The Reformation celebrates its 500th anniversary
No spark of enthusiasm for the present

The Wittenberg Panorama was amongst the most successful events to mark the anniversary of the Reformation
The Wittenberg Panorama was amongst the most successful events to mark the anniversary of the Reformation | Photo: © asisi

“Successful experiment” or “grandiose self-deception”? Opinions on the success of the events to mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation vary tremendously.

The visitors to the 360 degree panorama put their heads together and whisper: “Look there is Johann Tetzel selling letters of indulgence.” “And is that not Martin Luther over there in the brown friar’s habit on the way to the Schlosskirche?” Yes, this is how it might have been 500 years ago, when the Reformation first started – in Wittenberg: The narrow streets milling with people and animals, the sound of cockerels crowing at daybreak, while just outside the town gates you can hear the roar and tumult of battle, heralding the Peasant Wars. Many tourists who visited Wittenberg this year wanted to immerse themselves in the aura of the past. Yadegar Asisi’s Wittenberg Panorama attracted 300,000 guests – more than for any other event connected with the anniversary of the Reformation.
On Reformation Day 2017, on 31 October, exactly 500 years after Martin Luther published his 95 theses, the series of anniversaries reaches both its climax and conclusion. The Protestant Church spent ten years – the “Reformation decade” preparing for it, and “Reformation ambassador”, famous theologian Margot Kässmann, toured the world for five years to promote this highly significant event. In the last 12 months in large and small community halls, museums and town halls people were reminded about the epoch-making event that was the Reformation, hundreds of church communities issued invitations to lectures panel discussions and concerts. And the Federal government and its states hosted three major “national” exhibitions that outlined what implications the Reformation had for the Germans and the world. The anniversary marathon cost many millions of euros. Was it worth it? Time to take stock.

Three national special exhibitions

The winners include the historical venues of the Reformation. The Luther House and Schlosskirche in Wittenberg, the Wartburg in Eisenach, and the house where Luther was born in Eisleben were lavishly restored and attracted hundreds of thousands of tourists from Germany and abroad. People continue to be fascinated by the past. The three national special exhibitions also pulled the crowds: 215,000 people were interested in “Luther and the Germans” at the Wartburg; no less than 50,000 visitors found out all about the “Luther Effect” and the spread of Protestantism around the world in Berlin’s Gropiusbau; and 150,000 tourists gazed at the “95 Treasures – 95 People” in the Luther House in Wittenberg.
Sadly, this fascination for the past was not transformed into enthusiasm for the present. Any hopes among church offices that through the anniversary interest might be sparked in the current messages of the Church were largely dashed. At the “2017 Church Convention Roadshow” in East Germany many venue halls remained empty. Similarly, the comprehensive 25 million euro “World Reformation Exhibition – Gates of Freedom” did not live up to organizers’ high expectations. In seven gateways, each devoted to a specific topic and dotted around Wittenberg’s Old Town, the exhibition (lasting four months) demonstrated what it means to be Protestant today. Some 80 societies, organizations and regional churches issued invitations to over 2,000 services, panel discussions and concerts. Visitors could find out about environmental protection, the work done for world peace and justice, but also “the experience of baptism” or could encounter a “Robot priest” called BlessU-2. It was not always easy to detect a central theme, at times protestant diversity was so varied as to be confusing. “We have not had the numbers we expected,” commented Wittenberg’s mayor at half-time in June. By then just 70,000 tickets had been sold. In the end the organizing association notched up 294,000 visitors, having originally reckoned with 500,000. Nonetheless, “Reformation ambassador” Kässmann spoke of a “successful experiment overall”.
The fact that not as many people came as the Church might have wished also had its advantages: Nobody had to queue, there was no shoving. “Pleasant atmosphere here,” said a couple from the Netherlands that looked at the Schlosskirche mid-September.

Gigantic further education provision

However, East German theologian Friedrich Schorlemmer and Christian Wolff, for many years the priest at St. Thomas Church in Leipzig, were critical of their Church, arguing the anniversary year had been a “grandiose self-deception”. There had, they suggested been a failure to “talk openly about the crisis of the Church in a secular society” or to develop new visions. The Church was losing importance with increasing intensity. The two theologians are correct in saying that the Reformation decade did not lead to the Church being jolted out of its complacency. Nonetheless, the ten years were not in vain. The many hundreds of books, essays and research projects the anniversary spawned, the many lectures and discussion in parishes and academies were akin to a gigantic further training program, and gave many Protestants a new sense of self-assurance. Not only will there be a certain knock-on effect, it can also be expected that here and there people will feel inspired to be more creative without the pressure of having to produce record numbers of visitors.