It was 31 October, 1517, when Martin Luther walked from his home, down the cobbled main street of the small, sleepy town of Wittenberg, to All Saints’ Church. It was a walk that would turn the world upside down. Legend has it that when he arrived outside the church he nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to its door. This simple act would set in motion a religious revolution, propel Europe towards the Renaissance, and bring the old order crashing down. It was an act that changed the course of history.
Luther himself never intended for that to happen. He hoped instead to start a scholarly debate on what he saw as corruption in the Catholic Church. Once the genie was out of the bottle though, there was no putting it back. The Reformation had begun and there would be no stopping it. As I recreated one of the most famous moments in Western European history, I found myself increasingly incredulous that Wittenberg had played such a central role in the creation of modern Europe. It’s tiny.
A university was founded in Wittenberg in 1502 and, despite its size, the town became a hotbed of radical thinking and was home to some of the most progressive scholars in Europe. These included Philipp Melanchthon, a man who argued for the education of women, and a staunch friend of Luther. I stopped at his former home before heading towards the spires of the Church of St. Mary. All Saints’ Church might be the site of the Ninety-Five Theses, but St. Mary’s is where Luther preached.
The church exterior has a brutal reminder of another aspect of Luther’s faith, and the commonly held beliefs of the time. High up on the church walls is a carving depicting a Rabbi looking into a pigs anus. They might have broken the rules on celibacy and even argued for female education, but these Reformers were still rooted in the traditions of antisemitism that also characterised Christianity for centuries. Luther’s attitude is most clearly seen in his 65,000 word treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies.
The views Luther expressed had a direct connection to the ideology of the Nazis, and his words undoubtedly led to Jews being persecuted at the time. In fact, he argued that they should be. It’s no coincidence that nearby is a memorial to the Holocaust. There are around fifty churches in Germany with similar antisemitic carvings, and a debate exists on whether, as symbols of hate, they should be removed. Expunging historical fact seems a dangerous activity. However unpleasant, we unlearn history at our peril.
This is also the church where Luther married Katharina von Bora, the interior has some wonderful paintings by Lucas Cranach the Elder. I wandered back into the sunlight and made my way through a narrow alley into the town’s showpiece: the Marktplatz. This beautiful square is framed by the 16th century Town Hall, elegant town houses, and is overlooked by the twin spires of St. Mary’s. It’s a dramatic sight, especially reflected in a mirrored globe of the world that sits on one side of the square.
It was well past lunchtime when I arrived in the Marktplatz, something of a risk in small German towns. Luckily, I spotted the Brauhaus Wittenberg close to the square, took a seat in the courtyard and settled down to enjoy some earthly pleasures of local beer and flammkuchen. The temperature was in the mid-30s by this point, and it took a huge effort to dislodge myself from the seat to continue my tour around the town, and down the only street in the world that is home to four UNESCO World Heritage Sites.