Disclosure: I traveled in part as a guest of Thüringen Entdecken. As always, all opinions are my own.
The Thuringer Forest, like any forest, has two stories––one with people and one without people.
Without people, it developed naturally for thousands of years. But the forest has changed over the past 1,000 years since humans started penetrating the forest for its timber and ore.
You might think of our presence as a massive attack on the forest’s ecosystem.
In fact, one of the best things that ever happened to it was the significant population decline thanks to the Plague of the 14th century and Germany’s Thirty Year War in the 17th Century.
Not exactly long term solutions.
On the plus side, efforts are ongoing to redevelop the forest for the future. Running and hiking around the forest for a few days, you can even get a taste of the ancient forest and its adjacent Medieval towns, like Schmalkalden––die Fachwerkhäuserstadt or the city of half-timbered houses.
When you run around the area, you also find fun town names like Nüßleshof, or nutless, where they send all of the castrated men of Germany. (Not coincidentally, the women here are least bothered by men. I think it’s all in the tourist pamphlet.)
The Anti-Semitic Elephant in the Room
For all the region’s beauty, there’s an anti-Semitic elephant in the room. Martin Luther is a constant presence around Schmalkalden and the forest. Perhaps that’s because the Schmalkaldic League, a military alliance created shortly after the Reformation, took its name from the Thuringian half-timbered town. The eponymous Lutherweg or Luther Trail even goes through Schmalkalden. The Lutherweg stretches over 1,000 kilometers across five states, touching on sites and locations relevant to Martin Luther and the Reformation.
Look, I appreciate a good long-distance trail, but I feel it’s my duty to remind people that Martin Luther wasn’t just merrily skipping around the forest, translating the Bible into German for the masses to understand.
He was also a horrific anti-Semite, or as my ancestors might have said, a schmuck, a putz, a beheyme, a kadokhes, a momzer, a schlump, a shmendrik, a shtik drek who can gey kakn oyfn yam and lign in drerd un bakn beygl!
Sorry, I’m better now.
Taking Down Luther
Holocaust historian, Lucy Dawidowicz, once said that the line of anti-semitic descent from Luther to Hitler is “easy to draw.”
Hitler himself claimed that the Luther who authored the not-so-subtly titled On the Jews and Their Lies was the authentic Luther. It should come as no surprise that Luther’s statements on Jews heavily influenced Nazi rhetoric.
Coincidentally, I visited Schmalkalden over Yom Kippur. I didn’t fast. I ran––for fun, not like my ancestors.
I ran a 20-some kilometer loop north through the fields and forests, blissfully alone on a chilly, misty September morning. The next day, I took a bus over to Tambach-Dietharz to run a stage of the Lutherweg, a trail that traces Luther’s footsteps when he left Schmalkalden in 1537. There’s a well along the trail that legend says he drank from which he later claimed cured him of his kidney disease.
But apparently it didn’t cure him of being a repulsive anti-Semite.
In all seriousness, it was strange to see Luther all over the place on the first anniversary of last year’s Yom Kippur attack in Halle, Germany, especially since we can apparently draw a line from what Luther said through Hitler and onward to Halle.
Maybe Germany will have its day of taking down statues and reckoning with its Medieval past that clearly influenced its more recent history.
I’m just saying, I know who I’d start with.
So, you know, just something light to ponder while trudging along the trail. But even having Luther’s name plastered alongside the trail couldn’t ruin the experience for me. Not when the towns look like this, the people smile and offer trail tips as you pass by, and definitely not on a trail as serene as this.
Besides, I got my revenge by humming “Hava Nagila” along the way.
Looking for more Germany? Check out the Germany off the beaten path travel guide, my top things to do in Germany, the most important German travel phrases, and how to ride the German train system. Want something more literary? Read chapters from my upcoming memoir on moving to and living in Germany — There Must Be Order.