Monday, February 21, 2011

Wittenberg, Germany - May 10, 2010

Wittenberg, officially known as Lutherstadt Wittenberg, is a small city of 50,000 people on the river Elbe in north eastern Germany. In 1502 the University of Wittenberg was founded and became the center of activity for Martin Luther who, in 1508 at the age of 25, became a Professor of Theology there.
Had it not been for Martin Luther, Wittenberg would probably have remained just another rural backwater German city. Luther however, become increasingly aggrieved by the Catholic church practice of selling indulgences - that is allowing wealthy folk to buy forgiveness for their misdeeds by giving money to church Bishops. 
Folklore has it that Luther nailed 95 theses on this topic to the doors of the All Saints' Castle Church in 1517. This part of the story, like other elements of Wittenberg folklore, actually appears to be romantic fantasy but there is no doubt that Luther's activities there sowed the seeds for the Protestant Reformation leading to a massive religious upheaval and European-wide warfare.
The Castle Church was damaged by fire in 1760, during the Seven Years War with France,  and the doors (along with the mythical pamphlets) were destroyed. Even though the church was patched up, it wasn't before 1858 - almost 100 years later - that new bronze doors were installed and these, indeed, were inscribed with the text of the theses in Latin. Fanciful thinking apparently had won out over reality and morphed into "fact". The tomb of Martin Luther is inside the Church. 
A couple of other Wittenberg myths are connected to WWII. Unlike many historic German cities in the region, Wittenberg was spared major destruction although there was some fighting in the streets. The statue of Martin Luther that stands in the main square has some pock marks on it proudly pointed to by locals as WWII bullet holes. Nice try, but the statue was actually in storage some miles out of town for the duration of the war.
The other piece of romanticism holds that the Allies had agreed not to bomb Wittenberg and that was the reason the city escaped serious damage. Reality was that the Arado Flugzeugwerke (Arado Aircraft Factory), a Luftwaffe production facility, was on the outskirts of town and the allies did indeed avoid action  for a long time, but for a unilateral and humane reason. The factory was staffed by forced labor including Jews, Russians, Poles, political prisoners and even a few Americans. Near the close of the war, American and British planes did bomb the factory tragically killing about one thousand prisoner workers. 
When the war ended in 1945, Wittenberg was occupied by Soviet forces and became part of East Germany in 1949. It has since of course, been reunited with western Germany since 1990. Picture show here.

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