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500th Anniversary of the Reformation – Towns in Brandenburg discover their Reformation history

Luther linden tree in Treuenbrietzen. Photo: Uwe Tresp.

Luther linden tree in Treuenbrietzen. Photo: Uwe Tresp.

If you visit a Brandenburg town, you are likely to happen upon benches, tables, lecterns, and gates made of rust-brown metal. You will find them in market squares, in front of churches, monuments, town halls, and in open meadows. In the sunlight each piece of furniture casts a cross-shaped shadow. They are exhibits commemorating the Reformation in the region. “We want to guide people through towns, to authentic historic sites,” according to Dr. Uwe Tresp and Dr. Sascha Bütow from the Historical Institute at the University of Potsdam. Since 2013, they have been working on an exhibition promoting the history of the Reformation in Brandenburg.

In 2017 we will celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation: On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther is said to have nailed his 95 Theses to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. In fact, the celebrations will span an entire “Luther decade”. Events commemorating the religious and social change sparked by Luther in the early 16th century have been ongoing since 2007. After all, the Reformation itself was not a single event, but rather a gradual process shaped by many debates.

For their project “Preachers and Citizens. Reformation in everyday urban life” researchers specializing in the early modern period from the Historical Institute at the University of Potsdam researched the history of the Reformation in Brandenburg. Led by Prof. Dr. Heinz-Dieter Heimann, Tresp and Bütow drafted their communication concept for the exhibition. The Brandenburg-based working group “Towns with historic centers”, a long-term collaborative partner of the Historical Institute, has coordinated the project. Detlef Saalfeld, Professor of Room and Exhibition Design at the University of Applied Sciences in Potsdam, designed the “street furniture”. The exhibition is also supposed to attract tourists, since the anniversary of the Reformation is a good opportunity to highlight the attractiveness of Brandenburg towns: “In recent years, the historic town centers have been thoroughly renovated. Now we want to bring more life to them and show off their beauty,” Tresp says. For those interested in education and culture, informative walks are planned around the street furniture.

Eight towns in the south of Brandenburg were initially involved in the project: Herzberg, Doberlug-Kirchhain, Mühlberg, Jüterbog, Treuenbrietzen, Uebigau-Wahrenbrück, Bad Liebenwerda and Brück. Last summer, Mühlberg on the river Elbe was the first to open its local Reformation exhibition. Bad Belzig and Luckau, also members of the working group “Towns with historic centers”, have since joined the project. The project is open to adding any town interested in having its own Reformation exhibition and that is able to allocate the necessary funding. “We prepare a specific communication concept for each town, because the Reformation impacted each place differently,” Bütow explains.

The “opening element” installed at a central location is a map of the places related to the history of the Reformation in the respective town. From here, paths are drawn to places of historic interest. Some of them have survived for centuries, like the Luther linden tree in Treuenbrietzen – a legendary tree where Luther is said to have preached in the late 1530s. In other towns, traces of the Reformation are not as evident. In Herzberg, for instance, a street name is all that remains of the former Augustinian monastery. The Reformation exhibition helps bring such historic places to life.

Bütow and Tresp, along with their assistant Felix Engel, have equipped the street furniture with texts and pictures about the historic importance of each place. The pieces of furniture have an allegoric character and represent the town discussions that sparked the Reformation. Thus, a table symbolizes the primarily citizen-initiated disputes during the Reformation: The table at which discussions were held is meant to symbolize the Reformation as a collaborative process “from below”. The lectern stands for the preacher’s pulpit; the gate marks the “entrance” to the Reformation. Information boards of the same design as the street furniture are also installed. “We are opening up the history of the town for its inhabitants and visitors to experience and grasp,” Bütow says. In this project, Tresp and Bütow see themselves more as “exhibition organizers” than historians.

The participating towns in the south of Brandenburg have a special connection to the Reformation, given that they were part of the Electorate of Saxony in those years. Only in the 19th century did they become Brandenburgers. “People in the south are well aware of their Saxon past,” Tresp explains. For many of them, the connection to Luther’s influence on Saxony is plain to see and forms part of their regional identity. In the first towns to support the Reformation in Saxony, citizens played a major role. They initiated discussions and disputes, while the Electorate of Brandenburg converted to Protestantism in 1539 by a decree of Joachim II (1505-1571), i.e. “from above”. Luther did not visit all towns participating in the project, but he did travel to Liebenwerda (now a spa town) in 1519 for a disputation with papal nuncio Karl von Miltitz (ca. 1490-1529), drafted new school regulations for Herzberg with reformer Philipp Melanchthon (1497-1560), and went to Brück in 1530 as part of a visitation commission. He also probably visited Treuenbrietzen, although there is no evidence for it.

“Jüterbog is a beacon of the project,” Bütow says. Here Johann Tetzel (1460-1519) sold indulgences, a practice criticized by Luther in his 95 Theses. More and more Christians from Wittenberg traveled to Jüterbog to buy indulgences from Tetzel, which is why people in Jüterbog say: “Without us, there would have been no Reformation“. A section of the Jüterbog Museum in the cultural quarter of the monastery is dedicated to the Reformation, but the town is particularly proud of the “Tetzel chest” in St. Nicholas church. “Nobody knows the true story behind the Tetzel chest,” Tresp says. Rumor has it that this was where Tetzel collected the money he received for indulgences, through which sinners could buy salvation. Tetzel was reportedly carrying the chest while on his way to Cardinal Albrecht of Brandenburg (1490-1545) – who was archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg and usually resided in Halle – when robbers attacked him and returned the chest to Jüterbog. “It is a 500-year-old legend,” Bütow says. Jüterbog was awarded the European Heritage Label of the Reformation in 2012.

“Since at least the 1980s, the cultural heritage of the Reformation has been rediscovered, and people have come to recognize that Brandenburg boasts some of its authentic locations,” Tresp explains. In 2017, Reformation Day (31 October) will be introduced as a national holiday throughout Germany. Lutherstadt Wittenberg and Torgau, both partner towns of the Reformation alliance in Brandenburg, will be the main venues of the celebrations. But the Reformation was not limited to one or two places; it spread and made massive waves. The project makes very clear that history is all around us; it is always there, but needs to be made accessible. So why not put up benches and tables and invite the people of Brandenburg and their visitors to sit down, discuss, and reflect.

Text: Jana Scholz, Translation: Monika Wilke
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
Contact Us: onlineredaktion@uni-potsdam.nomorespam.de