People are not palimpsests

WACC Deputy General Secretary Philip Lee is facilitating a summer school for graduate students marking the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.

An ominous wall in the town of Torgau, near Lutherstadt-Wittenberg. Photo: Philip Lee.

The famous doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg are certainly where Martin Luther’s 95 theses were nailed, but whether Luther himself did so is an open question. He may have sent an assistant. Nobody knows.

The actual doors disappeared in 1760 after the Prussian Army shelled the fortress during the Seven Years War. The Castle Church was destroyed by fire and neither of the wooden portals survived. In 1858, King Frederick William IV ordered commemorative bronze doors to be constructed on which the theses were inscribed in the original Latin.

Today’s doors are a palimpsest – something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form – in this case a reminder of a moment in history that has acquired great significance for over 72 million Lutherans worldwide.

Across from the church doors, hidden behind high walls, is another palimpsest. An overgrown garden contains the graves and a memorial to Red Army soldiers who died liberating Wittenberg from the German Army in 1945. The garden was regularly maintained until reunification in 1990. Now it is forlorn and unremarked by the many visitors to the Castle Church.

The week-long Summer School taking place in the grounds of Wittenberg Castle is host to some 20 international students supported by seven teaching staff. Together they are exploring different aspects of “Communication rights in the digitised global society”. Media and religion, gender justice, media landscapes, freedom of religion and freedom of expression, and religious tolerance are all under discussion.

Some of the students visited the nearby town of Torgau, where Luther’s feisty wife, Katharina von Bora, is buried in St Mary’s Church. Until recently, the town concealed an ugly aspect of its recent history under the German Democratic Republic. From 1964 to 1989, the ministry of education ran a secret juvenile detention centre with barred windows and surrounded by high walls, a watchtower, searchlights, and ferocious dogs.

Its purpose was to “re-educate girls and boys” – a euphemism for re-integrating them into the socialist system under a brutal regime of discipline aimed at breaking their spirit. Four thousand youths passed through the GDR’s only closed “care” institution. Some of their photos can be seen and some of their voices can be heard in the exhibition in their former “home” now open to the public.

The State tried to make palimpsests of human beings, to write over or to rub out the lives of young people who, for different reasons, rebelled against the system or, in some instances, simply wanted to escape the repression of the GDR. The photo of one of them can be seen, staring out of a lower window.

The Summer School at Wittenberg’s Protestant Academy is shaping students who will likely go on to help rewrite political and social injustice by advocating communication rights. One less well-known aspect is the right to memory. People are not palimpsests.

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