Lutherstadt Wittenberg in the New Capitalist Era

Adam Smith Greets Martin Luther


The capitalist revolution has arrived in Lutherstadt Wittenberg.  On Wednesdays and Saturdays the statues of Luther and Philipp Melanchthon on the town square nearly disappear behind the tents of merchants huckstering hair curlers, Kung Fu videos, Barbies and bicycle reflectors.  On the day I was there, the organ grinder on Collegienstrasse, the old city's main thoroughfare, was competing with the legendary tunes of Elvis wafting from a residence nearby.

But the old order has not disappeared entirely from the town square.  A father in civilian clothes pointing his way through a purchase at a hot dog stand sports a Cyrrilic tattoo on his left arm.  The city's tourist agencies are lobbying hard for the removal of the market.  Once the Soviet army leaves Wittenberg for good, it is hoped that the mayor can persuade the locals to transfer their bazaar to "Arsenalplatz", the location of the market during Luther's time.

Certain aspects of the socialist order are dying slowest in church circles:  There, the employee, and not the "customer", frequently remains king.  For reasons of employee preference, the "Schlosskirche", the church in which Luther is buried, celebrates a daily siesta from 11:45 until 2 p.m., closing at 4:45 in the evening.  On Mondays, most museums in Wittenberg -- and in Europe -- are closed entirely.  The native scene appears more commercialized than the tourist trail: It only costs a pittance (57 cents) to climb the tower of the "Schlosskirche".  But when I passed the entrance, there was no one around to collect my toll.


Wittenberg is now experiencing an influx of tourists from Western Germany.  Simone Hoffmann, a gracious young guide at the city-owned information office on Collegienstrasse, complained of the demanding and often haughty attitude of West German tourists.  She expressed warm appreciation though for guests from North America.  "They've always been grateful and easy to please," she states.  "Touch Luther's grave, serve them a light lunch, and then they go happily on their way." 

The Schlosskirche's sexton notes that Americans love to wear their faith on their sleeves.  He claims that one tourist even arrived with a "I am a Lutheran" sign hung around his neck.  He observed another kissing Luther's grave.  Yet, above all, U.S. tour groups are famous for launching into "A Mighty Fortress" at various historical locations.  Even the sexton concedes that the natives appreciate these strains -- as long as they're not sung in butchered German.

The sexton believes Americans are probably weakest on art history.  Most care little about historical details; they instead display a unique and strong emotional attachment to geographic locations.  They are most concerned about the precise locations at which Luther had been.  Yet on the other hand, many Americans request the right to climb up into the Schlosskirche's pulpit and have their picture taken.  That pulpit is not the original one, the sexton adds, and it happens to be attached to the wrong pillar.


Dr. Martin Treu is director of the "Lutherhalle", Luther's private residence.  Treu is most impressed by visitors from the Missouri Synod.  "They still know their Luther!" he exclaims.  "And when they stand in Luther's room and break into 'A Mighty Fortress', they have tears in their eyes."

A guide in the "Stadtkirche", in which Luther most frequently preached, complained that most of the culprits pointing their flash cameras at priceless and aged paintings are American.  But the appropriate sign is inconspicuous and its wording unclear.


The local tourist industry is undergoing a major period of transformation.  The East German and East European tourists have virtually disappeared.  East Germans are vacationing in Spain, other East Europeans lack the hard currency now necessary for a trip to Germany.  Consequently, 80% of the foreigners presently coming to Wittenberg are from North America.  That was over 6,000 persons during 1990.

State-run travel offices no longer have a monopoly on East German tourism.  Americans can now travel to Wittenberg in any fashion they prefer.  Hoffmann concludes that her office will therefore need to advertise its services more aggressively.  She frowns upon the arrival of tour guides from elsewhere.  "Groups now arrive with their own travel guides, who tell them any- and everything they might know on the topic. That used to be different.  It stings our ears when we hear them broadcast inaccuracies about Wittenberg."  The city-run information office is presently charging a group of 15 persons $48 for a two-and-one-half-hour tour, given in English.

Americans are the last major nationality still arriving in groups.  Even that may change: Day-long excursions from Germany's new capital, Berlin, only 55 miles to the north, will undoubtedly increase.  Local tourist offices can usually arrange cheap housing in private quarters on short notice.


All guides complained of continuing communication problems.  Simone Hoffmann claims to understand English, but concedes that dialects -- Wisconsinese, for ex. -- cause problems.  Dr. Treu contends, "We're burning the midnight oil in order to improve our English and French."  Treu, head of the world's largest museum of reformation history, hopes to send a traveling exhibition to the U.S.  A U.S. host and sponsor are still lacking though.

A worthwhile new monument cannot be found in older city guides: I saw a tour guide lead Americans past it without comment.  Since 1305, the southeast roof corner of the Stadtkirche, the church in which Luther most frequently preached, has sported a Jewish swine.  The swine was a common medieval symbol of anti-Semitism.  Three years ago a monument to the Jews was placed below it, stating as an apology that six million Jews had died under a sign of the cross (the swastika).  Considering, that only four of Wittenberg's 70 Jews survived World War II, the placing of this memorial was overdue.  Inside the church, an exhibit explains the memorial's meaning.  It quotes the rabbi of Magdeburg on the occasion of its unveiling:  "Had Jesus lived in Wittenberg during the Nazi period, he undoubtedly would have been murdered in Auschwitz."  That's not a happy critique of Protestant German history.  This exhibit, as with most, has text only in German.


Bill Yoder

Berlin, August 25, 1991


Written for “The Lutheran” magazine in Chicago, 965 words