It’s 8 a.m. in rural east Germany, and Gunter, a hulking tree trunk of a man, is swinging a hammer over his head, pounding together the steel frame of a 90-foot-tall lookout tower that resembles a Bible.
“This is a big year for us!” he exclaims over a chorus of jackhammers. “The world is coming, and we want to build something special so people remember who we are.”
He speaks of his hometown: Wittenberg, a tiny town with a big heart and an even bigger Bible.
It was here, on Oct. 31, 1517, that an obscure monk walked down the street from his cloister, may have nailed a piece of parchment to the door of a church and sparked a religious revolution. The rebel was Martin Luther, and his 95 theses railing against church corruption not only ripped Christianity in two but propelled Europe from Middle Ages darkness to Renaissance humanism, inspired the Enlightenment and arguably gave birth to the modern Western world.
This year marks the 500th anniversary of Luther’s public plea that triggered the Protestant Reformation. From May to November, millions of visitors are expected to attend more than 2,000 events throughout Germany honoring Luther’s legacy as part of Reformation Summer. But the center of the global jubilee is in Wittenberg, a charming two-street town on the Elbe River that is best measured in steps — exactly 1,517 of them, if you believe the welcome sign at the train station.
By official estimates, upward of 2 million tourists will descend on Wittenberg this year — and that could pose a problem. But for the past 10 years (dubbed the “Luther Decade” in Germany), the 2,135 residents who live inside Wittenberg’s historical heart have been busy transforming this sleepy hamlet halfway between Berlin and Leipzig into something of a spiritual and cultural “Rome” for the world’s 814 million Protestants and nearly 80 million Lutherans. This year’s jubilee is easily the biggest thing to happen in Wittenberg in the past 499 years, and the town’s determined to nail it.
My interest in Wittenberg is more structural than spiritual: How does a place with only 2,000 hotel beds in the surrounding area prepare to host so many visitors?
I traveled there in April to find out and quickly realized that Wittenberg is Luther — literally. The town officially changed its name to Lutherstadt Wittenberg (“Luther’s Town”) in 1938, and today it exists as a sort of open-air shrine to the jowly reformer who lived and preached here for most of his life. After passing by the towering Luther Bible at the train station, walking down Luther Street and dropping my bag at the Luther-Hotel, I set out to retrace Luther’s famous march from his Augustinian monastery (now the Lutherhaus museum) to the Castle Church.
Religion aside, Wittenberg’s picture-perfect backdrop and upbeat Renaissance spirit is enough to enchant those without the slightest interest in the Reformer. Cheery guides in 16th-century shawls and medieval hoods lead tours through the town’s pastel-colored mansions and steep-gabled towers. Bikes bounce along the cobblestones of the pedestrian-only Collegianstrasse, past four Luther-related UNESCO World Heritage sites. And flowers bursting out of boxes hang over two trickling canals that were recently uncovered to evoke the atmosphere of Luther’s era. Remarkably, the whole place was largely spared from damage in World War II, allegedly because of ties to Lutheranism by many Allies.
‘Lutherwurst’ for sale
Even at 9 a.m., the outside of the Castle Church is buzzing with tourists. As the sea of pilgrims parts, I notice that the wooden door where Luther allegedly hammered home his 95 theses has been replaced by two mammoth bronze doors with his talking points inscribed in Latin. A choir group from South Korea soon breaks into Luther’s famous hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God,” and is quickly drowned out by the drilling noises shaking the foundation of the church itself.
“You’ve come right in the heart of the tsunami,” Wittenberg’s head of tourism, Kristin Ruske, tells me across the street in the town’s tourist information center. “No one has ever hosted a 500-year jubilee before, so we’re learning as we go.”
In the past few years, the state of Saxony-Anhalt, the German federal government and the European Union have poured more than 70 million euros (about $78 million) into Wittenberg to help the town brace for this year’s flood of visitors.
As a result, most of Wittenberg’s major Reformation sites have undergone renovations or are scrambling to finish them.
Officials recently parked on the Elbe River a floating hotel ship that can sleep 300 guests, and new exhibits and attractions are popping up everywhere, including an immensely popular 360-degree Luther panorama; seven open-air Gates of Freedom installations; and an exhibition that Wittenbergers enthusiastically call “Luther! 95 People – 95 Treasures.” The town is even transforming its old prison into “Luther and the Avant-garde,” a contemporary art exhibition with paintings hanging in the former cells.
“Our tourism office has also tripled its size and started printing pamphlets in eight languages,” Ruske says. “I remember when it was just German.”
Since 2014, a massive globe has been cemented to the town’s Market Square with a clock showing a three-year countdown to the start of this year’s Reformation Summer kickoff, which came on May 20.
And since last November, 15 volunteers from Wittenberg have been working aboard an 18-wheeled “Luther Storymobile” truck that is rolling through 67 European towns and cities in 19 countries to educate people about the causes and lasting effects of the Reformation.
They’re far from alone. In fact, during my two-day stay here, it seemed like every Wittenberger I met was doing something endearing to make their tiny town a more welcoming place.
There’s Uwe Bechmann, a tour guide who recently strapped a camping stove to the back of his rickshaw and now sells sizzling “Lutherwursts.” (“If you like Luther and you like bratwurst, you’ll like Lutherwursts!”)
There’s Andreas Metschke, who runs one of the last historical printing-press shops in eastern Germany and has taught himself to greet guests in 17 languages. (“Next up: Swahili!”)
And then there’s Heidrun Rüssing, a 69-year-old historian who put an ad in the local paper in March and now leads 14 eager participants in a course called “To Be a Fit Host.” Each week at the town’s evening school, Rüssing educates fellow Wittenbergers about the dates and events that set the Reformation in motion, as well as potential questions that visitors coming from different countries might have. “I thought Wittenbergers should be prepared to welcome the world, not just with their hearts, but with their historical knowledge,” he said.
World’s first viral message
Back at my hotel, I burrowed into an English-language guide that Rüssing gave me (and wrote). As it turns out, Luther was a pretty interesting guy.
Among other things, after surviving a lightning-bolt blast, he promised a saint that he would quit law school and become a monk; he was fake-kidnapped by his pals and hid out in a castle; he grew a beard and pretended to be a knight named Junker Jörg; he translated the New Testament into German in 10 months; he smuggled a nun out of a convent by hiding her in a herring barrel and later married her; he housed orphans and refugees in his home in Wittenberg; his writings spiked European literacy rates and standardized the German language; and his 95 theses can be viewed as the world’s first viral message.
Luther was also a vicious anti-Semite. He blamed evil stares from Jews for the illness that killed him; penned a 65,000-word treatise titled “On the Jews and Their Lies”; and his anti-Jewish rhetoric is widely believed to have significantly contributed to the development of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.
The next morning, I noticed that you can find Rüssing’s Luther guide in many of the mom-and-pop souvenir shops lining Wittenberg’s two main streets. And if you’re in the market for Luther socks, liquor, mugs, noodles, beer steins, keychains, jigsaw puzzles, Playmobil figurines, candles, chocolates or T-shirts, you can find those, too.
“I think that, in the past, Wittenbergers lived with the Reformation, but now some live off of the Reformation,” said Johannes Block, head pastor at the Town Church of St. Mary, where Luther delivered more than 2,000 sermons. “It’s a great contradiction, but today only 12 percent of Wittenbergers are Protestant.”
Ironically, the area around the Protestant mecca has recently made headlines as the “most godless” place on the planet. According to a 2012 study by social scientists from the University of Chicago, eastern Germany is home to the highest percentage of atheists in the world, with just 8 percent of its population claiming to believe in God. Churches here are being sold off at such a blistering pace and so many devotees are dying off each year that Christianity is actually expected to become a minority religion in Germany in the next 20 years. Yet, like so many people here, Block remains optimistic.
“I have great hope that this year’s jubilee will encourage people to get back in touch with the church,” he says. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Wittenberg, and just like the Reformation, we hope to feel the effects for years to come.”