How ‘Luther town’ is cashing in on the Protestant Reformation

As Germany celebrates 500 years since Martin Luther sparked the Protestant Reformation, the town where it all started is making it worth their while in souvenir sales.

How 'Luther town' is cashing in on the Protestant Reformation
Souvenirs on sale in Wittenberg. Photo: DPA.

Carrying an armful of “Luther Brodt” gingerbread to the cashier, Mikael Byrial Jensen admits sheepishly that Martin Luther would probably not have been impressed by the flood of souvenirs bearing his name.

Luther “said himself that saints are not special… but that's how it is today. We're Lutherans so it's a nice gift,” said the Danish tour guide, of his purchase at a chocolatier in eastern Germany's Wittenberg – also known as Luther town.

From burgers to rubber duckies to liquor, Wittenberg is cashing in on its 16th century resident, who changed Christendom forever.

It is on a door of a church here that Luther is said to have nailed his 95 theses in 1517, leading to a split with the Roman Catholic Church and giving birth to Protestantism.

As Germany commemorates the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, the seismic theological shift started by Luther, Wittenberg is decked out in full Luther regalia.

On arrival at the town's main train station, visitors are greeted with a giant rectangular block labelled “The Bible – Luther's translation”.

Walk a few metres and a billboard seeks to tempt the weary with a “Luther Burger”.

An advertisement for the 'Luther Burger'. Photo: DPA.

In the display windows of shops running one kilometre through the centre of the old town, there is something for everyone – a toddler-sized Luther teddy bear, bags of Luther pasta and Luther tea.

Asked what Luther had to do with sausages, Uwe Bechmann, who was doing a brisk business selling them with black bread topped with mustard, said with a broad grin: “Well, Martin Luther enjoyed eating them – as you can see from his belly.”

Turning point

Born in Eisleben on November 10th 1483, Luther moved to Wittenberg in 1511.

It was in the eastern town where he married Katharina von Bora, became a father of six children, and published his ideas attacking papal abuses and questioning the place of saints.

The theologian, who died in 1546, argued that Christians could not buy or earn their way into heaven but only entered by the grace of God, marking a turning point in Christian thinking.

But Luther also came to be linked to Germany's darkest history, as his later sermons and writings were marked by anti-Semitism – something that the Nazis used to justify their horrific persecution of the Jews.

Yet the theologian's part in reshaping the religious order has unequivocally secured his place as one of the most important figures in European history.

For the 500th Reformation anniversary, Germany has declared an exceptional public holiday on October 31st.

And tens of thousands of Christians from across the world are descending on the town of 47,000 inhabitants where history was made.

'They keep selling out'

The head of Wittenberg tourist office Kristin Ruske said hotel bookings and demand for guided tours had doubled for January to March, even before the Reformation fest began.

Trains will leave every ten minutes from Berlin to bring the faithful to the town in time for this coming weekend's Ascension church service.

And going by the number of tourists carrying jute bags featuring Luther's image, or the steady stream of people picking up Luther cookies, it is clear that the crowd just can't get enough of the theologian.

The boom in Luther souvenirs has been driven by this year's celebrations, Ruske noted.

“There are Luther noodles, Luther tomatoes, Luther chocolate and also Luther coffee. There are many great products that we sell… but there are also bizarre souvenirs. But as long as the demand is there, there'll always be offers,” said Ruske.

'Luther noodles' on sale. Photo: DPA.

The tourism office itself has been stocking 500 Playmobil figurines of Luther every month over the past year. “But they keep selling out,” she said.

In fact, the 7.5 cm (3-inch) figure with a quill and a Bible “translated by Doctor Martin Luther” has become the German toymaker's bestseller of all time.

Everything is marketed

Toy store owner Kathrin Seliger, who has not sold any of the €395 giant teddy bears yet, acknowledged that the “Luther spirit is somewhat lost as everything is being marketed”.

German retiree Renate Lukas, who was visiting on a day trip, said: “We are very happily celebrating the Reformation, but it should perhaps not be so kitschy.”

Where should the line be drawn?

For Ruske, “it's up to the visitors to decide when it all becomes too much.”

“If someone wants to eat Luther, wear Luther, smell Luther or drink Luther, is that too much? If that makes the visitor happy, then… please go ahead,” she said.

At the commemorative door of the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) where Luther is believed to have nailed his theses, South Korean senior pastor Lee Won Jae was explaining the significance of the site to a group of 22 fellow churchgoers.

“We have visited to celebrate the 500 years of Reformation and we want to learn from the spirit of Luther,” Lee said.

The group was on a tour of key sites in the Reformation movement, including Luther's birthplace Eisleben and Worms, where he was summoned to appear before authorities of the Holy Roman Empire on charges of heresy.

For the pastor, the souvenirs bearing Luther's image or writing serve a purpose.

“Every means that makes people think of Luther is important… because they would also think of the spirit of Reformation,” said Lee.

Photo: DPA.

By Hui Min Neo


Mosques in Cologne to start broadcasting the call to prayer every Friday

The mayor of Cologne has announced a two-year pilot project that will allow mosques to broadcast the call to prayer on the Muslim day of rest each week.

Mosques in Cologne to start broadcasting the call to prayer every Friday
The DITIP mosque in Cologne. Photo: dpa | Henning Kaiser

Mosques in the city of the banks of the Rhine will be allowed to call worshippers to prayer on Fridays for five minutes between midday and 3pm.

“Many residents of Cologne are Muslims. In my view it is a mark of respect to allow the muezzin’s call,” city mayor Henriette Reker wrote on Twitter.

In Muslim-majority countries, a muezzin calls worshippers to prayer five times a day to remind people that one of the daily prayers is about to take place.

Traditionally the muezzins would call out from the minaret of the mosque but these days the call is generally broadcast over loudspeakers.

Cologne’s pilot project would permit such broadcasts to coincide with the main weekly prayer, which takes place on a Friday afternoon.

Reker pointed out that Christian calls to prayer were already a central feature of a city famous for its medieval cathedral.

“Whoever arrives at Cologne central station is welcomed by the cathedral and the sound of its church bells,” she said.

Reker said that the call of a muezzin filling the skies alongside church bells “shows that diversity is both appreciated and enacted in Cologne”.

Mosques that are interested in taking part will have to conform to guidelines on sound volume that are set depending on where the building is situated. Local residents will also be informed beforehand.

The pilot project has come in for criticism from some quarters.

Bild journalist Daniel Kremer said that several of the mosques in Cologne were financed by Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, “a man who opposes the liberal values of our democracy”, he said.

Kremer added that “it’s wrong to equate church bells with the call to prayer. The bells are a signal without words that also helps tell the time. But the muezzin calls out ‘Allah is great!’ and ‘I testify that there is no God but Allah.’ That is a big difference.”

Cologne is not the first city in North Rhine-Westphalia to allow mosques to broadcast the call to prayer.

In a region with a large Turkish immigrant community, mosques in Gelsenkirchen and Düren have been broadcasting the religious call since as long ago as the 1990s.

SEE ALSO: Imams ‘made in Germany’: country’s first Islamic training college opens its doors