The Protestant Rome Luther City Revisits the Reformation

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.

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."

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.

A Hard Sell

Just meters away from Dorgerloh’s pious ivory tower, the same “break in tradition” he bemoans can be seen firsthand. Entering the “House of History,” it become quite clear just how foreign the EKD’s religious development plans are for many people here. In this museum, you can smell and taste East German history. It's an exhibit of daily life in the Honecker's republic made up of floral wallpaper, asymmetrical tables, homemade shelves and handkerchiefs worn by the Pioneers, the country’s socialist youth organization. It’s a life without spirituality, without a cross and without a church. Instead, there's plenty of cheap schnapps and photos of army officers drinking.

A former East German leads tour groups through a replica of an old grocery store set up on the museum’s first floor. He shows “under the counter” goods true to the originals, rare goods such as ketchup or red wine from Bulgaria, which were hidden out of public view. The exhibit could have also included West German books, as East German citizens, thirsty for knowledge, stole them from the Leipzig Book Fair to help make sure that they could keep up with conversations when they had visitors from the West. Another "hidden good" could have also been the pins worn by members of the Young Congregation, the Protestant Church’s youth group, which was persecuted by the East German government.

Many of his colleagues were "traumatized" by this history, says Christian Beuchel, the museum's director. They can all tell tales of people who asked if Mary was Jesus’ wife or of teachers who told their students that faith was "unscientific." Even after the fall of the communist government, it took a lot of courage for clergy member to enter classrooms because they felt like they were entering enemy territory.

A Unique Sense of Mission

Armin Pra, 44, is lucky that his knowledge of East Germany is almost completely secondhand. He comes from Hesse, a western German state, but he has been a minister in an area around Wittenberg since 1993. His bright red truck speeds through Wittenberg, a city whose reality bears little relation to the EKD’s grand plans. In Pra’s opinion, many of those plans are mostly just for show. He finds the idea that the Castle Church should be taken into church ownership absurd. People will think that a church belongs to the church anyway, he says, not to mention the future costs. Then he laughs and steps on the gas.

While studying theology, Pra focused on missiology, the study of missions. "I’m certainly in the right place here,” he says. Pra oversees 15 congregations, 13 churches and 20 pieces of property. Although his job is to look after the buildings’ condition, it’s actually the people who are much more important to him. And here, especially, he’s much in demand. “Hardly anything works on its own anymore,” Pra laments. He drives slowly over the cobblestones, and then he brings the truck to a halt. He's arrived in Straach, a village a few miles outside of Wittenberg. It’s a town where everything is gone: There’s no rail connection, no post office, no school, no shops. Even the ATM has been removed. “But we’re still here,” says Pra, “and we can’t just give up on a place like this.”

Pra’s mission concept is one that makes do without any sort of target-group analysis. In fact, it consists mostly just of being there. He says a few words at the firemen’s festival, organizes puppet shows or stops by the fishing club. He arranges social evenings for the congregations instead of the church services that only frustrate him, when no one shows up. And then, at some point, Pra suggest, people will come up to him during these events and ask questions, such as what values they should raise their children with and what counts. “Giving answers then,” he says, "is what mission is really about.”

Pra relates stories of his various small successes. There are the teachers who placed orders for whole sets of Bibles and an organization that worked to preserve the village church. Many of the group’s members didn’t actually belong to the congregation, but all were committed to saving “their church” because it had become a part of their local identity. Later, some even had their children baptized in the church they’d helped to save, although they themselves had never been baptized. It seems to be one way to start healing the wounds left by two dictatorships in a row.

And aside from the mission campaign, there’s something else new happening at the edge of Wittenberg: Highly visible letters on the side of a communist-era apartment block read “Protestant Elementary School.” Grit Förster, 45, is the school's director. She first trained as a teacher in East Germany and only “came to religion” as an adult. In 2001, when dedicated parents first brought the Protestant school to life, Förster had 13 students. “They were parents for whom passing on values was especially important,” she says.

At first, Förster was the only teacher; she was “responsible for everything from textbooks to trash cans.” The school’s existence initially caused some smirks, and the doors had hardly opened when officials came by to carry out an inspection. But, since then, the school has been accredited, and now 12 teachers teach 147 students.

Förster can explain quite simply what is Christian about her school: “What’s Protestant about it,” she says, “is being together.” That sounds fairly banal, but everyone who lives here understands what she means.

Yet, in an area where a lack of religious commitment has become something of a commitment in its own right, Förster’s school is an exception. And that applies even for the Protestant movement’s most sacred locations.

A Proud Resistance

A woman with a friendly smile sells the admission tickets for the Luther House, the former monastery where Martin Luther would go on to live with his family. She can explain Luther’s history well -- but not his present. He has no meaning for her except, of course, for his relevance to her job. She says she’s 40 years old and an atheist. But then she adds, “You know, the socialist education.” Anyway, she suggests, atheists are the most tolerant. There are so many people, Catholics and Protestants both, wanting to convert them.

Sure, she’s been working here a few years, she admits, but will she become religious? No, she says, that’s just not going to happen.

Die Wiedergabe wurde unterbrochen.