Luther never came to Berlin. While his adversary Johann Tetzel spent some time in the imperial capital selling his letters of indulgence just months before Luther nailed his thesis to the church door in Wittenberg, for Luther the little town on the River Spree with its population of barely 15,000 was not worth visiting.
And yet Berlin would not be Berlin without Luther. Just as he and his teaching shaped the nature of Prussia, he also changed the character of Berlin and its inhabitants when the citizens of Berlin and Cölln tasked their town councils with requesting the permission of the electoral prince Joachim II Hektor to take the Eucharist at Easter according to the Protestant ritual. On 1 November 1539 the electoral prince attended the service in Spandau’s St. Nicholas’ Church himself.
One only has to mention the name of one man, the priest and hymn writer Paul Gerhardt, to recognise the extent of the Protestant influence on Prussia and with it Berlin in the age of the Thirty Years’ War. His hymns, set to music by composers such as Johannes Crüger or Johann Sebastian Bach, shaped generations and with them, in no small measure, Berlin and Prussia.
Today, seventy years after the end of the Second World War and 25 years after the Reunification celebrations, Berlin is a city of religious diversity in which people from all over the world with or without a faith live together peacefully. One of the most important milestones for tolerant coexistence of the confessions was laid by Frederick II’s famous line “Every man must get to heaven in his own way”. He even went a step further: “And if Turks and Heathens come and want to populate the land, we will build them mosques and churches.”
This pronouncement of Frederick the Great’s is confirmed on a daily basis in today’s Berlin. With more than 3.5 million people from over 180 nations living in our city a large selection of mosques and churches belonging to various confessions is required. Year after year, the Long Night of Religions in Berlin shows the diversity of religious life in Berlin and emphatically refutes the theory of an early Bishop of Berlin that our city is “Godless”. The Long Night highlights rather the view of Benedict XVI that there are as many ways to God as there are people. Incidentally, that provides another link to Luther, who spent his life considering the search for God. It represents, as it were, the basis of all Lutheran thought and also enables people today to individually get close to a god that shows itself to each of us in a different way. This opens a Christian confession to everyone, whether they are an enthusiastic prayer or regular church-goer or not. Luther’s search for God is, then, an approach to the colourful world of Christianity.
With the Kirchentag of 2017 in Berlin and Wittenberg we honour the work of the great reformer Martin Luther, without whom the history of our city would have taken a very different course. He decisively influenced the development of Berlin from a small imperial seat to a metropolis home to millions, shaped the character of its inhabitants and transformed its spirit.
Michael Müller (SPD) is the incumbent Mayor of Berlin and host of the 2017 Kirchentag taking place in Berlin and Wittenberg.