by Anthony Peregrine, The Telegraph, August 29, 2017
I stood before the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Next to me was a group of senior US visitors with their guide, Angela. Awe came easily. This was the door, so legend has it, upon which Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses on October 31, 1517. The theses inveighed against papal indulgences, called the all-powerful Catholic church hierarchy into question and so, to Luther’s surprise, laid the foundations for religious freedom, therefore Protestantism. (He’d thought he was simply initiating an academic debate.) Thus, 500 years ago, was the world changed by a monk and a hammer in a little town 70 miles south of Berlin. The Reformation began here.
“Extraordinary,” said an American. “And I’m wondering, Angela, whether the hardware store still exists, the place the guy bought his nails?” Americans are practical. They require the detail. The answer is “no”. I couldn’t find even a modern hardware shop in an old town buffing itself up to be the centre of Germany this summer. Centre of Europe, too, really. From now through October, the 500th anniversary is fuelling exhibitions, celebratory events, and much else besides across central Germany and down to the Rhine.
No-one, in short, could accuse the Bundesrepublik of underselling the event. They’ve been at it for a decade - 2017 is the culmination - and Luther himself is everywhere. Never was there such a plethora of portraits of a German. He’s in statues, monuments, posters and paintings (generally stout and in his doctoral cap), but also in books and pottery statuettes, on wine and spirit bottles and snack packets - “Martin Luther’s nuts” - on honey jars and bus tickets, and in the form of a recently-issued, two-inch Playmobil figure. Some 34,000 of these were sold in three days in Germany.
Martin Luther is obviously the star of both the Reformation and its quincentennial celebrations. Back then, though, he wasn’t entirely alone or entirely original. Others, including Jan Hus 100 years earlier, had already had reformatory thoughts. But Luther benefited, vitally, from the printing revolution - which sent his ideas spinning fast throughout Germany and Europe - and from well-placed political protection. This ensured he didn’t, like Hus and other ‘heretics’, end up roasted.
And, certainly, his truculence suited an era angry with a debauched Catholic church. Its many abuses included requiring that the faithful cough up cash for salvation, the infamous “indulgences”. Luther, by contrast, reckoned that Christians could make their own way to God. They didn’t need the church as a conduit, or a papacy to sell them forgiveness. Grace was attainable by belief alone, not by stacking up pious deeds, kowtowing to the clergy or tipping up coinage. Luther had faults. He was a great one for demanding liberty which he subsequently denied to others. He never quite got the hang of political, as opposed to religious, freedom. And his late anti-semitic rantings were great succour for Nazis 400 years later.
But there’s no dispute that he’s a Top 5 figure in European history, attacking the foundations of the Catholic church when the church was the key player in the western world. This suggests, and it’s true, that there are two ways of doing a 2017 Reformation tour. It may be a pilgrimage, inspired by faith - like a visit to St Peter’s, or to Lourdes. Or it may be a belief-free historical trip, intent simply on discovering where what happened. The second was my approach, though I much appreciated bumping into Lutheran groups along the way. They were invariably polite and jolly.
I started in Worms, not least because the Diet of Worms is such a terrific linguistic gift from Germany to the British schoolboy mentality (ie, mine). As you’ll know, though, “diet” in this context doesn’t mean what you eat. It’s an assembly or parliament. They called the Diet of Worms in 1521 that the new Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, might get Luther to think again about his seditious reform nonsense. Hearings were held in the Bishop’s Palace. Luther refused to cede. “I cannot and will not recant,” he said, “because acting against conscience is unsafe and threatens salvation.”
Already excommunicated by the pope, Luther was now outlawed by the emperor. He should have been arrested and burned, but he wasn’t. His protector, Prince Frederick the Wise of Saxony, whisked him away to hiding in Wartburg castle (where, to pass time on, he translated the New Testament into German). As ever, then, religious concerns were grafted onto political conflict, ensuring complexity for all.
These days, Worms doesn’t look quite as prosperous as Germany should. It was fearfully smacked about in 1945, and put back together haphazardly. The mid-morning pedestrian centre has more blokes drinking beer from cans than you’d expect. But then it has its wonders. Bang central, the great Trinity Protestant church was destroyed in the war, then rebuilt and has regained the majesty to match the Catholic cathedral opposite. The Bishop’s Palace no longer exists. The site is now a public garden. The spot where Luther underwent his 1521 grilling is marked, since this spring, by a vast pair of bronze shoes into which one might slip one’s own feet. Thus might one stand where the reformer stood and, like him, refuse to compromise. I did. Against all that the world could throw at me, I went for a beer.
Later, I lapped the Luther monument in the gardens of Lütherplatz. It was enormous, the biggest Luther monument anywhere, the size of three or four boxing rings. Topped by a huge bronze Luther himself, it featured the entire Reformation cast: Hus, Zwingli, Savanarola, Calvin and others yet. I’d tell you more about this but I got caught up in a small boys’ game of soccer. They were using the monument as goal and, apparently, John Wycliffe as ref. I saved a screamer from a seven-year-old and walked on for the most moving moments in Worms. These had nothing to do with Luther. They involved the town’s Jewish cemetery - the oldest in Europe, operational from the 11th-century to the early 20th. It’s now lawn-scaped and silent, but for visiting orthodox Jews bobbing about their devotions. Agèd headstones, most at weather-beaten angles, spread across the grass slopes like exhausted wanderers staggering home.
In these circumstances, I couldn’t be bothered with Worms’ other claim to fame - as base to the mythical Nibelungen characters who inspired Wagner’s Ring. Myths and Wagner invariably give me a pain in the head, anyway, so I went down to the banks of the Rhine and had dinner served by the sort of cheerful German lady generally seen toting 10 litres of beer. Sausage, potatoes and sauerkraut constituted my diet of Worms, though “diet” was maybe pushing it a bit.
So into the former GDR and Eisleben, a comely and substantial former copper mining town where Luther was born in 1483, and died in 1546. Opposite the Tourist Office, the birth-house is revered, though Luther lived there less than a year. Then his mining manager dad moved the family on. Though original elements remain, the house has undergone multiple transformations, including time as a whore-house in the 17th-century. For the 500th, a make-over has created an engrossing little museum covering Luther’s early life. Among much else, we see a cot, the nursery and living room and learn from Luther that his beloved mother “would beat me for the sake of a single nut, until blood flowed”. Luther was baptised up the road at the church of St Peter and St Paul, also subject to startling contemporary renewal. There’s a large round hole in the floor under which water flows and in which one - anyone - may be baptised, upon application.
Meanwhile the towers of the nearby St Andrew’s church dominate the town. Its pulpit witnessed Luther’s last sermons in 1546. By now, he’d lived 30 years in Wittenberg, but returned to Eisleben to resolve a civil dispute. He was astonishingly ill: overweight, half-deaf and half-blind, struck by gout, kidney stones and vertigo. He had four heart attacks in his few days in Eisleben. He nevertheless resolved the dispute, gave a few lectures and four sermons, including a tirade against the Jews: “Envenomed worms,” he cried. “We are at fault in not slaying them.” Heinrich Himmler and Nazi propagandists dug up such words with glee in the 1930s. Luther defenders claim the sentiments were of their time, that the reformer was old and enfeebled, and that Luther’s fury was inspired by the Jews refusal to convert to Christianity, not by any belief that they constituted an inferior race.
Whatever the truth, he croaked almost immediately. The death-house opposite the church isn’t where he died. It was mis-identified last century. No matter, though, for it’s a cracker. It has, like the birth-house, recently been made over - into a museum of Luther’s last journey. He expired in a room which is now white and bathed in a recording of his doctor’s account of his death. The doc emphasised how peaceful the end had been. Thus were countered Catholic rumours that, because he had refused the Last Rites, the reformer had died in torment. The museum also contains a stuffed porcupine. Luther had described the civil dispute he had to solve as “as prickly as a porcupine”. The museum’s use of a real stuffed porcupine to illustrate just how prickly this could be was, I thought, a stroke of German genius.
Then I walked on, past the Lutherschenk Inn, whose “Luther-platter” comprised a smoked pork chop, roast pork, chicken, sausage, white and red cabbage, and bacon dumplings for €16.50 [£14]. German Lutherans take some stoking. So to the station. German Rail was whisking me round Luther-towns, with extreme good grace. I’ve rarely encountered such charming public servants. One young fellow, in Mannheim, came out from his Information kiosk to help me with a baffling ticket machine. He was with me for 10 minutes. Another five and I’d have him canonised.
A couple of hours from Eisleben, Wittenberg - now known as Lutherstadt-Wittenberg - is understandably the epi-centre of quincentennial events. From mid-May through summer, the 50,000-strong city exults with exhibitions, festivals, plays, music and Gates of Freedom stands round the ramparts, each one tackling a different Reformation theme. According to the blurb: “Everyone is invited to change the world, society and the church”, a bracing challenge for a short break.
Wittenberg is a long town centre whose main street, Collegienstrasse, runs endlessly, with Teutonic elegance and restraint. One may easily imagine monks and university professors (Luther was both) issuing forth from the doorways, arguing theology. After a dinner of “hearty sausage specialities” and breakfast of more of the same, I kicked off at the new “Panorama Asisi 1517”. Slotted into what looks like a giant, squat cooling tower, this is a vast, 360° depiction of Reformation Wittenberg. It’s riveting. There’s sound and wrap-around vision, detail piled upon detail and, if you climb the tower in the middle of the circle, an extraordinary 3D effect. It’s like looking over a real Renaissance town where everything’s happening at once. “Mehr wow!” say German ad posters these days. The Panorama delivers it in spades.
A hop away is the house Luther lived in from 1508 onwards. If it looks like a big 16th-century monastery, that’s because it was. Luther entered as a Catholic monk. Here, though, he concluded that the church needed a shake-up. A trip to Rome convinced him that neither pontiff nor clergy had much in the way of morals. Back home, the sale of indulgences - “When a coin in the coffer rings/ A soul from purgatory springs” - appalled him. Whence the 95 theses, which may have been nailed to the church door - back then, church doors were notice-boards - but probably not by Luther himself. University professors rarely did their own hammering.
The message spread “as if borne by angels’ wings,” he wrote. The church reacted “as if heaven had collapsed”. Luther was excommunicated, then outlawed. What started as summons to scholarly disputation caused a world-changing conflagration. Freed of unnecessary restrictions - including celibacy - Luther married a former nun in 1525. Katharina von Bora had escaped from her convent in a fish barrel. The couple moved into the monastery, which soon became home to their vast household: six children, student lodgers, staff, colleagues and so many besides that they were frequently 50 at table.
The great thing is that the Luther house now tells both stories - religious and domestic - in the largest Reformation museum anywhere. I toured the chambers for hours, studying coverage of Luther’s disputes with more radical Reformation opponents, but also overawed by Katharine’s exceptional housewifery. She husbanded farm animals and crops, farmed fish, brewed beer, dabbled in property - and so kept the Luthers afloat. While travelling, Luther wrote to her: “I keep thinking what good wine and beer I have at home, as well as a beautiful wife. Or should I say ‘boss’?”
Despite the earlier sausages, I was now hungry again, so had a sandwich at the Luther House café. Then I walked up the street - it truly is a delight of German dignity - to the Castle Church where, at 3pm, there was to be a service in English. We were maybe 100 in a church built for a thousand. There’s a double irony here. In 2017 we are honouring Luther yet, relatively speaking, hardly anyone actually goes to church. And yet, this non-church-going is a descendant of the very individual religious freedom which Luther was the first to stake out.
The service was taken by the Revd Murray Fink from California, a jovial cove. He talked of “the unearned gift of grace which sets us free”. Then we sang Luther’s greatest hymn: “A mighty fortress is our God”. Luther insisted his followers sing like billy-o. They did, and still do. I came out of there walking four feet above the ground.
The nearest airports are Berlin for Wittenberg, Leipzig for Eisleben, and Frankfurt for Worms. The easiest way to check available flights and fares is via skyscanner.net. Before hiring a car, check our guide (telegraph.co.uk/tt-carhireguide). By train: German Rail (08718 808066, bahn.co.uk).
Where to stay
The best hotel in Worms is the Dom (dom-hotel.de; B&B from £89.) In Eisleben, head for the Deckerts Hotel am Katharinestift (deckerts-hotel.de; B&B from £72). In the centre of Wittenberg, the Brauhaus is a craft brewery which doubles as a vintage hotel (brauhaus-wittenberg.de; doubles from £72).
What to see and do
A trio of national exhibitions on Luther themes - in Berlin, Wittenberg and Wartburg castle, Eisenach (3xhammer.de). Wittenberg religious-themed programme r2017.org). Also useful are martinluther.de, germanytravel/luther and luther2017.de .