Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Reichstag and Wittenberg

We made good use of our last full day in Germany, starting with  a tour of the Reichstag Building's glass dome at 8:30 am. It was a chore getting up early enough, as we have not managed to adjust our sleep schedule since arrival last week. An architect built the dome on top of the august structure in the 1990s to symbolize German unification and the transparency of a democratic government. You can see the chamber of the Bundestag, or German parliament, by looking down the dome. Once we get through the security checkpoint, escorts take us to the elevator and from there we basically walk up a spiraling ramp inside the dome as our audio guide describes the urban landscape we see through the glass. The Federal Diet meets at the Reichstag to conduct legislation of the German republic. It’s a big election year for Germany. A key issue is immigration, the theme of the college course I'm prepping for here in Berlin. The election in September will either vindicate the “open door” policy of Chancellor Merkel or send her packing. Refreshingly, whatever one might think of him, the opposition frontrunner from the SPD is not a right-wing demagogue as we’ve seen in other recent elections throughout the Western world. After the Reichstag we hung out at a coffee shop on Pariser Platz with a nice view of the Brandenburg Gate to consider our next move.
I’ve always wanted to go to Wittenberg, a town in Saxony-Anhalt with a population less than 50,000, but it was always out of reach when I lived in Bavaria decades ago. An Augustinian friar named Martin Luther allegedly posted 95 theses onto the Church Castle door on 31 October 1517. Written in Latin, the theses condemned abuses of the Catholic Church, most notably the teaching on indulgences; Luther intended to provoke debate among the scholarly community rather than initiate a grass-roots or political revolution, let alone a break from the papacy. You'll note Jessi's facial expression posing as Luther in the photo. She struggled with a fitting impersonation of a sixteenth-century theologian. Unbeknownst to her, her mildly constipated look nailed it. Luther, almost by his own admission, arrived at his theological insight of justification by faith alone as he relieved himself in cloaca, on the toilet. If you will the Reformation exploded onto the scene out of the bowels of guilt and the search for restitution with God.

The Reformation would ultimately would split Western Christendom asunder and leave an enduring mark on the cultural and political landscapes of Europe. Lutherstadt Wittenberg, its official name since 1938, beckoned me as a place of Protestant pilgrimage. Moreover, I become intimately familiar with the writings of the reformers and got to know, as it were, the political and religious figures in sixteenth-century Wittenberg and Saxony. Admittedly, my reasons for wanting to see Wittenberg have changed a bit over the past twenty years or so; it’s less faith-based and more historical. Having spent a number of years studying this period of history has a lingering sentimentality. I see less through the eyes of piety but harbor an emotional attachment to this period of history nonetheless.  2017 being the 500th anniversary of the Reformation made a visit all the more imperative, so we took the train and spent about four hours there. I’ll spare you further musings on history.
Jessi and I enjoyed the visit. The cobblestone streets and numerous historical sites give Wittenberg a quaint medieval look. We checked out the Augustinian monastery and Lutherhaus but did not pay for the museum. The sun began to appear brightly as we headed toward All Saints’ Church, or Schlosskirche, where Luther posted his theses, though not much of the original building remains. Ironically, statutes of Protestant reformers adorn the interior of the church; the iconoclasts of yesteryear have become the icons of today. It’s a compelling need for humans to create heroes and lithic saints for their cause, whatever the political or religious ideology and despite a group’s protestations to the contrary.
We brunched at a restaurant called Witten Burger Grill & Bar. (Get it? Witten Burger! Oh how clever!). We enjoyed the gourmet burgers and conversation with a German couple from a rural area in Saxony-Anhalt who summoned us to their table. Somehow the conversation turned to the topic of potatoes. Jessi connected the dots in her experience so far, recalling the potatoes someone had strewn upon the grave of Frederick the Great at Sanssouci. At that time I explained that the Prussian monarch is credited with introducing the hardy tuber to Germany and thereby stirring the economy and feeding his people. The couple recommended that we grab some delicious soft serve ice cream and
fondly recalled eating the frozen treat in the days of the DDRsuch nostalgia a good reminder that East Germany wasn't all bad for the people who lived it. Later, we had coffee and sweets at the Wittenberg Brauhaus, a beautiful courtyard café. I hope to return to Wittenberg at least one more time in the future and explore the historical sites, as we had just taken a cursory look during the few hours we had today. We took the train back to Berlin and started to pack our things for tomorrow’s departure once we got to the hotel. I watched a bit of German TV, Jessi texted her significant other, and we munched on little Kinder Duplo Chocolate bars like it's nobody's business. That's our indulgence.