The Protestant Rome: Luther City Revisits the Reformation

By Stefan Berg

Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation in the German city of Wittenberg 500 years ago. But, today, only 10 percent of its population is Protestant. Church leaders have launched a major drive to change that -- but have come up against the city's communist past.

The Protestant Church is trying to make the birthplace of Protestantism more Protestant.
Lutherstadt Wittenberg

The Protestant Church is trying to make the birthplace of Protestantism more Protestant.

It’s impossible to walk through Wittenberg, also known as "Luther City," without stumbling across reminders of Martin Luther. There’s the "Luther oak," then Luther Street, which leads to the Luther House. Along the way are restaurants offering a "Luther menu" (choice of meat or fish) and a travel agency touting a tour boat named after the city, which couples can book for their weddings. The bars serve Luther beer; the bakery has Luther bread. There's a huge memorial to Luther in the main marketplace. And the city is crawling with guides decked out in long frocks à la Luther. The city has been completely Lutherized.

Wittenberg, in fact, is as important to the history of Protestantism as Rome is for the Catholic Church. But there’s an essential difference: While Rome is full of Catholics, less than 10 percent of Wittenberg’s 46,000 citizens are Protestants.

The city has been the venue for a handful of miracles, such as apparitions of Mary or the comeback made by Russian Orthodoxy after 70 years of Soviet suppression. But in today's Wittenberg, the real miracle to behold is something more like a miracle of disbelief: Luther can’t be avoided here, but the beliefs he stood for are easy to miss. An official from the organization responsible for the city's Protestant churches describes the ironic tension by saying it’s "a tension that isn’t always easy to take."

But all that is set to change. This year marks a half-millennium since Luther arrived in Wittenberg as a student and a monk. In 1517, he nailed his theses to the door of the city’s Castle Church, launching the Protestant Reformation. In honor of those anniversaries, the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD) has declared a "Luther Decade," providing a sort of 10-year plan for German Protestantism.

But 500 years after Luther, Protestants seem to be longing for the things he himself called into question -- ceremony, ritual and all the religious trappings. Higher-ups in the EKD are no longer content to watch debates about religion revolve around Islam and the pope, and they’re not content to watch mosques erected in the Protestant heartland while there are still no places for Protestant pilgrimage. Their goal is to remake Wittenberg into a true Protestant Rome.

'Lighthouse Keepers'

No one personifies this desire to have Protestantism play as an equal among world religions so clearly as Wolfgang Huber, 66, chairman of the EKD Council. Now bishop for the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, Huber was once part of more alternative movements within the church. He organizes a traditional "bishops' dinner" and is happiest when he's leading services in the Berlin Cathedral, Germany’s largest Protestant church.

Huber has also made Wittenberg his top priority. This year on Reformation Day, which falls on Oct. 31, Huber will award the "Martin Luther Medal" for the first time "for particular services to German Protestantism" -- a sort of "employee-of-the-month" for Protestants.

Protestants are doubters by nature, but Huber would like them to talk more about their beliefs and less about their doubts. He wants them to spread the Gospel and reacquaint themselves with missionary work. "Wittenberg should be a Protestant lighthouse," Huber says, "a symbolic place." With Wittenberg, he wants to show that it's possible to "grow against the trend." He’s bringing specialists on religious growth from all over the country to this important front in his church-development battle, calling Protestant nuns from Bavaria and establishing a high-level prelate in the city.

An Exercise in 'Self-Deception'?

But will the campaign work? Is it possible to bring belief back to a city where tradition has been lost, to a place in the former East Germany, where the Communist government drove religion underground? Will the church manage to proselytize to the former East German citizens within its home borders the way its missionaries once did in foreign lands?

Friedrich Schorlemmer, for one, who is still the most prominent preacher in the city, is skeptical. He thinks trying to go against the trend will lead to cheap tricks and "self-deception." Then he starts to criticize everything he sees as being wrong with the EKD and its "lighthouse keepers."

A portrait of Martin Luther from 1530.
DDP

A portrait of Martin Luther from 1530.

Yet the EKD mission program is already in full swing. The inauguration ceremony for Prelate Stephan Dorgerloh, 42, suggested a new institutional self-confidence. It was a grand event in the Castle Church, almost reminiscent of something done in a more Catholic style. The gathering also inaugurated the "Luther Decade," and even Germany’s interior minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, was present. Yes, congregations are shrinking, Schäuble declared. But he’s not a defeatist: “A strong, confident Protestantism can be very important for our society.”

An interior minister responsible for religion as well? Here, in the former East Germany, such talk awakens certain troubling associations. One remembers East Germany's “State Secretaries for Church Matters” or to Erich Honecker, head of East Germany between 1971 and 1989, who also acted as head of a state “Martin Luther Committee” on the occasion of the reformer’s 500th birthday in 1983. The East German government is gone, but its reverberations are still felt.

Preacher Meets Management Consultant

Stephan Dorgerloh has taken up quarters in the top floor of Wittenberg’s old town hall. He wears a suit and tie and is sitting in a black leather armchair. There are no crosses hanging in the room. Did he forget that detail? No, says Dorgerloh, he just hasn’t finished setting up yet. In his fancy office, he looks more like a marketing strategist than a minister. Sometimes he speaks like one, too, with talk of new concepts, such as “strengthening strengths,” and a desire for the church to take its “offers to the marketplace.” All that’s missing is the PowerPoint presentation.

Dorgerloh has also analyzed the market: His sights are on the educated classes, the ones lost to the church during communist times. He knows that many pastors grew comfortable in home prayer circles after the government had banished them from public life. He knows how hard it is for them to take advantage of their freedom now.

Dorgerloh's analysis is correct, but his plans for Wittenberg are rather grandiose. He wants to create a “center for sermon culture” and a “Protestant campus.” He’s currently holding talks with the state of Saxony-Anhalt on behalf of the EKD, which wants to have Luther’s Castle Church -- whose deed is currently held by the state -- transferred to the EKD by 2017. No half-measures; that’s his motto.

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