On a late October day in 1517, a university professor posted a notice on a church door in Wittenberg that changed the world. Next year, Germany will celebrate the 500th anniversary of this act, and probably the most influential bulletin board notice in history.
Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 Theses on that door was meant to start debate, not a revolution. But his act ignited a firestorm that eventually led to the Protestant Reformation – and, half a millennia later, the world is still feeling the aftershocks.
The son of a miner, Luther entered holy orders as a young man and soon “out-monked” even his most zealous colleagues. His disagreements with the Roman Catholic Church sprang from piety, not rebellion. His primary complaint was the practice of selling papal indulgences that were said to release souls from purgatory, but he was also fiercely critical of immorality and corruption within the church hierarchy. While his 95 Theses were merely a list of hoped-for reforms, Luther ended up founding the Protestant branch of Christianity and gave his name to one of the denominations within it, the Lutheran Church.
A journey through the sites connected to the famous theologian includes some of Germany’s most charming medieval cities and towns. The months leading up to the anniversary date of his rebellious act, October 31, 2017, will be full of special events and observances.
Major Luther landmarks include Eisleben, the site of his birth and death, the exact locations of which are marked by authentically reconstructed houses, both Unesco World Heritage sites, and within which are exhibitions based on his life. Erfurt is a beautifully preserved city where visitors can tour the Augustinian Monastery in which Luther studied to be a monk.
The heart of a Luther tour, though, is Wittenberg, where the iconoclast earned a doctorate in theology before serving as a professor of Bible studies at the university. The town is on the River Elbe and its historic centre preserves a number of Luther-related sites, including his home, now the world’s largest museum of Reformation history, and Castle Church, which during the early 16th century served as the university’s place of worship.
Pilgrims flock to a side door where notices were frequently posted, including Luther’s famous list of demands (while some historians dispute the exact location, tradition marks this as the spot). Although the original door was destroyed in a fire in 1760, a black bronze replacement marks its location. With its late-Gothic-style vault, coats of arms and graves of Luther and fellow reformer Philipp Melanchthon, the church serves as an impressive memorial to the Reformation. Appropriately, its tower is encircled with the opening words of Luther’s famous hymn Ein feste Burg ist unser Gott / ein gute Wehr und Waffen (“A mighty fortress is our God / a trusty shield and weapon”).
Nearby, St Mary’s Town Church is Wittenberg ‘s oldest building and is known as the “Mother Church of the Reformation”. It was here that Luther married Katharina von Bora, a former nun who was as formidable as her husband. The church is also famous for its altar, created by Lucas Cranach the Elder in 1547, which features portraits of Luther, von Bora, Melanchthon and Cranach. A memorial plaque set into the ground at the southeastern corner of the church is a response to an anti-Jewish image on the church that dates from 1304. Rather than remove the offensive image, the people of Wittenberg have instead used it as a chance to educate people about anti-Semitism in German history.
Because of Luther’s agitation for reform, in 1521 he was brought before Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, who demanded that he repudiate his writings. Although Luther knew his disobedience could result in his death, he refused to recant and fled to Wartburg Castle, in Eisenach, the other highly significant site on a Luther tour.
A German prince who supported Luther’s efforts for reform took him to this fortification, which at the time was a somewhat ramshackle structure. Luther took off his monk’s robe, grew a beard and long hair, and lived under an assumed name. In the castle, he committed an even greater act of rebellion by translating the New Testament into German, violating a long-standing prohibition against translations into vernacular languages. All people, he believed, had a right to read the divine word without ecclesiastical intermediaries.
The small room in which Luther toiled is a reminder that a single person, working with no more than a pen, can shake the foundations of the establishment. Many of the most powerful writings in history were penned in prison or during exile, from the Book of Revelation, written on the island of Patmos, to “Letter from the Birmingham Jail”, penned by Luther’s American namesake, Martin Luther King, Jr. Like Luther, countless prisoners of conscience have found their cells to be a crucible that tempers and strengthens them.
As at the church door in Wittenberg, visitors from around the world come to this simple room to honour Luther’s memory. The spartan space – containing a chair, a desk and a cabinet – brings to mind all of those who have been influenced by Luther, from generations of Protestant reformers to Johann Sebastian Bach, who tried to express in music what Luther propounded in his theological writings.
Scribbling away in this cold and draughty room through a German winter, Luther unleashed a whirlwind of change that helped bring the modern world into being.
For a list of events happening around Germany in the months leading up to the 500th anniversary, visit www.germany.travel/en/index