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Beyond Germany's elections -- celebrating Luther


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    Statue of Luther - Wittenberg

    - Stephen Beard

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    Astrid Muehlmann - " Millions will come to see this door"

    - Stephen Beard

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    Wittenberg Castle church under renovation.

    - Stephen Beard

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    American teacher Leslie Speicher  holding hands with Luther's wife.

    "I'm becoming more German."

    - Stephen Beard

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    Bettina Brett - a guide at the Luther Museum in Wittenberg.

    "Fun-loving but careful"

    - Stephen Beard

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    Wittenberg prepares for tourism bonanza. One local restuarant offers "good Lutheran food".

    - Stephen Beard

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     Wittenberg town centre

    - Stephen Beard

The German government is preparing for a major influx of visitors, converging on a church door in the small town of Wittenberg, south of Berlin. A door may seem an odd tourist attraction, but it’s a different matter when the door is the one where Martin Luther reputedly nailed his 95 Theses in 1517, launching the Reformation and giving rise to Protestantism.

The  door that you see in Wittenberg today is not the original. That burned down in 1760 and was replaced by a bronze memorial replica in the 19th century. Nevertheless, the German government is pinning its hopes of a tourism bonanza on this door.

“We’re expecting millions of people to come to Germany in 2017 for the 500th anniversary of the birth of Protestantism,” says Astrid Muelhmann, a government official working on the commemoration. “We hope they will visit Wittenberg and many other Reformation-related sites around the country that we have been renovating and restoring.”

This isn’t just  about tourism. This is a chance for Germany to celebrate its past for a change and to focus the international spotlight on some of the positive German values that flowed from the Reformation, like the  Protestant work ethic.

“Protestants perceive work as a kind of devotion to please God,” says economist Gustav Horn. “This is something that’s deep within the German soul, the protestant soul, at least.”

Protestantism, according to Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, was one of the reasons the West pulled ahead of the rest of the world because it made a religion out of hard work and making money. And with its emphasis on scripture, it spread literacy.

But Gustav Horn says Germany’s Protestant faith may have also left the country with its deep aversion to debt, not always a good thing.  “The German word for debt -- schulde -- is the same word as a moral failure,” Horn says. “So the connotation is quite clear. If you have a high debt burden, you have morally failed. We do take this obsession with debt a bit too far.”

Protestant guilt -- it’s a truism, but it certainly exists in Germany today, claims Leslie Speicher, an American teacher who  settled in Wittenberg more than a decade ago. Over the years she has found herself becoming ever more anxious, ever more German.

“I take things more seriously," she says. “I plan. I save. And I have insurance for everything from broken nails to broken glass!”

There is one school of thought that says here lies the only ultimate solution to the eurozone debt crisis:  Germany needs another cultural shift -- like the Reformation. To end, the big imbalances with its southern neighbors, the country should loosen up, stop saving, and spend, spend, spend.

“That sounds good! That sounds like fun,” laughs Bettina Brett, who works as a guide at the Luther Museum in Wittenberg. “But you have to pay for the fun. I would like to have a bit more fun. I’d like to go on a very long vacation -- if I could afford it. It’s absolutely German to be careful.”

A second Reformation doesn’t seem to be on its way.

About the author

Stephen Beard is the European bureau chief and provides daily coverage of Europe’s business and economic developments for the entire Marketplace portfolio.
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Really, "the only ultimate solution"? I had to listen to that section of the podcast again to make sure I heard it correctly. Wow.

I was astonished by this piece. I thought I was the only person in the world who remembered that the protestant rebellion was actually an economic coup, and the Catholic economy it overthrew was infinitely more humane to working people and to the poor. Our idea that health care should not be tied to profits came from the Catholic states--and Henry VIII's first protestant act was to privatize St. Barthalemew's, a hospital for all without charge since England's third century--until protestantism. Our ideals of a 'common' in which certain fundamental services and goods remain for the use of all rather than privately owned came from the Catholic states. One third of the year were holidays, complete with feasting and rations of mead. University was always free, and there were more men and women enrolled in college in the thirteenth century than now, relative to the population. The regulation for the common good of both profits and wages is a Catholic idea, and one to which we need return! It is my thesis that communism was what happened when the Catholic states were overthrown, out of necessity. The Catholic confessional states were socialist to the heart, as Pius XI recognized in one encyclical, the kind of 'moderate' socialism that recognizes the rights of private property but also mitigates the harshness of life for many unless with a safety net, and the Catholic states provided that safety net, often funded by the voluntary labor of the religious orders, who worked for love of God and funded their otherwise childless retirements by communal living, an idea protestantism finds odious, since to that avaricious bunch both celibacy and community are impossible. zProtestantism emptied the monasteries and convents. Our idea that human life is sacred comes from the Catholic legacy. Our common law comes from the Catholic states--what little is left of it, that protestantism has not been able to excise. It has been five hundred years and the dream of the Catholic state is not dead yet, nor as unknown as I had thought. The devils! Give us back our peaceful lives! Give us back our Catholic states!

I listened to this piece with interest and then heard the following: " the only ultimate solution". In a story about Luther. Really? Insensitive at best - the phrase made my Jewish/Protestant skin crawl.

Yeah, that was a very poor choice of words.

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