Germany // Thuringia //

The Wartburg: cradle of culture

The Wartburg dominates German culture as much as it commands Eisenach’s skyline. It has its own saint for a start, St Elisabeth, a thirteenth-century Hungarian princess, betrothed to Landgrave Ludwig IV, who renounced courtly splendour to pursue an ascetic life caring for the sick. It was some court to snub, too. At the time Wartburg was considered to be one of the richest arts centres in Europe. The finest troubadour of his generation, Walther von der Vogelweide, clashed with Parsifal author Wolfram von Eschenbach in the celebrated Contest of Minstrels sing-offs; the winner of the six-strong Battle of the Bards met with princely favour, the loser the hangman’s noose.

Arguably, the most significant moment in the Wartburg’s history, though, was the arrival of Martin Luther in May 1521. Excommunicated and declared a heretic for refusing to renounce his doctrine at the Diet of Worms, the renegade priest was kidnapped by order of Saxony Elector Frederick the Wise and protected within the Wartburg’s mighty walls. The former cleanly shaven, tonsured monk remained incognito as bearded, tousle-haired Junker Jörg (Squire George) while he toiled for fourteen months over the first translation of the New Testament from Greek into the vernacular. For German Protestants that makes the Wartburg a holy of holies. For everyone else, Luther simultaneously propelled German into a modern language.

On October 18, 1817, five hundred students from eleven German universities met to celebrate a Wartburgfest. The jollies morphed into a rallying call for unity delivered to a nation of petty fiefdoms, and the first demand for democratic rights delivered to its ducal rulers. And when students of Jena university hoisted their fraternity flag above the fireplace, Germany found the black, red and gold colours for its future national flag. A darker upshot was that the Nazis cited as an inspiration their book-burning of Napoleonic works.

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