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Germany’s Luther Country: Wittenberg, Erfurt, and Wartburg Castle (7:38)

Erfurt, Germany

We follow in the footsteps of Martin Luther, a monk who changed the world. After Luther studied in Erfurt, he taught, preached, and kicked off the Protestant Reformation in Wittenberg. He hid out in Wartburg Castle, where he translated the Bible into German.

Complete Video Script

Germany is compact, with an impressive infrastructure. Within a few hours, we’re in eastern Germany, and Martin Luther country.

In 1517 the German monk Martin Luther was a professor here in the university town of Wittenberg. As professors routinely did back then, he tacked some points for discussion on the door of the church — which served as a kind of bulletin board for the university community. These 95 points, questioning practices of the Roman Catholic Church, kicked off more than a discussion. They kicked off the Protestant Reformation.

Martin Luther unleashed a world of change. The Reformation was a political and theological storm that divided Christendom in western Europe into Roman Catholics and Protestants. It ignited a century of religious wars and, along with the humanism of the Renaissance, it helped bring Western civilization out of the Middle Ages and into the modern world.

2017 marked the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and eastern Germany is famous for its Lutherstadts, or “Luther cities,” and sights associated with that tumultuous time.

The three most interesting Reformation stops are Erfurt, where Luther studied and first became a monk; Wartburg, the castle where he famously hid out and translated the Bible into German; and Wittenberg, where he taught, preached, and led the Reformation.

Luther went to law school here in Erfurt, and today, this half-timbered medieval town, with a shallow river gurgling through its center, remains an charming destination that Luther himself would recognize.

Erfurt’s atmospheric Merchants' Bridge is lined with shops and homes. Then, as now, merchants live upstairs above their shops.

This is the land of fairy tales and the Brothers Grimm, fine woodcarvers, and fanciful puppets. You can peek into the workshop of Martin Gobsch. Observe him at work. And don’t leave without popping a coin into his tiny theater. The evil queen welcomes you into the dreamy world of Snow White. Separate vignettes tell the story. It all leads to the happy ending, when the charming prince whisks Snow White away.

Back in 1505, as a young student, Martin Luther became a monk in Erfurt’s Augustinian monastery. In this church he gave his first Mass. Its small museum includes Luther artifacts and the simple cell where the novice monk lived. Little did they know that this humble novice would change the course of European history.

Nearby is Wittenberg. Around 1500, the local ruler, Frederick the Wise, was establishing the town as his capital. He invited young Martin Luther to join the faculty of his university.

The main square is dominated by its town hall and a statue remembering the “Great Reformer.”

Wittenberg's top sight is the Lutherhaus, where Luther lived. Today it’s an excellent museum displaying original artifacts — the pulpit from which Luther preached, portraits of Luther and the other reformers, and the Bible Luther boldly translated from Latin into the people’s language.

Five hundred years ago, the selling of forgiveness and church corruption stoked public discontent with the Roman Church, which led to the Reformation. This is a letter of indulgence, one of countless fund-raising coupons the Church issued. These were sold to the faithful for religious favors such as reducing time for dead loved ones in purgatory. Their money would fill boxes like this, and eventually ended up in Rome to fund the pope’s lavish world. Corruption like this inspired Luther to confront the Church.

And it was the invention of the printing press with movable type by Gutenberg in the same generation that enabled reformers like Luther to spread their ideas. Luther wrote in the peoples’ language, and sold more than a quarter million booklets like these. Like social media empowers popular movements today, Luther’s pamphlets went viral. He was the bestselling German writer of the 16th century.

Wartburg Castle is a popular stop on the Luther trail. When Luther spoke out against Church corruption, he was declared an outlaw and needed to run for his life. A sympathetic German prince gave him refuge. Disguised and under a fake name, Luther hid out here in this castle.

The actions of this solitary monk brought far-reaching changes.

Believing that everyone should be able to read the word of God, Luther began the daunting and dangerous task of translating the New Testament from the original Ancient Greek into German. He used simplified language — as he said, “like a mother talking to her children.” Just as the King James version of the Bible did for English, Luther's translation helped to establish a standard German language that's used to this day.

Luther's translation brought the Bible to the masses. As Germans actually read the Bible, they saw, as Luther had, that there was no mention of indulgences, purgatory, or even a pope. Just as the Church had feared, this further fanned the fires of reform.

This part of Germany was ground zero for the century of religious wars Luther’s reforms unwittingly unleashed.

A vivid portrayal of that tumultuous time with an intriguing communist twist can be seen above the town of Bad Frankenhausen. It’s a huge 360-degree panoramic painting commissioned in the 1980s by the communist East German government.

The Peasant’s War Panorama, 400 feet around, was painted as communist propaganda. It remembers the 6,000 peasants who were slaughtered in a single battle. Armed with little more than shovels, they rose up against the Church and the ruling class during the Reformation. The detail is vivid. Using this popular revolt 500 years ago, it hammers home a familiar theme during the Cold War. Whether 16th-century peasants or 20th-century workers, the people’s struggle is long and ongoing.

The panorama portrays more than just a horrible battle. It represents the bloody transition between the medieval and the modern worlds. At the base gather 20 great humanists, change agents at the end of the Middle Ages — Luther, Erasmus, Copernicus, Columbus, and more.

Above them rages the colossal battle under a rainbow, imperial troops on the left, doomed rabble on the right. Nearby an aristocratic couple dances before a gallows. The message? — The elites continue to win.

Until German unification in the late 1800s, Germany was fragmented, a collection of small independent states. After the Reformation, those in the north ended up Lutheran (or Protestant), and those in the south remained Roman Catholic.