The question is what to do with all these relics today. Can we remove them and cleanse our past? Should we even try? Or is there a better way to confront the remnants of the bad old days here and now?
If you happen to find yourself on the front lines of America’s culture wars, these debates sometimes become too heated to be enlightening. So a better case study – still laden with historical and emotional baggage, but currently subject to refreshing and rational debate – might be medieval anti-Semitism in Germany and Christianity.
A German federal court held hearings this week in a case involving a stone relief carved into the facade of a church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther once preached (but not the church with the door on which he allegedly nailed his 95 theses). The plaintiff is Michael Dietrich Duellmann, an elderly German who converted to Judaism in the 1970s. He wants the stonework removed because it is patently anti-Semitic and offensive.
No one disputes this assessment. The ornament dates from the 13th century, which was not exactly the golden age of open-mindedness. It depicts a pig suckling two people who would have been identifiable at the time (by their headgear) as Jewish, while a third person, believed to resemble a rabbi, lifts the sow’s tail and looks into her anus.
Everything repugnant in medieval Europe and Christianity is on full display. It was a culture of discrimination, persecution and pogroms. And the Wittenberg relief is the kind of nasty graffiti that served as mass and social media at the time, spreading all that prejudice. Luther, who preached in this church more than two centuries after its masonry was chiseled out, was notoriously anti-Semitic.
And yet, Duellmann has already lost his lawsuit in two regional courts and has only reached the federal level by appealing. So what’s the argument against knocking the pictures off the wall?
One objection is that many other churches and cathedrals – around 50 in Germany alone, and many more in the rest of Europe – depict similar filth, if you look closely enough. To be thorough, you would destroy a great deal of western heritage.
This is not the reasoning of the lower courts so far, however. Instead, the judges considered the new context of the “Jew’s sow,” as the sculpture is called. Since the 1980s, a brass plaque in the floor explains the historical background. Another educational panel was added later. In a subtle way, the texts link the medieval anti-Semitism on display to the Holocaust. Overall, the courts have decided, the whole thing is no longer insulting to Jews but rather educational for all.
This justification will not satisfy Duellmann – and the many others around the world who want to get rid of similar shameful monuments. But it’s worth considering an approach to stained art from the past that explicitly embraces it by draping it in our own cultural context.
Obviously, there are remnants of past evil that would be too charged to keep. With good reason, there are no more public busts of Adolf Hitler. The Berlin bunker where he committed suicide is demolished and buried in the ground, marked only by a small explanatory plaque. It’s actually hard to find it next to the vast Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, which it adjoins.
But that, too, amounts to context. In the same way, reinterpreting the setting around monuments – to slave traders, Confederate generals, imperialists, even Christopher Columbus – may be preferable to simply tearing down stone and metal.
Why waste it, when you can use it? These artifacts from the past could be invitations to teach and learn, to reflect on how far we have come to become tolerant and human, and how far we still have to go.
The thing is, people back then – like the medieval Germans who watched The Jew’s Sow in Wittenberg – thought nothing of the art except that it was surely normal. This should be the real lesson for us. We can be sure: we do, say and think things today of which our own descendants will also be ashamed. But we can also leave them the proof that we have tried to become aware of ourselves and open ourselves to progress. It might even make them proud of us.
More from this writer and others on Bloomberg Opinion:
Our past is racist and sectarian. How to cope ? : Andreas Kluth
Britain takes school snobbery to new heights: Thérèse Raphaël
Beware the Lords of Facial Recognition: Parmy Olson
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering European politics. A former editor of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for The Economist, he is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
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