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Hartenfels Castle in Torgau - a view of the back of the castle from the road.

Hartenfels Castle in Torgau - a view of the back of the castle from the road.

Unable to travel in the spring of 2020 I thought that it would be of interest to write about some of lesser known places in Germany, closely connected with Martin Luther, the Reformation, and Emperor Charles V, that we enjoyed visiting in 2017, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's famous 95 Theses. This is the first of four connected blogs - on Torgau, Muhlberg, Wittenberg and the Electors of Saxony.

Torgau - the home of a fine Renaissance castle and an historic meeting in 1945.

Now a town of about 20,000, Torgau was the main home (along with Weimar) of the Ernestine branch of the Wettin dynasty. They were Electors of Saxony between 1464 and 1547, one of the seven electors who elected the Holy Roman Emperor (see the forth-coming blog about the Wettin Dynasty and the Electors of Saxony). The old town is well worth a visit, particularly to see the impressive Hartenfels Castle, built in the late 15th and 16th centuries. Three brown bears roam the castle’s moat that you cross to enter the courtyard, where you face the impressive ‘Wendelstein’, a large spiral staircase at the main entrance to the castle buildings. The lapidarium and the castle chapel, consecrated by Martin Luther in 1544 (see later), are also of interest and a walk around the grounds looking up at the walls enables you to appreciate the scale of the building.

Electors of Saxony and Martin Luther

Frederick III (the Wise) was born in Torgau in 1463 as was his nephew John Frederick I in 1503. Both men, along with Frederick III’s brother, John, who succeeded the childless Frederick as elector in 1525, played a major role in protecting Martin Luther. Frederick ‘the Wise’ remained a Roman Catholic, although it is possible that he made a death-bed conversion to Lutheranism. He believed strongly in the rule of law and the right of all subjects to have a fair trial. It was he who argued that Martin Luther should not be excommunicated before he had the opportunity to defend himself before Emperor Charles V and the Imperial Diet at Worms in 1521.

After Luther’s famous speech – ‘Here I stand; I can do no other’ - and Charles’ response condemning him – ‘It is certain that a single monk must err if his opinion is contrary to that of all Christendom’ - Luther was secretly taken to Wartburg Castle overlooking Eisenach in Thuringia, ruled by Frederick. It was during his year there that he made the first translation of the Bible into German. Thereafter Luther returned to Wittenberg, where he taught at the university established by Frederick, and it remained his base until his death in 1545, protected by and advising Frederick’s successors, John the Steadfast and John Frederick, both Protestants.

Torgau and the Reformation

Torgau played a significant part in the development of the Lutheran faith. It was here, in Nikolai Church, that the first baptism in the German language took place in 1519, and Protestant sermons started in 1520, with Martin Luther a frequent visitor from nearby Wittenberg. In March 1530 the Torgau Articles were produced by Luther, his friend Philip Melanchthon, Johannes Burgenhagen and Justus Jonas. These outlined the main tenets of Lutheranism and formed the basis of the famous ‘Augsburg Confession’ presented by the Protestant representatives at the Diet of Augsburg, where Emperor Charles hoped, but failed, to re-unify the church.

In 1526 the League of Torgau had been formed by John of Saxony and Philip of Hesse to oppose the terms of the Edict of Worms. After the Diet of Augsburg in 1530 this was developed into the Schmalkaldic League, a military alliance to defend Lutheran religious and political interests against the possible use of force by Emperor Charles V. For many years Charles had pressing problems elsewhere, defending his lands against Ottoman and French hostility. As a result many princes in Germany, like John Frederick I of Saxony, continued to further the Protestant cause. In 1544 the chapel in Torgau Castle became one of the first new church building in which Protestant beliefs were clearly represented in the architecture and layout. It was consecrated by Martin Luther in October 1544. After Luther’s death in February 1546 his wife Katerina von Bora, who he had married in 1525, continued to live in Wittenberg until she fled to Torgau to avoid an outbreak of plague. She died there in December 1552 and her tombstone can be seen in St. Mary’s Church.

Torgau in the 20th Century - A famous meeting.

On 25th April 1945 the bridge over the river Elbe at Torgau was the first meeting place of Russian soldiers advancing from the east and U.S. troops moving through Germany from the west. The town became part of the Russian occupied zone and then East Germany (German Democratic Republic – GDR) when it was created in 1949.

Fort Zinna - military and political prison

Fort Zinna, a star-shaped fort, was built between 1810 and 1813 under the rule of Napoleon. It has a brutal history, having for much of its existence been a military prison. Between 1933 and 1935 it was used by the Nazis as a detention centre and then handed over to the Army High Command. During the Second World War it was a prison for deserters, conscientious objectors and insubordinate army personnel and from 1943 the main Reich Military Court held its proceedings there. Many hundreds were condemned and executed by firing squad in the moat or in nearby gravel pits.

After 1945 it became a N.K.V.D. (Soviet secret police) camp, imprisoning war criminals, those accused of collaboration with the Nazis, and a holding camp for Russians being sent back to the Gulags (labour camps) in the Soviet Union. After 1949 it became a prison in the GDR (East Germany) for political opponents and later those convicted of criminal offences. It remains a correctional facility today. In 2007 a memorial was established (officially opened in 2010) in front of the prison commemorating those who suffered injustice under the National Socialist military judges, Soviet secret police and GDR judicial system. The Documentation and Information Centre (DIZ) Torgau was established in 1991 to document the history of Torgau prisons during this period. It has an exhibition in Hartenfels Castle.

Closed Youth Workshop - Torgau

The ‘Closed Youth Workshop – Torgau’ was one of 70 special residential care homes and juvenile detention centres set up in the GDR. They were established for children regarded as disturbed or problematic, and their purpose was to crush the individuality of the young people by means of ‘re-education’. Of all the homes in the GDR, Torgau, the only ‘closed’ disciplinary institution, was regarded as the last resort in the system. Between 1964 and 1989 It catered at any one time for 60 youths aged 14-18 (both boys and girls in separate sections) for up to 6 months. They were subjected to severe discipline as a form of ‘shock therapy’. www.jugendwerkhof-torgau.de

Richard Heath
Richard Heath
Richard Heath graduated in history from the University of Cambridge and was a history teacher for 35 years. He now enjoys travelling with his wife in their VW camper van, exploring historical sites and appreciating all that Europe has to offer.

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