Germany’s ‘Luther Country’ prepares for 500th anniversary of Protestant Reformation

PUBLISHED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 12:38pm
UPDATED : Monday, 02 October, 2017, 12:38pm

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 240km long, so-called Luther Country is the birthplace and long-time 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 favour 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, on October 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 October 31, 500 years to the day since Luther posted his grievances on Wittenberg’s Castle Church door.

At the centre of the celebrations – and in the centre of Luther Country, spiritually if not geographically – sits the small university town of Wittenberg. With a population of just under 50,000, Lutherstadt Wittenberg, as the city is officially known, was home to Martin Luther longer than anywhere else.

Stretching 1.5km 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, 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 who wanted him to walk back his criticism of the pope and the Catholic Church.

Within the honey-coloured walls of the Luther House, the world’s largest Reformation museum, it’s easy to visualise the more intense world of the early 1500s, when heated theology discussions would have taken place at Luther’s popular Table Talks. Faded ocher and blue paint cover the walls, and sunlight streams through circular glass panes. At the centre 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,” says 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.”