The question is what to do with all these relics today. Can we remove them and scrub our past clean? Should we even try? Or is there a better way to confront the traces of the bad old days in the here and now?
If you happen to find yourself on the front lines of America’s culture wars, these debates sometimes get too heated to be edifying. A better case study – still laden with historical and emotional baggage but currently the subject of refreshingly rational debate – might be medieval anti-Semitism in Germany and Christianity.
A German federal court this week heard a case over a stone carving carved into the facade of a church in Wittenberg where Martin Luther once preached (though not the church with the door where he is said to have nailed his 95 theses ). The plaintiff is Michael Dietrich Duellmann, an elderly German who converted to Judaism in the 1970s. He wants the brickwork removed because it’s obviously anti-Semitic and offensive.
Nobody disagrees with this assessment. The ornament dates from the 13th century, which was not exactly the heyday of cosmopolitanism. It shows a pig suckling two people who would have been identifiable as Jews at the time (by their headgear), while a third person, meant to look like a rabbi, lifts the pig’s tail and looks into her anus.
Everything abominable about medieval Europe and Christianity is obvious. This was a culture of discrimination, persecution and pogroms. And the Wittenberg relief is the kind of dirty graffiti that served as a mass and social medium back then and spread all that prejudice. Luther, who preached in this church more than two centuries after its stonework was carved, was notoriously anti-Semitic.
Duellmann has already lost in two district courts and only came to the federal level by appeal. So what speaks against knocking the pictures off the wall?
One objection is that many other churches and cathedrals – about 50 in Germany alone and many more in the rest of Europe – make a similar mess if you look closely. To be thorough, you would destroy much of the western heritage.
So far, however, this has not been the reasoning of the lower courts. Instead, the jury took into account the changed context of the “Judensau”, as the carving is called. A brass plaque on the floor has been explaining the historical background since the 1980s. Another educational sign was added later. The texts subtly connect the medieval anti-Semitism on display with the Holocaust. Overall, the courts decided, the ensemble was no longer insulting to Jews, but educational for everyone.
This reasoning will not satisfy Duellmann – and the many others who want to get rid of similar shameful monuments around the world. But it’s worth considering an approach to the tainted art of the past that explicitly embraces it by draping it in our own cultural context.
Obviously there are some remnants of past evils that would be too charged to keep. There are no public busts of Adolf Hitler anymore, and with good reason. The bunker in Berlin where he took his own life lies demolished and buried underground, marked only by a small explanatory plaque. It’s actually hard to find next to the huge Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe it’s adjacent to.
But that, too, is synonymous with context. In the same way, it may be preferable to reinterpret the surroundings of monuments — to slave traders, Confederate generals, imperialists, and even Christopher Columbus — rather than just tearing down the stone and metal.
Why lose 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 humane, and how much further we still have to go.
The fact is that people back then – like the medieval Germans when they saw the Judensau in Wittenberg – thought nothing of this art, except that it was certainly normal. That should be the real lesson for us. We can be sure: Today we do, say and think a lot that our own descendants will also be ashamed of. But we can also leave them evidence that we’ve tried to become confident and open to progress. It might even make them proud of us.
More from this author and others at Bloomberg Opinion:
Our past is racist and bigoted. How do we deal with it?: Andreas Kluth
Britain takes school snobbery to new heights: Therese Raphael
Watch out for facial recognition overlords: Parmy Olson
This column does not necessarily represent the opinion of the editors or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Andreas Kluth is a columnist for the Bloomberg Opinion and reports on European politics. The former editor-in-chief of Handelsblatt Global and author of The Economist is the author of “Hannibal and Me”.
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