The 38-year-old giant Martin Luther kicked the Protestant Reformation into high gear on this spot when he stood before the 1521 Diet of Worms to defend his Ninety-Five Theses. Like Jan Hus before him in1415, he was guaranteed safe passage by the Catholic Church fathers, only this time they actually honored it. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and everyone who mattered heard Luther utter the famous line, “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders, Gott hilfe mir!” or “Here I stand, I can do no other, God help me!”
Pope Leo X excommunicated Luther, and the Emperor outlawed him, but by then reformers were everywhere. Luther himself tried to restrain the Reformation and limit it to theological changes, but his translation of the Bible into German and the explosive spread of the printing press made this impossible. Overnight, anyone could read, interpret, and act on the Word of God in a language he could actually understand. The Christian world quickly evolved from a tightly scripted unity into the quarrelsome patchwork of faiths and sects we know today.
More than 8 million people died as Europe descended into the massive religious conflict that culminated in the Thirty Years War. Germany and Central Europe degenerated into a wasteland as rising powers like the French, Dutch, and Swedes fought the Austrian and Spanish Hapsburgs for control. In 1648, the Peace of Westphalia finally accepted the religious schism and for the first time removed the Roman Catholic church as an earthly power. Pope Innocent X condemned the Peace as “null, void, invalid, unjust, damnable, reprobate, inane, empty of meaning and effect for all time.” An exhausted Europe, including his own people, ignored him.
Luther would survive to organize his church, rail against the Jews, write a boatload of hymns, and marry the nun Katrina von Bora after helping her escape from her convent in a herring barrel. The town of Worms would go on to suffer the fate of many a central German city—sacked and plundered in multiple French invasions and demolished by the British RAF in 1945. The Heylshof Garden, where Luther took on the entire Roman Catholic world, has been replaced by a collection of statues squeezed between the ring road and the best pizza joint in town. People rush by.