggling to deal with right-wing extremist attacks on homes for asylum seekers while, in late September this year, an altercation between a local man and a Syrian refugee which resulted in the death of the former outside the town’s Arsenal shopping centre hit the headlines. The local branch of the right-wing extremist NPD held a “memorial ceremony” days later.
Then there is the aging population. Tragically for a town which for centuries thrived on a renowned university, its young move away to study, often settling down elsewhere, too. In the overall fall in population since Reunification, the number of people between 20 and 40 has declined more strongly than other age groups. “That’s why local employers such as SKW Stickstoffwerke Piesteritz – which produces industrial chemicals – are investing heavily in municipal infrastructure and in extras like creches: they need to attract and retain staff,” says Baumbach’s colleague, Anne Nicolay-Guckland.
Not everyone is comfortable with the close symbiosis between the municipality and SKW, a wholly owned subsidiary of the Agrofert conglomerate belonging to controversial Czech billionaire and winner of the neighbouring country’s recent elections, Andrej Babiš. When the town used SKW money to refurbish the fire station, there were rumblings that surely any self-respecting municipality should be able to ensure the basic safety of citizens without recourse to private money. Yet there is a broad political consensus that, in times of low state investment and in view of the importance of the chemicals industry in this part of , the town cannot do without the company.
According to mayor, Jochen Kirchner, Wittenberg’s population is still not rising because there are only half as many births as deaths but, with more people moving in than moving away, the outflow has been staunched. He goes on to outline how the town intends to profit from the publicity of the Jubilee in the long term: “There are lots more 500th anniversaries to come – of Luther’s burning of the Papal Bull in 2020, for instance, or his marriage to Katharina Bora in 2025 – many of which we can celebrate with other Luther locations such as Eisleben, Halle, and Worms. But we can’t top 2017,” he admits, and “so will be broadening the focus to include, but not be dependent on, the Reformation.”
He mentions the town’s new role hosting small-scale conferences. “Moreover, we have an industrial tradition as well as a religious and cultural one,” he says, referring to SKW’s historic Piesteritz workers’ village as a classic example of industrial paternalism, “and the town is strongly supportive of its industry today, too. Along with our natural surroundings, that gives us three key elements to build on.”
At the Wittenberg tourist bureau, Kirsten Ruske expands on Wittenberg’s non-Luther-related charms: “The Klosterkirche is crucial to the history of the House of Ascania,” she says, starting in the early Middle Ages and moving through a range of attractions in town and nearby: “Just down the River Elbe, there’s the Dessau-Wörlitz Garden Realm,” she says referring to another Unesco world heritage site in the region, as well as the original Bauhaus from where the design movement began its march to ubiquity. “The Elbe nature reserve begins at Wittenberg, too. Then there are numerous cycle routes: the Elbe path, Berlin to Leipzig, an industrial heritage trail and, obviously,” she adds, “the Luther route.”
For the final months of the Luther Jubilee, follow on Twitter or go to for information in English; offers information on what to do and see in and around Wittenberg. The best source for local news is regional daily (tweets from the Wittenberg local office at ).
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