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A German town, pop. 2,135, welcomes some 2 million visitors for Martin Luther's 500th

By: Eliot Stein The Washington Post
October 15, 2017 Updated: October 15, 2017 at 4:10 am
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Andreas Metschke operates a historical print shop in Wittenberg, one of the last such in the area. MUST CREDIT: Photo by Eliot Stein, Special to The Washington Post.

It's 8 a.m. in 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 tower resembling 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."

Welcome to Wittenberg, a tiny town with a big heart and an even bigger Bible. You might have heard about this place in history class, and if you're anywhere in Germany, you'll hear its name again.

It was here, on Oct. 31, 1517, that an obscure monk might have nailed a piece of parchment to a church door and sparked a religious revolution. Martin Luther and his 95 theses railing against church corruption not only ripped Christianity in two, but also 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, which triggered the Protestant Reformation, and hundreds of events throughout Germany are honoring Luther's legacy.

But the center of the global jubilee is here in Wittenberg, a charming two-street town on the Elbe River that is best measured in steps - 1,517 of them, if you believe the welcome sign at the train station.

Over the past 10 years (dubbed the "Luther Decade" in Germany), the 2,135 residents of Wittenberg's historical heart have been transforming this sleepy hamlet into 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 here in 499 years, and the town's determined to nail it.

"I like to think that we are the biggest small town in the world," Wittenberg Mayor Jochen Kirchner says. "We have been preparing for this moment for so long, and now it's our time to shine."

But how does a place with only 2,000 hotel beds in the surrounding area prepare for so many visitors?

Wittenberg is Luther - literally. The town changed its name to Lutherstadt Wittenberg ("Luther's Town") in 1938, and today it's a sort of open-air shrine to the jowly reformer who preached here most of his life.

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 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 recently were uncovered to evoke the atmosphere of Luther's era. Remarkably, the whole place was spared from much damage in World War II, allegedly because so many Allies had ties to Lutheranism.

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. Over the past few years, the state of Saxony-Anhalt, the German government and the European Union have poured about $78 million into Wittenberg to help it brace for this year's flood of visitors.

New exhibits and attractions have popped up everywhere - including a 360-degree Luther panorama; seven open-air Gates of Freedom installations; and an exhibition called "Luther! 95 People - 95 Treasures." The town even has transformed its old prison into "Luther and the Avant-garde," a contemporary art exhibition with paintings hanging in former cells.

Nearly every Wittenberger has done something endearing to make their tiny town more welcoming.

Uwe Bechmann strapped a camping stove to his rickshaw and now sells sizzling "Lutherwursts." ("If you like Luther and you like bratwurst, you'll like Lutherwursts!")

Andreas Metschke, who runs one of the last historical printing-press shops in east Germany, has taught himself to greet guests in 17 languages. ("Next up: Swahili!")

Luther was a pretty interesting guy. After surviving a lightning-bolt blast, he promised a saint he would quit law school and become a monk. He was fake-kidnapped by his pals and hid 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 from 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 contributed significantly to the development of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany.

You can find Rüssing's Luther guide in many souvenir shops lining Wittenberg's 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."

Indeed, the surrounding area is cited as the "most godless" place on the planet. East Germany has the highest percentage of atheists, with only 8 percent of its population claiming to believe in God, according to a 2012 study by University of Chicago social scientists.

Churches here are being sold at a blistering pace, and so many devotees are dying off each year that Christianity is expected to become a minority religion in Germany in the next 20 years.

Yet 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."

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