The importance of Wittenberg historically was due to its seat of the Elector of Saxony, a dignity held by the dukes of Saxe-Wittenberg and also to its close connection with Martin Luther and the dawn of the Protestant Reformation; several of its buildings are associated with the events of this time. Part of the Augustinian monastery in which Luther dwelt, first as a monk and later as owner with his wife and family, is preserved and considered to be the world's premier museum dedicated to Luther.
In 1502 the University of Wittenberg was founded and gave a home to many important thinkers, among them Martin Luther (Professor of Theology from 1508) and Philipp Melanchthon (Professor of Greek from 1518).
On October 31 1517, Luther nailed his 95 theses against the selling of indulgences at the door of the All Saints', the Castle Church, marking the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. The Anabaptist movement also had one of its earliest homes in Wittenberg, when the Zwickau prophets moved there in late 1521, only to be suppressed by Luther when he returned from the Wartburg in spring 1522. The Capitulation of Wittenberg (1547) is the name given to the treaty by which John Frederick the Magnanimous was compelled to resign the electoral dignity and most of his territory to the Albertine branch of the House of Wettin.
In 1760 during the Seven Years' War, the Prussian-occupied town was bombarded by the Austrians. It was occupied by the French in 1806, and refortified in 1813 by command of Napoleon. In 1814 it was stormed by the Prussian Army under Tauentzien, who received the title of "von Wittenberg" as a reward. In 1815 Wittenberg became part of Prussia and was administered within the Province of Saxony. Wittenberg continued to be a fortress of the third class until the reorganization of German defenses after the foundation of the new German Empire led to its being dismantled in 1873.
Unlike many other historic German cities during World War II, Wittenberg was spared destruction during the war. The Allies agreed not to bomb Wittenberg, though there was fighting in the city, with bullet pock-marks visible on the statues of Luther and Melanchthon at the market square, or so the popular version of the city's history goes. In actuality, the Luther statue was not even present in the city square during much of the war. It was stored at Luther Brunnen, a roadhouse only a few kilometers north of the city.
Wittenberg's reputation as a city protected from Allied bombing is also not historically accurate. There was on the outskirts of Wittenberg the Arado Flugzeugwerke (Arado Aircraft Factory), which produced aircraft components for Hitler's airforce. The factory was staffed by Jews, Russians, Poles, political prisoners, and even a few Americans--all prisoners engaging in forced labor. Despite the prisoner status of its workers, American and British planes bombed the factory near the end of WWII. One thousand prisoner workers were killed. The recent publication of "...und morgen war Krieg!" by Renate Gruber-Lieblich attempts to document this tragic bombing of Wittenberg.
At the end of the war, Wittenberg was occupied by Soviet forces, and became part of the German Democratic Republic in 1949. By means of the peaceful revolution in 1989, the communist regime was brought down and the city has been governed democratically since 1990.
Wittenberg's civic coat of arms conveys with its various heraldic elements something of the town's history. On 27 June 1293, Wittenberg was granted town rights by Duke Albrecht II. There then arose a mediaeval town whose highest governing body was its council. This council, known to have existed as early as 1317, was given the job of administering the town in its care through law and legislation, and of handling the town's revenue. For documentation, the administration used its own seal. One version of what is believed to be the town's oldest town seal, which the council used, and which dated from the first half of the 14th century, set the pattern with its elements for various civic coats of arms down to the present day.
The coat of arms symbolizes, with its crenelated wall and the towers within and each side, a town that was already strongly fortified by 1409. The two shields in the centre form the coat of arms of the Electorate of Saxony with the Saxon arms on the right, whose gold and black stripes recall the Ascanian rulers' house colours with the Rautenkranz (literally "lozenge wreath", although it is no such thing, as can be seen at the Saxony article) across them symbolizing the town's founder Duke Albrecht II since 1262, when it appeared in his arms. The shield on the left is the Wittenberg district's arms. In 1356, Emperor Charles IV bestowed upon the Duke of Saxony-Wittenberg the honour of Elector. Wittenberg became an Electoral residence. The shield with its crossed swords stands for the office of "Arch-Marshal of the Holy Roman Empire" inextricably joined by the Electorate, brought to Wittenberg by Rudolf I. Both coats of arms continued to be used by the Wettins after the Ascanians died out. The flowing water at the foot of the shield symbolizes Wittenberg's location on the river Elbe. The fish is a salmon, which were once abundant in the Elbe. The fishermen, like all professions in town, got their own order in 1422, and the fish found its way onto their coat of arms.