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Antisemitic sculpture can stay on church: German high court

June 14, 2022

A member of the Jewish community launched the suit against the medieval "Jewish pig" sculpture in Germany's Wittenberg. Previous judges had ruled against him, citing the Holocaust memorial and context plaque beside it.

The antisemitic "Jewish pig" sculpture in Wittenberg
The statue, originally built in 1305, was updated after the reformation to include an antisemtic inscription from Martin Luther in 1570Image: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Germany's high court ruled against a Jewish man's bid to remove a 700-year old antisemitic sculpture from the side of a church in the eastern city of Wittenberg on Tuesday. The decision from the Federal Court of Justice (BGH) ends a long-running dispute over the relief on the side of a church where Protestant Reformation leader Martin Luther once preached.

The sculpture depicts the medieval antisemitic trope of a "Judensau" or "Jewish pig," and shows Jewish people suckling on a sow while a rabbi lifts its tail. It is one of 20 such statues or reliefs that remain in churches and historical buildings across Europe.

Debate around the Wittenberg statue originally sprung up in 1988, on the 50th anniversary of the November pogroms. That year, a memorial was set into the ground below, referring to the persecution of Jews and the 6 million people who died during the Holocaust. In addition, a sign gives information about the sculpture in German and English.

'An insult to the Jewish people'

However, a lawyer for plaintiff Michael Duellmann, who brought the case against the statue, had argued that the information isn't sufficient and that the depiction constitutes incitement to hatred and always has.

Duellmann, a member of Berlin's Jewish community, had said that the sculpture is "a defamation of and insult to the Jewish people'' that has "a terrible effect up to this day,'' and has suggested moving it the nearby Luther House museum.

The plaintiff lost cases in the cities of Dessau, in 2019, and Naumburg in 2020. The judge in Naumburg ruled that "in its current context" the statue was not " slanderous" and had not violated Duellmann's rights. Duellmann then appealed the verdict to Germany's highest court.

At a preliminary hearing, Judge Stephan Seiters had said that the sculpture was "antisemitism chiseled into stone."

In the wake of the lawsuits, church leaders have promised to do more to distance itself from the sculpture and provide even more context.

Links with Martin Luther

Martin Luther, the ex-Catholic monk who touched off the Protestant Reformation with his 95 theses, lived in Wittenberg and preached at the church. It became the site of the first-ever celebration of mass in German instead of Latin, which is why UNESCO granted it World Heritage status.

Luther mentions the offensive artwork in Wittenberg specifically in his 1543 book 'Vom Schem Hamphoras.' The deeply antisemitic tome compares Jewish people to the devil. The book, along with Luther's other antisemitic writings, was later used by the Nazi party to promote antisemitism.

es/dj (AP, dpa)