Just over eight years ago, I tried to visit the Lutheran pilgrimage site of Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, the town where Martin Luther first rebelled against Rome. However, I was distracted by a couple American women with a bottle of wine, so I never quite made it until this past weekend. Jenny and I spent Saturday in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg and split Sunday between Dessau and Magdeburg. In Wittenberg, we learned about the history or the religion in which we were both raised. In Dessau, we learned about a prominent form of architecture. Finally, in Magdeburg, we saw the horrible architecture caused by the Soviet rebuilding after World War II and an interesting attempt to change that legacy.
Lutherstadt-Wittenberg is a very cute little city, although it would probably be just another damaged eastern German town if not for the historical connections. Millions of Lutheran pilgrims have visited the city, so its economy and old city seem much more stable than those of Dessau and Magdeburg. There’s a nice Market Square that is a bit reminiscent of Prague’s Old Town Square, some decent restaurants, and some old churches and schools.
One of those churches, the Schlosskirche (Castle Church) is where Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses proposing changes to Catholicism. Actually, there seems to be good reason to doubt that Luther ever actually nailed the paper to the door, but it’s such a key part of the mythology that you just have to accept it when you’re there. It also has a tower that dominates the city and carries the German words for Luther’s great hymn A Mighty Fortress is our God.
The other major church in town, the Marienkirche, was the site of the first Mass ever performed in German. Sadly, it’s also home to a more disturbing legacy, with an anti-Semitic carving on the outside that combines images of Pigs with a holy Hebrew phrase. Fortunately, the city has realized the mistake, and has apologized through another monument below that one that honors the millions of Jews murdered in the Holocaust.
We also spent a couple hours in the comprehensive Lutherhaus museum. It’s a good place to go to learn about the history of the Reformation, the reasons for it, and the bloody consequences of it. We were glad, though, that we’d seen the recent film about Luther, because it would have been very confusing otherwise.
Seeing some more recent history, we also walked to the edge of town to see a school that the crazy Austrian architect Hundertwasser has designed. We had seen a train station he had remodeled in Uelzen, but he had let his imagination run more more freely with this school. There were trees growing out of the building, staircases that looked like they were melting, and wild colors everywhere.
The evening in Wittenberg was a bit of a surprise. It seems we stumbled into town on the day of their biggest town festival, the Wittenberger Erlebnisnacht (literally, the Wittenberg Experience Night). There were many varied events happening in the old town, from reggae or klezmer or rock music to hand-cranked carousels to midnight fireworks to artists painting a near-nude (the model had on a bra and a thong) to presentations on Luther’s life to costumed people on stilts dancing to a solo soprano sax. Unfortunately, we were too tired from our day of walking through the city really to enjoy it all, but it was fun to see the formerly-communist and very-Lutheran town loosen up. I don’t think the Lutherans from northern Minnesota would have approved.
Sunday morning, we headed to Dessau to visit the home of the Bauhaus movement. We really didn’t know much about Bauhaus except that it was influential and that the big annual party thrown by Washington University’s Architecture students was named for it, but we decided to learn. The Bauhaus building in Dessau is a bit away from the center of the city, and it really didn’t look that interesting to us at first glance. Apparently, that’s more a measure of the influence that Bauhaus has had than a comment on the style; when it was created, it was revolutionary. Now, it’s normal.
The basic principle of Bauhaus is that “Form follows Function,” so there is very little ornamentation. Instead, almost all angles are right angles, the colors are almost all neutral, and the chairs surprisingly comfortable. Although the building looks normal or boring now, it was considered degenerate art by the Nazis since a flat roof was not German.
In all, we appreciated the innovations of the building (I really liked the seats in the auditorium), but we’re still suckers for the pretty Gothic or neo-Renaissance buildings. Oh well.
After leaving the Bauhaus building, we walked to the center of the city to see some of the older buildings. Unfortunately, there weren’t many left. Dessau had been the home of a Nazi airplane factory, so it was almost completely flattened (the Bauhaus building was damaged, but survived). We took a couple pictures downtown of the few non-Soviet-crap buildings, dodged the bicyclists racing through the streets, and headed on.
Magdeburg was one of the great cities of Germany in the middle ages, but you wouldn’t really know it. Like Dessau, it was almost completely flattened by Allied bombing in World War II. Like Dessau, it didn’t recover well. Magdeburg is about three times the size of Dessau, so much more was rebuilt in the center. Unfortunately, the major buildings of downtown all look alike – big boxes that use boring geometric patterns as “decoration.” As an individual building, it’s ok. As block after block (with each block looking as though it could have come out of Moscow or Bucharest), it’s depressing.
The best example of rebuilding we saw happened after the fall of Communism, which shouldn’t be a surprise. One of the most important church in the city before the war was Johanniskirche, a large Gothic church near the Rathaus. After bombing, it was just a shell, and it remained so for fifty years. However, after communism fell, they put back together what they could, rebuilt the towers, and put in a new roof and public space. The building is now a concert/congress hall in the center of the city while simultaneously a memorial to the war. Also, the views from the tower are the best in the city. This is a great example of reuse without destroying. Too bad the Soviets never learned how to do that.
We also saw another example of the crazy Dr. Seuss-like work of Hundertwasser. His last design before he died was a huge new PINK shopping center to be placed near the cathedral. It’s still under construction, but it shows all the hallmarks of his work, from the lack of right angles to multi-colored bulbous columns. We say many local residents circling the building with confused faces. At least it’s more interesting than the repetitive junk from the Soviet era that surrounds it.
In a way, Hundertwasser is probably the closest possible opposite to Bauhaus, and it was a good way to cap the weekend.
For me, the architecture and the religious history was the highlight of the weekend. For Jenny, the berries were the highlight. As we were walking through Dessau along railroad tracks from the Bauhaus to the center, she saw a Blackberry bush. She attacked with fury, eating handfuls of berries as quickly as she could pick them. At home, Jenny is an accomplished gardener with many berries, and not picking berries from her own garden is one of the hardest things she’s had to accept about living in Germany for the summer.
For just a few minutes next to a railroad track, she was back in her garden and lost in bliss.