On Tuesday, October 31, 2017, I took an early morning train from Munich to Wittenberg for the 500th anniversary of Luther's posting of his Ninety Five Theses. As you'd expect, the train ride up was comfortable, efficient, and clean--made even more so by my purchase of a first class ticket.
The Wittenberg train station is not in or adjacent to the town; it's a short walk into Wittenberg, but it's not a straight shot. The road wends northwest before bending around, almost U-turn like, back to the northeast and into the village. My path passed the city park which includes the Luther Tree--a magnificent oak under which Luther supposedly burned his excommunication notice.
The first impression of Wittenberg from the train station, at least for me, was of decay. The first buildings seen, and many within the town itself, suffered from lack of care and were vandalized with graffiti. Much of the graffiti was of a political nature with symbols mostly recognizable. Trump was a frequent topic of street art conversation. The initial affect was of a town exhausted and running on fumes.
The center of town was packed with people. My initial observation was that it reminded me of a Renaissance Fair: Period clothing, period food and drink, bawdy sketch comedy and puppeteering. I had to been to Wittenberg once before, in 2010, on my way to the Oberammergau Passionspiele, and I had been surprised by how touristy it seemed. This was another order of magnitude. Every type of Luther-related bauble, trinket, garment, literature, and relic available, from a centuries old book on Luther for a few thousand Euros to a kitsch keychain and everything in between.
I talked to as many people as I could and everyone with whom I conversed was there for reasons of faith or history or both. Anecdotally, every German I talked to was there for history, with the Americans being a mixed bag. I fell in with some folks from San Diego and San Francisco who were there as a pilgrimage, and we ended up discoursing, laughing, drinking, and praying together. My kind of people.
Chancellor Merkel, the daughter of a Lutheran minister, was present and an invitation-only worship service was held in the Schlosskirche--it's exclusivity understandable from the security angle and unconscionable from the theological one. Germany's federal police were highly visible before Merkel's arrival, but upon her caravan's entrance, the festivities were largely halted, the crowds were ushered into cordoned sections, and her convoy made its way to the church. Not much happened for a couple of hours, but after her departure, the festivities loudly resumed.
The Lutherhaus is the Augustinian monastery and university where Luther lived before and after the onset of the Reformation. It's now a museum, and it's really quite good, showcasing as it does Luther's living and writing quarters, and housing many of his personal belongings. I found it telling that despite the crush of people in Wittenberg for the occasion, the museum was very sparsely trafficked. As the afternoon waned, the crowds slightly thinned. I made my way to the Schlosskirche to stand where Luther himself reportedly stood as he nailed theological premises to the large wooden doors. Those doors are bronze now, with each thesis written in Latin; quite frankly, it's unattractive, and yet there was something to me--I'm stealing this word from the jargon thread--impactful about standing in the spot where something truly significant happened. Yes, Desiderius laid the egg. Yes, Frederick the Elector helped. Yes, an infinity of variables worked in that theohistorical calculus. But this was the match that lit the fire. And I stood where the conflagration was ignited.
I found the revelry in the afternoon amusing and fun; I was unprepared for the raucous evening. As dusk set in, a laser light show illumined many of the historic buildings, manifold tourists boarded buses or made their way to their hostels, and the real bacchanalia began. The official festivities were over around 20:00 and vendors started packing up and moving on. You'll not be surprised that the alcohol booths were the last to close. I fell in with some locals who started a bonfire just behind some of the shops and they had flasks of some caramel liqueur that was to die for. Indeed, I think I nearly did. Imagine Werther's melted down and distilled. Actually, don't.
My compatriots informed me that this revelry occurs every Reformation Day, regardless of the anniversary. The only difference with this one, they said, was Merkel's attendance and the augmentation of the crowd by mostly Americans. None of my new tribe identified as Christian; most described themselves as atheist or agnostic, with one woman stating she was pagan of the Norse varietal. And yet, to a one, they swelled with pride at Luther and his effect on history--and the place in Western civilization that their little hometown commands.
Somewhere around 01:00 on All Saints', I made my way to the Pension am Schwanenteich were earlier I had deposited my backpack. I got a brief sleep before washing up and beginning the walk back out to the Bahnhof. My return train to Munich left early, and the return journey was nowhere near as quiet and comfortable as the first leg.