Wittenberg, that is the sound of history: Many associate the place on the Elbe with Luther and the Reformation. But Wittenberg was and is also the focus of another historical issue that nobody feels like celebrating: We are talking about the dispute over the so-called “Judensau” at the Wittenberg town church.
Although this depiction from 1290 is often referred to with the academic-sounding term “shame plastic”, it is in fact nothing more than pictorial hatred of Judaism.
In addition to the example in Wittenberg, there are dozens of other “Judensäue” in Germany that show Jewish people in obscene association with the pigs that are forbidden to them as unclean. In medieval imagery, it was conveyed to the very last that Jews were shady characters – just “sucking Jews”.
I have to admit that I wasn’t even aware of the existence of these sculptures for many years. When I was confronted with them for the first time during a trip around the turn of the millennium, I almost got a shock:
It was completely incomprehensible to me then and still today how it is possible that such representations can still be seen in the hearts of our cities. And I’ll say frankly, I’m shocked that we’re only now beginning to have this debate seriously.
All the more so as their results so far have been very poor. Even in the 21st century, almost all of the sculptures in Germany are still in their original locations and bear witness to the hatred of Jews of the past.
And what does past mean? Yesterday’s hatred has not been overcome today, especially in Germany and especially in our time of resurgent anti-Semitism. Instead of on church walls, Jews are now insulted and insulted primarily on the Internet, but the message has remained the same.
Our society can therefore choose to ignore this danger – but it does so at its own risk and above all at the risk of minorities and especially the Jewish community who suffer from the continuity of hatred. Even in court, it has now been recognized that the “Judensäuen” are “anti-Semitism set in stone”.
With exactly these words, the presiding judge at the Federal Court of Justice recently described the plastic in Wittenberg, whose removal a committed citizen has been complaining about for years. But without success: The court decided that an explanatory base plate and a display had classified the “Judensau” sufficiently in terms of content; a “current infringement” in the form of an insult to the plaintiff no longer exists.
Like many others, I received this verdict with great disappointment because I am convinced that the “Judensäue” in Wittenberg and elsewhere are an open societal wound. However, the hearing before the Federal Court of Justice made it clear that it cannot be up to the courts alone to heal this wound.
The task is greater, it affects society as a whole. Back then, the master builders of the Middle Ages knew very well what message they were sending out by affixing the sculptures; Today, however, we do not seem to have understood the impact of our decision to leave the “Judensäue” in place.
I am also expressly addressing the churches, which could and should have freed themselves from this burden long ago. There is no question that all those involved are pursuing the same honorable goal, namely to render the hate sculptures as harmless as possible. Whether the concepts for “classification” that are currently being pursued will achieve this goal is very questionable for me.
Because I’ll say it again: Yesterday’s hatred has not been overcome today. What we see in the town church in Wittenberg, among other things, is the visible part of a past without which our present cannot exist. The story that made the “Judensäue” possible is not finished or enraptured.
Therefore, our task in dealing with it is not only that of the trustee, but also that of the curator: what is dangerous can and should be removed. The preservation of the past is a noble concern, but it is not an end in itself. We conserve so that we can recognize who “we” were – and to decide today who we want to be.
In order to make this decision, the “anti-Semitism set in stone” of the “Jewish pigs” is not needed. We are doing ourselves and future generations a disservice by letting the abuse of the past stand in our midst.
No one can understand why people are (hopefully) severely punished for posts that incite hate speech on the Internet, while the pictorial implementation of the same hate speech remains protected as a culturally and historically valuable contribution.
Otherwise, how long would an insulting tweet have to be online before it too becomes part of our cultural heritage? I can only wish the best of luck to anyone who wants to convey this logic to young people in particular.
I therefore hope that Tuesday’s verdict is not the end but the beginning of a debate that must have visible consequences in the truest sense of the word. The route taken by the “Judensäue” was to lead to the museum as quickly as possible. There – and only there – the actual “classification” of history can take place, and only museumization erects the necessary firewall around historical hatred.
This has nothing to do with iconoclasm, but with social responsibility. We must never forget: Our view of the past is always also our view of the present. That’s why we need a common path that gets by without the graphic hatred of the “Judensäue” in public space.
The author has been President of the Jewish community in Munich and Upper Bavaria since 1985.