Tag Archives: Germany

Today would be a good day to be in Lutherstadt Wittenberg

This coming Friday, October 31, marks a special day. No, it’s not Halloween (we don’t generally celebrate that in Australia). It’s Reformation Day. This Friday it will be 497 years since Martin Luther famously nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg castle church, one of the key events that lit the spark of the Protestant Reformation of the church. I had the opportunity to visit Wittenberg (now officially called Lutherstadt – “Luther’s town”) about 4 years ago. I’m thinking it would be a nice place to revisit today and ponder the history that took place there.

Window in Wittenberg Castle Church
Window in Wittenberg Castle Church

I’m passionate about the church, and I’m pretty keen on history, so it’s no surprise that I really enjoyed visiting Wittenberg. I was in Berlin for a few days and was excited to discover it is only just over an hour by train to this delightful little town with its preserved artefacts of a remarkable life lived here nearly 500 years ago.

Martin and Katharina Luther
Martin and Katharina Luther
 What did I love about Wittenberg?

Wittenberg is a beautiful European town, and a great size for walking through.

street

As I found with Stratford-upon-Avon, however, taking a tour through this town is really taking a walk through the places of one man’s life. Coming in from the train station, I passed by this pretty park, which is also thought to be the site where Luther burned his papal bull of excommunication.

Park

Normally a statue of Luther stands in the centre of the town square, but it was being renovated when I visited and so was replaced with an art installation of 800 colourful miniature copies – quite a sight!

Luthers in the square

The former monastery where Luther studied and taught and which then became his family home is now a museum honouring his life and work.

Luther House

Here you can walk through the simple living room of the home he made with his wife, former nun Katharina …

Iving room

… and the lecture hall where he and others taught the Bible …

Lecture hall

… as well as see the impressive lectern from which they spoke!

Lectern

There is also the oldest copy of his translation of the Bible into German …

German Bible

… a 1533 hymnbook with his pub-tune song “A Mighty Fortress” …

1533 hymnbook

… and a printed copy of his 1517 “95 theses” laying out his reasons for disputing church practices which distorted the gospel and gave people false hope.

95 Theses

For this, he was excommunicated by papal bull, a document naming him a heretic to be shunned.

Papal bull

St Mary’s church, (or the Town Church) where Luther often preached, dates back to the 14th century …

Church

… as does the smaller Corpus Christi chapel in its grounds.

Chapel

But the church where Martin nailed his theses is the Castle Church (All Saints’) at the other end of town.

Castle Church

Luther’s grave lies underneath the pulpit inside.

Grave and pulpit

 What did I learn from Wittenberg?

The heart of Luther’s story really starts in another city: Rome. With the need to raise funds to renovate the dome of St Peter’s basilica, the church of the time began selling indulgences, promising forgiveness of sins for a fee. This practice might seem quite medieval to us now, but it reminds me how easy it is for wealth and greed to corrupt the truth of the gospel and God’s free gracious gift offered in His Son. There is a reason that Jesus warned about the dangers of money.

A certificate of indulgence
A certificate of indulgence

Luther wrote his sermon for Sunday October 31, 1517 (95 theses on the power and efficacy of indulgences) and then, as was the custom of the day, posted it (in Latin) on the door of the church. As a fellow preacher, I am reminded of the need to be faithful in speaking the truth of Jesus Christ, even when it might be unpopular, and of the call to be bold in making the message clear and open for all to hear, even those who might oppose it.

Castle door

I was really struck by this letter that Luther wrote explaining his actions after the Diet of Worms (NB: diet = a decision-making gathering of the Catholic church; Worms = a town in Germany 🙂 ).

Letter

While I can’t read all his words, I can only imagine they are similar to the ones he spoke before that gathering in April 1521:

“My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and will not recant anything. Here I stand, I can do no other. May God help me.”

I hope that I might live my own life with the same passion and conviction for the truth of God’s Word.

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Museums, Memorials and lessons from remembering … or Today would be a good day to be in Berlin

I recently saw, and loved, the movie of my favourite book. One of the things I love about The Book Thief is that it caused me to imagine what it would have been like to grow up in 1930s Germany. I’m pretty sure when I was 10 years old I had not developed a capacity to critique my country or its government. What would it be like to grow up thinking Nazism was normal, and to then experience the realities and questions of that first hand?

The Berlin Wall
The Berlin Wall

While The Book Thief is set in Munich, a city which I have briefly visited, it was visiting Berlin that raised those same kinds of questions for me. I loved Berlin, and particularly the many layers of history. As I walked the streets of Berlin I often found myself wondering, what would it have been like to grow up here in the 1940s, or the 1980s, or even the 1700s?

The Brandenburg Gate
The Brandenburg Gate

Berlin is a good place to reflect on what it means to be human and to remember the ways that humans often treat (and mistreat) one another. I would love to return and spend more time in its museums and at its memorials.

The Neue Synagogue, one of the few to survive Kristallnacht
The Neue Synagogue, one of the few to survive Kristallnacht
What did I love about Berlin?

The Museums. Berlin has hundreds, so it was hard to choose which to visit. This list includes just some of my favourites.

The Art Gallery on Museum Island
The Art Gallery on Museum Island

Pergamon Museum. One of five museums on Museum Island, the ancient treasures here are amazing. In particular it was a thrill to see the huge altar from the Turkish city of Pergamum, and the Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon, which the Israelites would have seen when taken into exile in the 6th century BCE.

The Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon
The Ishtar Gates from ancient Babylon

Jewish Museum. At the start of the 20th century, Berlin had one of the largest populations of Jews in the world. This museum celebrates their history and contribution to German society. It also has the Holocaust Tower, a dark and empty silo which is incredibly moving in its sense of emptiness and loss.

The intersection of the underground tunnels in the Jewish Museum
The intersection of the underground tunnels in the Jewish Museum

Topography of Terror. Built on the site of the former SS headquarters, this place is brutal in its frankness and brave in its honesty.

Some of the outdoor Topography of Terror's exhibits in front of a section of the Berlin Wall
Some of the Topography of Terror’s outdoor exhibits in front of a section of the Berlin Wall

DDR Museum. This fascinating museum in the former East provides a glimpse of what life was like in the GDR. From state arranged holidays to collective potty training, these were the realities for people my age who grew up here in the 1980s.

One way to tell if you are in former East or West Berlin ...
One way to tell if you are in former East or West Berlin …

Berlin Wall Memorial and Documentation Centre. On Bernauer Straße is a preserved section of the Berlin wall including the border strip and watchtower. The Documentation Centre’s tower provides a good view of this, as well as exhibits about the wall’s history including those who died trying to cross it.

The Border Strip as it was from 1961-1989
The Border Strip as it was from 1961-1989

I also loved the many moving Memorials. Again, these are just a few that particularly struck me.

The Window of Remembrance, honouring 136 known victims of the Wall Regime
The Window of Remembrance, honouring 136 known victims of the Wall Regime

Memorial to the Murdered Jews. Opened in 2005, this has been somewhat controversial. There are exhibits underground, but above ground it consists of thousands of concrete slabs of varying sizes and heights, through which people wander and remember. I’m not sure any memorial could adequately convey what needs to be conveyed here, and so in some ways I like that it is minimalist and unconventional. But I didn’t find it as poignant as many of the other memorials.

Some of the 2,711 stelae
Some of the 2,711 stelae at the memorial

Book Burning Memorial. Set into the ground of the public square, Bebelplatz, this appears at first glance to be a simple glass window. Looking down into it, however, you see rows and rows of empty bookshelves – enough to hold the 20,000 books that were burned here in 1933.

"Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people." Heinrich Heine
“Where they burn books, they will also in the end burn people.” Heinrich Heine

Neue Wache Memorial to the victims of tyranny. The sculpture “Mother with her dead son,” in a shaft of light from the circular opening in the dome above, stands inside a former guardhouse that now serves as a war memorial. The contrast between walking down the busy main street with the usual noise of life and crowds, to stepping inside here where you could here a pin drop, was very affecting.

Käthe Kollwitz's heart-rending sculpture
Käthe Kollwitz’s heart-rending sculpture

Gleis 17. Berlin-Grunewald station today is a normal, everyday, suburban train station. But from 1941 to 1945, train after train left here packed full with people bound for concentration camps from which they would never return. Platform 17, no longer used, is a memorial to those who left from here, with dates, numbers of people, and destinations engraved along the length of the track. It is profoundly moving.

The hauntingly beautiful Platform 17
The hauntingly beautiful Platform 17
Just one date and one group of the 50,000 people deported from here
2/3/43 – 1758 Jews to Auschwitz – just one group on one date, out of so many
What did I learn from Berlin?
Leftover fabric stars in the Jewish museum
Leftover fabric stars in the Jewish museum

I think it is easy to grow up in a country that was on the “winning” side of the World Wars and simplistically imagine that we are so very different from “them,” or that it couldn’t happen here. Berlin reminded me of our common humanity, and particularly the challenges the church faces to respond to our all too common inhumanity.

The Berlin Cathedral
The Berlin Cathedral

Berliners have done a remarkable job of acknowledging their past history, including its mistakes and trials. I think we can all, whether as individuals or as nations, learn from that. It is a powerful thing to simply say sorry. No excuses, no justifications, no mitigations. Moving forward and embracing forgiveness are predicated on this. I love that the rebuilt dome of the Reichstag is made of glass, to symbolise openness and transparency.

The Reichstag
The Reichstag

I also appreciated the acknowledgement that some things don’t deserve remembrance. The site of Hitler’s bunker is an unadorned patch of car park and grass. Nothing to see there, and I think that too is a powerful message to send.

The former site of Hitler's Bunker
The former site of Hitler’s Bunker

At the Holocaust Memorial I was struck by children playing, and even a couple kissing, in the shadows between the blocks. A great reminder that life goes on, that “joy comes in the morning,” and that acknowledging the past doesn’t mean self-flagellation for the future, but living to the full today.

A young boy playing at the holocaust Memorial
A young boy playing at the holocaust Memorial

And finally, in Berlin I saw and experienced hope. On Bernauer Straße since the 1890s stood a church building, ironically called the Church of Reconciliation. When the Berlin Wall was constructed in 1961, the church found its building stranded in the no-man’s land between the two parts of the city, inaccessible to everyone but the border guards, and it was eventually destroyed. After the Wall fell, the church wanted to find a way to both commemorate its past and look to its future. In 2000, the Chapel of Reconciliation was completed, just across the road from the Berlin Wall Memorial. It stands there today as an amazing symbol of perseverance and faithfulness. As the parish said in a 1985 speech when the old building was destroyed, “We can do something … we know that symbols have a silent power which can make the ‘impossible’ possible.”

The Reconciliation Chapel
The Reconciliation Chapel