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The Wartburg Experiment: Martin Luther reloaded

A new book called The moment does not state its name compiles the highlights of a new literary experiment dedicated to the father of Protestantism.

Relief of Luther translating the Bible at the Luther monument in Eisenach. Photo: IMAGO / alimdi

In 1521, an excommunicated priest was holed up in the Wartburg castle, toiling away at his translation of the Bible into a language normal people could understand. Rendered in a lively, lyrical, everyday German that speakers of many different dialects could understand, Martin Luther’s Bible was not only to revolutionise Christianity, but also the German language.

Five centuries on, the Wartburg castle still stands above the Thuringian town of Eisenach, a stone’s throw from the geographic midpoint of Germany. And the Lutherbibel’s anniversary has been marked with a fascinating project named the Wartburg Experiment. Beginning last year, the Martin Luther Stiftung and German Bible Society invited three star authors to the Wartburg to engage in an “inner dialogue” with Luther’s translation – each would spend four weeks on site and compose a literary text about it.

South tower of the Wartburg castle in Eisenach. Photo: IMAGO / Norbert Neetz

The chosen trio brought diverse perspectives to the topic. Freiburg-based novelist Iris Wolff was born into Romania’s German-speaking minority, while the Dresden poet Uwe Kolbe grew up in DDR-era East Berlin. Sri Lanka-born Senthuran Varatharajah moved to Germany as a child and now works as a writer, philosopher and theologian in Berlin. The three did not stay together at the Wartburg, but their texts are collected in a beautiful book entitled Der Augenblick nennt seinen Namen nicht (The moment does not state its name), recently published in German.

Encounters with old stories can inspire new ideas.

Unsurprisingly, the contributions differ vastly in subject matter and style. Wolff explores the relationship between language and Heimat through a series of elegant short essays. Kolbe riffs in both poetry and prose on geology, faith and encountering The Other and Senthuran Varatharajah uses a lyrical diary form to reflect on his own writing, the various “translations” within his biography, and the 2011 neo-Nazi violence in Eisenach that represents Germany’s darker side.

Taken together, these fine ‘Wartburg Diaries’ show that anniversaries, heritage sites and cultural touchstones are not necessarily conservative. Encounters with old stories can inspire new ideas. And – as Wolff writes here – one’s language, like Heimat, is “nothing other than a soon, a not-yet, a form of being on the move”.

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