Magazine article The Spectator

All Things to German Men

Magazine article The Spectator

All Things to German Men

Article excerpt

FOUR and a half centuries after his death, Martin Luther, the reformer who railed against the Church's accretion of riches, has become Wittenberg's nice little earner. The town in the former East Germany, which changed its name in the mid-1980s to identify itself with its spiritual forebear, has spent the last year deep in Luther-worship - very little connected with his Reformation creed or writings. Commemorating the man who declared, `The righteous man shall live by faith alone' filled the municipal coffers nicely during 1996, the 450th anniversary of his death. The council has just announced on its balance sheet that `Luther-Year revenue' exceeded the projected income from tourism of DM80 million (35 million).

The Lutheran Church was in high spirits as the anniversary year ended. A papal encyclical Ut Unum Sint ended the formal division between Rome and the Nordic and Baltic branches of the Lutheran Church. This new Common Market in religion does not, however, include Germany, whose Lutherans remain closer in spirit and doctrine to Catholicism than their sister churches to the north. When the town's citizens gathered for their Christmas services featuring readings from his works and the hymns based on his writings, they looked back on a year which saw renovation of its fine old buildings, sorely neglected by the East German state, a sturdy expansion of hotels and restaurants and a boom year in the shops, paid for by a stream of visitors. Germans adore anniversaries, and in Wittenberg, where a fifth of the workforce is unemployed after unification, they also needed the money.

In contrast to the rather sad region south of Berlin which still bears the hallmarks - run-down factories and gastronomic inadequacies - of the communist East, the town is booming. Well-heeled matrons hurry to Sunday services in the Burgkirche, where the most famous of Lutheran hymns, `Ein fester Burg ist unser Gott' (A safe fortress is our God), is inscribed above the altar.

Legend has it that Luther pinned his 95 theses to the door here in 1517, declaring, `Here I stand, I can do no other.' This refrain is so popular in German politics that even the former communists, the Party of Democratic Socialism, have taken to using it in their literature. In the exhibition devoted to his life, a child wanders amid the glass cases and asks his mother, `Who was Luther?' She replies, `He said that the Church had become greedy and that it was run to please men. He wanted to give it back to God.' But another question forms in the mind: who is Luther now, the most variously interpreted and instrumentalised figure in German history?

There is a telling line about Germany's dealings with past giants, famous and infamous, in the German film Schtonk, a satire on the faked Hitler diaries. The editor of the news magazine which has bought them wonders what feature articles he will print alongside them. `We could start with "Adolf Hitler - a man like you and me",' he says brightly. This is pretty much the approach today's Germany takes to Luther. The potted biographies on sale in Wittenberg emphasise his commitments to universal education and shared responsibility for the welfare of the needy, while dismissing his anti-Semitism as a vagary of the times. He has been given a makeover as 20th-century hero.

His stern features, encased in monastic habit, are reproduced on commemoration T-shirts. There is a specially produced Luther beer, there are matchboxes, liqueurs, playing-cards and chocolate biscuits (regardless of the fact that chocolate was unknown in 16th-century Germany). No one could accuse the German Tourist Board of understatement.

Jorg Bielig from the town hall is shamelessly cheerful about the hype. `We all know that the tourist trade invented Luther Year,' he says. `But the Church followed meekly. It's in everyone's interests to celebrate the son of our town.' In fact, Luther was born and died further south, in Eisleben, and some 30 German towns claim a link with him. …

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