WITTENBERG, Germany – For the world’s roughly 800 million Protestants, a small corner of eastern Germany is their spiritual home – a place that takes on added importance this year, the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.
Covering an area roughly 150 miles long, so-called Luther Country is the birthplace and longtime home of religious rebel Martin Luther. Here it was that young Luther was allegedly frightened by a thunderstorm, interpreting a lightning strike as a sign to drop out of law school in favor of seminary. And here it was that the disillusioned theologian famously assailed the Catholic powers that be when he tacked his 95 theses on a church door Oct. 31, 1517, setting off the Reformation.
While commemorative concerts and museum exhibitions have been taking place all year long, momentum is building as the clock ticks closer to Oct. 31, 500 years to the day since Luther posted his grievances on Wittenberg’s Castle Church door.
At the center of the celebrations – and in the center of Luther Country, spiritually if not geographically – sits the small university town of Wittenberg. With a population of just less than 50,000, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, as the city is officially known, was home to Martin Luther longer than anyplace else.
Stretching nearly a mile between the Castle Church and the monastery that became Luther’s family home, Wittenberg’s Collegienstrasse spanned the gulf between the established church and a new religious ideology. The town’s de facto Main Street, cobbled Collegienstrasse charms visitors with overflowing flower boxes, a gurgling canal and sidewalk cafes. In between, mom and pop shops display Reformation-themed souvenirs from the pedagogic to the playful: biographies of Martin Luther and his cohorts; detailed analyses of early Protestantism; Reformation beer, wine and liquor; chocolates and noodles shaped into Luther’s profile; and socks knitted with the words “Here I stand. I cannot do otherwise” – Luther’s supposed retort to the powerful officials of the Holy Roman Empire.
Within the honey-colored walls of the Luther House, the world’s largest Reformation museum, it’s easy to visualize the more intense world of the early 1500s, when heated theology discussions would have taken place at Luther’s popular Table Talks. At the center of the room stands Luther’s battered-looking wooden table, said to be the original.
Nearby, the house’s cavernous lecture hall was the scene for frequent religious discourses allowing Luther a platform upon which to rail against church corruption and the habit of selling penitential indulgences that simultaneously fed Rome’s growing budget.
Across Luther Country, from tiny Eisleben, where Luther was born in 1483 and died some 60 years later, to Erfurt, where he attended seminary, from Mansfeld, where Luther lived as a young boy, to Torgau, where his wife, Katharina von Bora, died, museums and monuments remind visitors that Martin Luther was once here. All claim close ties to the reformer. But at times, the links seem nebulous.
“After 500 years, many buildings simply don’t survive,” said Jochen Birkenmeier, research director and curator of the Luther House museum in Eisenach, where Luther is said to have lived and studied from 1498 to 1501. “It can be difficult all these years later to say precisely which portions of the Luther story are fact and which are legend. But there is a lot that we do know. And clearly Luther’s Reformation ideas had a profound effect not only on Christianity, but on the entire Western world.”
While Birkenmeier and his team are reasonably certain which rooms Luther occupied at the Luther House in Eisenach, it is the reformer’s relationship to the Bible that forms the focal point of the museum. Displays explain the rarity of Bibles in Luther’s youth – Luther himself never saw a Bible until entering seminary. And multimedia presentations offer insight into the painstaking processes Luther employed in translating the Bible into German. But the museum also discusses frankly the anti-Semitic views of Luther and some of his followers.
“It’s clear that Martin Luther himself was an anti-Semite by the end of his life,” said Birkenmeier, adding that many of Luther’s writings were used to justify the actions of the Third Reich. “We can’t deny this side of Martin Luther, nor do we want to.”
Luther translated his German New Testament some 1,300 feet above Eisenach, at the imposing Wartburg Castle. This medieval castle was Luther’s refuge after being declared a heretic and an outlaw for refusing to recant Protestant beliefs at the Diet of Worms, a meeting of Holy Roman Empire bigwigs in the German town of Worms in 1521. Within the castle, Luther found not only safety, but peace and quiet. After nearly a year in hiding, he left the castle, newly translated New Testament in hand.
The castle’s Luther Room, where the reformer undertook his translation effort, has always held a certain sanctity for Protestants. It’s outfitted simply with rough wood paneling, a desk and chair, and curiously, a whale vertebra used by Luther as a footstool. It’s said that Luther’s original desk disappeared sliver by sliver, secreted away by Protestant devotees. It’s also said that while Luther worked on his translation, he was pestered continuously by the devil until finally, in a fit of rage, Luther flung an ink bottle at him. We’ll never know if either story is true. But after 500 years, the legend seems likely to remain.
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