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Germany marks 500 years since Diet of Worms

April 16, 2021

Showdown in Worms: Five centuries ago the monk and the emperor went face to face. Martin Luther refused to withdraw his criticism of what he saw as corruption and venality in the Catholic Church. The rest is history.

Deutschland Worms Lutherdenkmal
Image: Uwe Anspach/dpa/picture alliance

Martin Luther was a "pioneering figure," says 58-year-old clergywoman Jutta Herbert, pointing to his theology, his focus on the Bible, his steadfastness, the emphasis on education. All of this, she tells DW, has had a huge influence on who she is.

Jutta Herbert encounters the reformer most days. This is hardly surprising: After all, she is the dean of Germany's Protestant Protestant church in the south-western region off Worms-Wonnegau.

And the city of Worms provides the backdrop for one of the biggest Luther monuments in the world.

Jutta Herbert
Clergywoman Jutta Herbert in Worms sees Martin Luther as a pioneerImage: Dekanat Worms-Wonnegau

That, too, is no coincidence because it was in here in Worms that, 500 years ago, Luther — who had as a monk long been fiercelycritical of the Catholic church's leadership in Rome —  went head-to-head with Emperor Charles V.

Their showdown in April 1521 would later be seen as one of the decisive steps in what became known as the Protestant reformation.

Jubilation for Luther

Three and a half years earlier, Luther had shaken the Christian world when he published his famous Ninety-five Theses in the town of Wittenberg.

Already a well-known figure in the German-speaking world, he met with jubilation as he made his way from Wittenberg to Worms, further south. Contemporary sources report that he was accompanied by "a cheering crowd."

Now, once again, there is a celebration in the city of Worms as it marks the 500th anniversary and this very special weekend. However, in the treacherous times of COVID-19, little remains of a commemorative program that had so meticulously been put together.

On Friday, a special digital ceremony was held and attended via videolink by Germany's President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, himself a committed Protestant. And on Sunday a church service will be streamed live from Worms. Also, a multimedia show, "The Luther Moment," will be broadcast on German TV from the central market square, projecting the dramatic events of five centuries ago onto a church wall. There will, however, be no live audience of thousands — as had been eagerly anticipated.

Jutta Herbert is dismayed by how things have turned out. But she hopes that some of the commemorative events and encounters will still take place later in the year.

Bird's eye view of St. Peter and city of Worms
The Romanesque St Peter cathedral in WormsImage: Thomas Lohnes/epd/imago

International interest

The theologian has been based in Worms for decades and is well aware of the great significance of the Diet of Worms: "Even in ordinary years, we're regularly approached by groups and individuals from outside Germany." Many of them, she adds, had especially been looking forward to this historic 500th anniversary.

A major exhibition called "Here I stand. Conscience and Protest — 1521 to 2021" has been postponed for three months and is now set to open its doors in July.

The motto of the show clearly illustrates what it was all about 500 years ago. Luther (37) was determined to defend his new theology in the presence of the Catholic Emperor Charles V (21).

Luther, who had been excommunicated by the Church in the spring of 1521 for his theses, insisted that he could not go against his conscience and recant his views. His actual words were "God help me, Amen!" In the days that followed, Luther went into hiding in the legendary Wartburg castle in Thuringia.

From here on, the Reformation — the division between Luther and his supporters on the one side and the Catholic Church on the other — could not be stopped.

Visit Wartburg Castle near Eisenach

Ecumenical impact growing

And now, 500 years on? How successful is the ecumenical movement that aims to build bridges between the two main branches of the Christian church in today's Germany?

Taking Worms as an example, the latest figures from March this year show that the city has a population of just under 85,000. Of that number, 28.3% are Lutheran Protestants, while 23.4% are Catholics. Jutta Herbert insists that Worms is not only a Luther city but also a cathedral city. That is: it is both Protest and Catholic.

"Here in Worms, Catholics and Lutherans work very closely together," says Herbert, who speaks of "tried-and-tested cooperation." Never before have ecumenical considerations been so central to commemorative events marking the historic days of 1521. Among the speakers during the main ceremony, Steinmeier will also be joined by the head of Germany's Lutheran Protestant church, Heinrich Bedford-Strohm alongside the Catholic Bishop of Mainz, Peter Kohlgraf.

Worms Luther monument
The famous Luther Monument (Lutherdenkmal) was erected in Worms in 1968Image: Hans-Peter Marschall/imageBROKER/picture alliance

At the roots

Jutta Herbert points out that in the summer months a midday ecumenical service takes place in the cathedral every Saturday. What is more, local charities like the hospice movement and groups helping the homeless are coordinated ecumenically between the two churches.

Herbert is convinced that grass-roots Christians are happy to work together: "We've made a lot of progress. And we should avoid focusing too much on what divides us." Sunday will see a special ecumenical service in the cathedral.

Wittenberg: In the footsteps of Martin Luther

Jutta Herbert's Catholic counterpart, Dean Tobias Schäfer, believes that the city has a specific ecumenical character: "Because of its history, the city of Worms has an ecumenical obligation," Schäfer told DW. He also remembers the same ceremony back in 1971 as being the first to have an ecumenical character. A special initiative was launched jointly by Protestants and Catholics," he reports: The "Worms Memorandum" called for Luther's excommunication to be rescinded. It was sent as a letter to Pope Paul VI. But just a short while later, the proposal was dismissed in a firm but friendly response from a senior cardinal.

Luther in the cathedral

The Catholic clergyman Tobias Schäfer says that since 1971 the ecumenical movement has had a growing impact in the city. Jutta Herbert agrees, noting that, "fifty or sixty years ago, an image of Luther in the cathedral would have been unthinkable." For more than three decades now, a window in the cathedral's St. Anne's Chapel that depicts key episodes in the history of Worms has also included a depiction of Luther's appearance before Charles V. "In the past 500 years," says Jutta Herbert, "a lot has happened." Especially, she adds, "in the last fifty."

This article has been translated from German.

While you're here: Every Tuesday, DW editors round up what is happening in German politics and society, with an eye toward understanding this year's elections and beyond. You can sign up here for the weekly email newsletter Berlin Briefing, to stay on top of developments as Germany enters the post-Merkel era.

Deutsche Welle Strack Christoph Portrait
Christoph Strack Christoph Strack is a senior author writing about religious affairs.@Strack_C