Unexpected Sites of WWI Remembrance: Wittenberg

This month marks a kind of reset for The Pietist Schoolman, in two respects. First, I’m going to revive this blog, writing more regularly and less haphazardly than I have in recent months. Second, I just returned from my first trip to Europe since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. With my friend and frequent travel partner, Sam Mulberry, I spent a busy week criss-crossing Germany.

That journey was mostly meant to scout sites for a 2023 Pietist Schoolman Travel tour — more on that later this summer! But along the way, I also found myself thinking about other themes that are familiar to this blog, but not what I expected to encounter on our trip. First, how people remembered the First World War…

The sanctuary of the city church of St. Mary’s in Wittenberg, Germany

In a sense, both this blog and my interest in historical travel start with WWI and its commemoration. Back when I launched Pietist Schoolman in the summer of 2011, an early series walked day-by-day through what I expected to do on a travel course about World War I. Actually teaching that course four times (with Sam) both led to the birth of my own small historical tour company and sparked my interest in the commemoration of wars.

As I’ve noted before, Germans tended to be much more subtle, even muted in their commemoration of WWI than the Allies. Not always by choice: as they gathered their dead on the French and Belgian land that made up the Western Front, Germans were prohibited from adorning any of their cemeteries with more than a single significant sculpture. But even in Germany itself, you can go through a town and not notice any substantial public remembrance of a conflict that took the lives of two million German soldiers.

That’s certainly what I expected when we arrived in the Saxon city of Wittenberg. Of course, we were there primarily to think about the Protestant Reformation. Having already climbed the Wartburg and spent the night in Martin Luther’s former monastery in Erfurt, we were bound to conclude our tour of Luther Land with a day in what’s still called “Lutherstadt Wittenberg.”

But at St. Mary’s Church, where Luther preached thousands of sermons and the reformer appears as a disciple at the Last Supper in the central panel of Lucas Cranach the Younger’s famous altarpiece, there’s not one, but two WWI memorials. First, a simple memorial on a column to the right of the altarpiece.

A plaque erected in 1928 by a Lutheran pastors’ association pays tribute to “our brothers who fell for the Fatherland in the World War, 1914-1918.” Above it, an image of Jesus is accompanied by the concluding words of Romans 14:8: “If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.”

I shouldn’t actually have been surprised to see such commemoration in the building that has long functioned as Wittenberg’s Stadtkirche (city church). That small memorial offers a reminder that (Protestant) church and state weren’t separated in Germany even after WWI replaced the Kaiserreich with the Weimar Republic.

In any event, it’s simple, moving, and appropriate to the space. Translated into English, it wouldn’t look out of place in a British, Canadian, Australian, or American church from the same time.

More striking — and more deeply connected to the theme of Wittenberg as “Lutherstadt” — is the small chapel at the rear of the church, where the dead soldiers of Wittenberg are listed, year by year from 1914 to 1918, on two facing walls.

The first is illustrated with a painting of the Crucifixion and headed with the conclusion of Luther’s 1524 Pentecost hymn, “Come, Holy Ghost, God and Lord.” One English translation renders the text this way: “Lord, by thy power prepare each heart / and to our weakness strength impart / that bravely here we may contend, / through life and death to thee, our Lord, ascend.”

On the other wall is an image of the Resurrection (another painting by Cranach the Younger), with a verse from Luther’s Easter hymn, “Christ lay in death’s bonds,” also written in 1524. Translated relatively literally, it reads: “It was a wondrous war / when life and death wrestled; / Life held onto victory, / death was devoured.”

(Here’s Richard Massie’s more elegant English version of the same hymn.)