In the Footsteps of Martin Luther, Germany's National Hero
By Stephen Hartshorne
What a fantastic time I had in Germany -- adventures in learning behind the Iron Curtain. I learned a lot about Germany's national hero, Martin Luther, and about the spirit of the German people -- their music and scholarship and literature. I dined like a king and enjoyed the warmest hospitality you can imagine.
Our tour centered around Luther, a man of great courage who helped move humanity forward in so many ways -- in religion, in education, in music and in commerce. He translated the Bible into German, uniting all the German dialects into a single language.
He opened many schools for girls and boys. He defied the corruption of the Renaissance popes, and he introduced music and choral singing into the church service, beginning the great German tradition of music. He himself composed more than 100 hymns, including "A Mighty Fortress is Our God."
A former monk, Luther married a former nun and fathered six children, so he and his wife Katarina von Bora are considered icons of German family life.
To commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the principal towns of Luther Country decided to have a full decade of celebrations, with each year devoted to a particular theme.
For 2011, the theme is "The Reformation and Freedom." The theme for 2012 will be "The Reformation and Music." Future years will celebrate various themes, leading up to the anniversary in 2017.
We began our tour in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, where Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Castle Church in 1517. In these theses, he denounced the church's sale of indulgences -- forgiveness for sins you hadn't even committed, or forgiveness for the sins of your deceased relatives in purgatory.
The slogan was, "As soon as a coin in the coffer rings, a soul from purgatory springs."
In posting his theses, Luther knew he risked being burned at the stake as a heretic, as the reformer John Hus was burned 100 years before. But Luther was protected by his sovereign, Frederick the Wise, Elector [King] of Saxony, who clearly lived up to his moniker.
To make a long story short, Luther was not burned at the stake, but sparked what is known as the Protestant Reformation, from which came not just Lutheranism, but all the Protestant religions that encourage their members to read the Bible for themselves.
But above all he taught that God doesn't hate us, that God loves people as they are
In Lutherstadt Wittenberg, you will find many memorials to Martin Luther and to his wife Katarina von Bora, who was smuggled out of a nearby convent in a barrel of herring.
Their marriage is reenacted every Spring as a celebration of family life and the city has an enormous festival in the Fall on Reformation Day, October 31, when the inhabitants of Wittenberg dress up in period costumes to celebrate what is regarded as a liberation of the German spirit.
The door where he nailed his manifesto has been cast in bronze. Above it is is a mural of Luther and his friend Philip Melanchton, the cofounder of Lutheranism. Across the top are figures of musicians playing lutes, lyres, flutes and horns and at the center, three choristers, one of them a girl.
The Castle Church is a real marvel of history, art and architecture. Built in 1490, it houses the tombs of Luther and Melanchton as well as many beautiful paintings, reliefs, sculptures and stained glass windows. This was the church of the sovereign and the famous university at which Luther taught and preached for many years.
Wittenberg is a beautiful, walkable town -- it's a UNESCO World Heritage site -- with lots of memorials to Martin Luther, Philip Melanchton, Katarina von Bora, their friend, the painter Lucas Cranach the Elder, who was also a pharmacist and mayor of the town, and Frederick the Wise.
There is an art school in Cranach's home and studio, and Melanchton's house is being restored for the anniversary in 2017. Besides the Castle Church, you can visit the Town Church, St. Mary's, where Luther was married, where his children were baptized, and where he often preached. It is known as "the Mother Church of the Reformation."
The centerpiece of the town is the Luther House, where Luther and von Bora raised their family and entertained visitors -- sometimes 30 or more at a time! You can see Luther's work table and the seat where Katarina liked to sit by the window and sew
There is an actual alms box once used to collect payment for indulgences, famous paintings by Cranach, and lots of other interesting attractions, including a bit of grafitti written by Tsar Peter the Great, who visited the historic home in 1712.
I also enjoyed the House of History (Haus der Geschichte) where you can get a glimpse of life in East Germany -- the German Democratic Republic -- from 1949 to 1990. There are all kinds of consumer goods from the Soviet era and three stories of interesting displays which we toured using handy audio guides.
The highlight of our visit to Wittenberg was a luncheon with the premier of Saxony-Arhalt, Dr. Reiner Haseloff, who told us about life behind the Iron Curtain in the years before German reunification, when he used to listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival and Bob Dylan and John Lennon
As one who remembers being taught to crawl under my desk in the event of nuclear war, it gave me a great feeling to sit down to a lovely lunch with someone on the other side in the Cold War and talk about the lessons of history. It made me feel that the human race is actually making progress.
Dr. Haseloff also told us about the horrors of European socialism that we in the US have been taught to fear so much: the average German gets six weeks of vacation a year, mothers get a year of paid maternity leave and college is free.
Like other provinces in eastern Germany, Saxony-Arnhalt saw an increase in the average age of the population, as young people moved to the West for the jobs and the lifestyle.
His government is working to attract business to the region, offering a variety of tax breaks and other economic incentives. They even offer free tuition at colleges and universities for students from other countries -- a good way for US students to save forty or fifty thousand dollars a year!
Our next stop was Lutherstadt Eisleben, the town where Luther was born Martin Luder in 1483. His father, Hans Luder, owned copper mines in nearby Mansfield.
[Shortly before he posted his famous theses on the door in Wittenburg, Martin Luder followed the tradition of many humanists and Latinized his name. He began signing his letters "Eleutherios", which means "free" in Greek. He subsequently changed his name to Luther.]
We toured the museum at his birth house, another UNESCO World Heritage site, which has extensive exhibits about mining in the 15th and 16th century, recreations of various rooms in the Luder household, and an extraordinary collection of grave paintings from the period.
The house where Luther died is currently being renovated in preparation for the festivities in 2017 on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.We also visited St. Andrews Church, where Luther preached his last sermon in 1546. Appropriately enough, he text was Matthew 11:28: "Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest."
The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, where Luther was baptized is also being renovated.
The Luther sites were neglected during the Communist Era in East Germany. The communists admired him for challenging the pope and the Catholic Church, but he was still a religious man, and communism had no room for religion in its ideology.
There's a memorial to Luther in the town square, and as we passed by, we got a chance to take a photo of students from a school that Luther himself founded in 1543, just three years before he died.
Weimar, where Luther preached many times, is a magnificent city with so many beautiful parks and palaces and gardens that the entire city is a UNESCO World Heritage site. Now located in the province of Thuringia, the city was once the residence of the dukes of Saxe-Weimar.
The ducal residence, known as the Town Palace is a giant museum now with many works of art dating back to the Middle Ages, as well as many works by Luther's friend Lucas Cranach and his contemporary, Albrecht Dürer.
This is one of the most beautiful palaces in the world and provides a great view of how the one percent lived back in the 18th century.
When we visited they had an exhibit honoring the 200th birthday of pianist and composer Franz Liszt, which included an open piano in the palace courtyard where visitors could play on the strings with a mallet
Here we were introduced to Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, two titanic figures in German literature.
Both their residences are museums and their statue stands in front of the German National Theatre, which they founded together.
Goethe's House is a magnificent structure which his mistress Christian Vulpius famously defended from the drunken 'spoon guards' of Napoleon in 1806. He married her the next day.
We visited the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul, where Luther often preached, with its beautiful altar piece by Lucas Cranach and listened to part of the choir practice.
We toured the town square with Gudrun Engelhardt, who was one of the children who greeted Patton's Third Army when they arrived there in 1945 when she was eight years old. She remembers getting a bar of chocolate from the soldiers.
The city square was 80 percent destroyed during World War II, but has been beautifully restored. There is also a museum commemorating those who perished in the nearby Buchenwald Concentration Camp.
We also visited the famous Residenz-Café, a 160-year-old coffee house, and dined at the Alt Weimar Restaurant, where I enjoyed the most delicious venison I have ever eaten.
Moving right along, we came to the magnificent city of Erfurt with its array of thirty spires and steeples -- one of the best preserved medieval city centers in Germany.
Its famous Merchants' Bridge, with 32 half-timbered houses is lined with galleries, cafés and boutiques offering traditional crafts, Thuringian blue printed fabrics, hand-painted ceramics, handblown glassware, jewelry, wood carvings, antiques and tasty Thuringian specialities.
It was here that Luther became a monk at the Augustinian Monastery. You can walk through the courtyards and chapter rooms of the monastery and get a feel for what life was like for a 16th-century monk.
The Old Synagogue in Erfurt
We also visited a fascinating new museum that won an award from the British Guild of Travel Writers as Europe's best new tourism attraction, the Old Synagogue. The building itself dates to the 11th century and it was here in 1998 that a treasure was discovered that was buried in 1349 underneath an old staircare.
This splendid treasure of 3,141 silver coins, 14 silver bars, and gold and silver jewelry and utensils is literally spellbinding when you think of the city's Jewish community gathering together and collecting all their valuables in anticipation of the pogrom of 1349, including the womens' ornate wedding rings.
The fact that the treasure was never retrieved speaks volumes about the terrors of the pogrom and the fate of the city's Jewish residents. The museum also houses Hebrew manuscripts from the Middle Ages. Unfortunately, no photographs were allowed.
On to Wartburg Castle!
Our next stop was the famous Wartburg Castle, another UNESCO World Heritage site, set on top of a 1230-foot cliff overlooking Eisenach, where Luther was taken by his protector, Frederick the Wise of Saxony after Emperor Charles V declared Luther a heretic and an outlaw and ordered his arrest.
Here Luther grew a beard, dressed as a knight and was known as "Junker George." He spend eleven months here, during which time he translated the New Testament into German and wrote a number of other famous works of his own.
The castle dates back to 1068, when the count of Thuringia first laid the foundation, and there are works of art and artifacts from many different periods of its long and storied history.
There are murals depicting the life of the castle's most famous occupant -- Saint Elisabeth of Hungary, known for her concern and care for the poor -- and the famous Minstrels' Contest of 1207 (loser dies!) depicted in Wagner's opera Tannhäuser.
There is also a magnificently restored Festival Hall of the Thuringen landgraves, in which it's easy to be transported back to the Middle Ages.
But the most popular attraction at the castle is the small room where Luther lived and worked during his sojourn here.
Luther and the Inkpot
Before I left for Germany I had a note from a clergyman friend of mine telling me to be sure to visit the spot where Luther threw the inkpot at the devil, so all along our tour of Luther Country, I kept asking about the inkpot.
This turns out to be something of a legend. Luther does not mention it in his writings; a student of his claimed the great man told him the story.
But the legend is so popular that the keepers of the castle have had to remove one of the boards from the wall in the Luther Room because people kept carving off bits of it. They have even put a little replica of the devil to mark the spot.
In fact Peter the Great of Russia asked to see the inkspot when he visited Wittenberg in 1711, famously declaring, "The ink is fresh and this is all nonsense." The inkspot was also rumored to be in Erfurt and in various other locations around Luther Country.
Just below the castle is the city of Eisenach, where Luther attended Latin School, and where he sang in the choir at St. George's Church. Two hundred years later, in 1685, Johann Sebastian Bach sang in the same choir. A devout Lutheran, Bach is credited with carrying on Luther's musical legacy.
Although more than 64 members of the Bach family were professional musicians, it is Johann Sebastian who has become the most famous over the ages.
His works are played and sung by millions of musicians and choristers all over the world. He ranks up there with Mozart and Beethoven as an icon of the great German musical tradition which Luther began.
I've been singing Bach cantatas since I was an eight-year-old chorister, and I'm a big fan. That's why visiting the Bach Museum was a thrill for me. It's full of beautiful old musical instruments, and you can hear them played in little mini-concerts every hour.
Enjoying the music at the Bach Museum
I also saw an important musical relic dated 1765 -- a glass armonica, invented by a fellow Boston boy. Beethoven and Mozart both wrote music for this instrument. Can you name the inventor? This was after J.S. Bach's time, but it's included among their collection of musical curiosities.
You can see the desk where Bach composed his wonderful music and learn lots of stories about his famous musical family. There is also a surround-sound theater, and some great hanging plexiglass bubbles that allow you to immerse yourself in his music.
There are also lots of paintings and letters and household items from the period as well as kitchen utensils, tableware, furniture, decorations and ceramics.
In Eisenach you can also visit the Luther House, where Luther lived with the Cotta family while he attended Latin School. Here you can see two rooms where he lived as a schoolboy as well as a collection of Reformation books and archives and multimedia exhibits relating to the period.
The city also holds a huge Luther Festival in August with hundreds of actors, artisans, merchants decked out in the costumes of the late Middle Ages.
The Luther Feast
We capped our visit to Luther Country with a magnificent "Luther Feast" at the Lutherstuben restaurant at the hotel Eisenacher Hof. What a great time!
The food and the beer are delicious, and you get to eat the way they did in the 16th century. You drink from ceramic mugs with conical bottoms that you fit into holes in the table.
We feasted on hearty soups, peasant bread, grilled meats and vegetables on skewers, a giant rack of bratwurst, and bowls of potatoes and cabbage and other vegetables that we passed around family style.
Then they bring dessert, a giant skewer of flaming fruit. The flames carmelize the sugars in the fruit and it's quite delicious.
Our waiter was surly in a good-humored way, and made me feel as if I was back at Jacob Wurth's, a famous German restaurant in my hometown of Boston also known for surly waiters.
Looking back on my trip, I have to say it was tremendous fun and very educational. I learned a lot about the great Martin Luther, and about the welcoming spirit of the German people.
You can design your own tour of Luther Country by car, train, boat, bike or bus at Visit-Luther.com.
Stephen Hartshorne is the associate editor of GoNOMAD.com. He writes a blog called ArmchairTravel about books he finds at flea markets and rummage sales. He lives in Sunderland, Mass.