Wittenberg has survived a lot of tumult — during the protestant reformation, the Thirty Years’ War, World War II, the Iron Curtain years—but climate change presents a whole new challenge. Though repairs and renovations were promptly carried out after 2002’s major flood, the probability of another inundation looms on the horizon.
There’s a reason why they call it a flood plain. Swollen by heavy rains and excessive snowmelt in the Czech mountains, in August 2002 the Elbe river raged through Saxony, looking for a place to spread out. When it reached Wittenberg, the Elbe was already 7.5m (25 ft.) higher than usual, ready to burst its banks. While the church spires of the old town center, set on higher ground north of the river, escaped the worst of it, the waters simply gushed into the flatter working-class suburb of Pratau, turning it into one big lagoon.
As the waters rose, the infrastructure of this former East German region was strained to the utmost. Wittenberg’s flood defenses were simply overwhelmed; the main road and railway connections were washed out for days. Residents were evacuated, and when they returned, they found their abandoned homes sodden and thick mud slopped everywhere.
Most of the sights of Wittenberg—officially renamed Lutherstadt Wittenberg, to honor its connection with the great religious reformer Martin Luther—are clustered mainly in the historic center, away from the industrial clutter of the modern town. Look for the round, crown-topped tower of the Schlosskirche at Friedrichstrasse 1A, where Martin Luther nailed his radical 95 Theses to the door in 1517 (the brass doors there today are a 19th-century addition, engraved with his theses—in church Latin, of course). Luther’s affectingly simple tomb is inside. Luther preached most of his dangerously dissident sermons, however, at the twin-towered Gothic parish church of Stadtkirche St. Marien, Judenstr. 35., where he’s even depicted in the great altarpiece painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder (you can see Cranach’s house on Marksplatz). After splitting from the Catholic faith, Luther—no longer bound by priestly celibacy—also married his wife, a former nun, in the Stadtkirche. Their family home, the Lutherhalle, Collegienstr. 54—a former Augustinian monastery disbanded at the start of the Reformation—has been turned into a museum displaying Luther’s desk, his pulpit, first editions of his books, and the wood-paneled lecture hall where he taught students. The towering Luthereiche (Luther’s Oak) at the end of Collegienstrasse outside the Elster gate commemorates the spot where Luther in 1520 defiantly burned the papal edict that excommunicated him. Statues of Luther and his humanist scholar friend, Philip Melancthon, have been erected in the cobbled central square, in front of the big white City Hall (Rathaus).