German court rules on removal of antisemitic church sculpture

The Central Council of Jews in Germany has reacted to a ruling of the German Federal Court of Justice (BGH) concerning the removal of a notorious medieval antisemitic sculpture.

The BGH upheld rulings by lower courts that the “Judensau” (Jew-pig) sculpture did not have to be removed on the Town Church in Wittenberg, where Martin Luther once preached.

The plaintiff, a member of a Jewish community, had demanded the removal of the sandstone relief from the 13th century because he saw it as defaming Judaism and himself.

“The BGH’s ruling that the sculpture does not have to be removed is understandable. However, I cannot follow the BGH’s reasoning,” said Central Council President Josef Schuster.

According to Schuster, nowhere near the sculpture is there an unambiguous condemnation of the medieval antisemitic sculpture. Consequently, the church should publicly admit its guilt for centuries of anti-Jewish incitement. In this respect, the Central Council would have preferred a clearer position from the BGH.

In the opinion of the BGHthe parish of Wittenberg had distanced itself sufficiently from the antisemitic content. The sculpture had been transformed into a monument for the purpose of commemorating the discrimination and persecution of Jews through the later inscriptions on a base plate and explanations, the BGH said. Therefore, the defamatory sculpture did not have to be removed.

“The defamation of Jews by churches must be a thing of the past once and for all,” Josef Schuster stressed. “Both the Wittenberg church community and the churches as a whole must now urgently find a clear and appropriate solution for dealing with sculptures that are hostile to Jews,” he added.

The Federal Government Commissioner for Jewish Life and the Fight against Anti-Semitism, Felix Klein, said that antisemitic sculptures were “part of our past, which we cannot change”. This makes a meaningful classification all the more important: “The court saw this as given in the present case of Wittenberg.”

The International Auschwitz Committee sharply criticised the ruling. “Today’s ruling by the Federal Supreme Court is disappointing not only for Holocaust survivors. This centuries-old stigma in one of the most important places of Protestantism, whose message also led to Auschwitz, continues to burden the relationship between Jews and Christians today,” said Christoph Heubner, Executive Vice President of the International Auschwitz Committee.

“It’s offensive and outrageous to Jewish people. The admonishing words and signs that surround the anti-Jewish relief today and re-dedicate it as a memorial do not change that. It would still be a sign of great insight and distancing symbolism if the relief were detached from the church and exhibited and explained in a museum context – just like the resulting empty space at the Wittenberg City Church.”

The relief, dating from 1290, shows a sow four metres above the ground with two people drinking from its teats, which are meant to represent Jews. A rabbi looks under the animal’s tail and into its anus. In Judaism, a pig is considered unclean. The “Judensau”, due to its obvious antisemitic character, clearly belongs in a museum, not a church, according to the plaintiff.

According to the court, the plaintiff could not demand the removal of the sculpture because there was no “present infringement of rights”, said the presiding judge. In the court’s view, the church had eliminated the original infringing condition by installing a base plate and a stand clarifying.

Viewed in isolation, the relief mocked and denigrated Judaism as a whole. However, the infringing condition is not eliminated by the removal alone, but also by the distancing, Seiters said. When viewed as a whole, the defendant church had successfully distanced itself from the content of the relief by placing a base plate and a display.


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