(RNS) When it comes to Martin Luther and anti-Semitism, even popular toys in Germany can’t escape theological scrutiny.
Playmobil, one of Germany’s leading toy manufacturers, rolled out a 3-inch plastic figure of Luther back in 2015 to promote this year’s 500th anniversary of the Reformation.
Cloaked in black robes, the Luther figure holds a quill in one hand and his German translation of the Bible in the other.
It’s been a huge hit.
About 500,000 have been sold, mostly in Germany — especially in cities where Luther lived and worked — but also in the United States and other foreign countries.
That makes it the most popular figure ever produced by the Bavarian company, which also makes little spacemen, pirates, workers and even Christmas crib sets among the thousands of different Playmobil toys it has turned out since 1974.
All was apparently going fine until Micha Brumlik, a retired Frankfurt University education professor and respected Jewish commentator, wrote last June that the popular toy was “anti-Jewish, if not even anti-Semitic.”
The problem, he said, was the inscription on the open pages of the Bible that the Playmobil Luther holds. On the left is written in German: “Books of the Old Testament. END” while the right page says “The New Testament, translated by Doctor Martin Luther.”
Why was the word “END” written so prominently, Brumlik asked. “Theologically, there can be no other reason than that the ‘Old Testament’ and its validity should be seen as ended and superseded,” he wrote in the Berlin newspaper tageszeitung.
“Is the Old Testament, the Scripture of the people of Israel common to Jews and Christians, outdated and overtaken, as many Nazis — the so-called German Christians — wanted to see it, or is it just as important as the Gospels for Christian denominations?”
The regional Protestant church in Hesse and Nassau, the area where Frankfurt is located, soon seconded Brumlik’s criticism and said the wording could be misunderstood.
In an open letter, a group of progressive theologians said the toy presented a questionable view of the Bible “in a political and social context in which anti-Jewish views are again on the rise.”
This was not at all supposed to be what the cute little figure was about.
The German National Tourist Board and tourist officials in Nuremberg — center of Germany’s toy industry — developed the toy with Playmobil as a marketing gimmick to promote visits to Reformation-themed events in cities linked to Luther.
The Nuremberg tourism office sells it on its website for 2.39 euros (about $2.50). Amazon in Germany has three dozen rave reviews from delighted customers.
It’s one of countless souvenirs on sale for the anniversary, on top of Luther beer, Luther noodles, Luther socks, Luther refrigerator magnets, a Luther board game and, of course, a wide variety of new books about the man, his life and the Reformation.
A Protestant theologian acted as an adviser to the Playmobil project, which modeled the toy on a famous statue of Luther that stands in Wittenberg, the eastern German city where tradition says he nailed his 95 Theses to a church door on Oct. 31, 1517.
The Evangelical Church in Germany, the country’s main association of Protestant churches, quickly adopted the figure, even commissioning a life-size model to show at events promoting the Reformation commemoration.
While it initially had no objection to the inscription Brumlik criticized, the association, known by its German initials EKD, has been dealing in recent years with other aspects of the embarrassing legacy of Luther’s anti-Semitism as part of preparations for the anniversary.
At the group’s annual synod in 2015, it passed a resolution saying “Luther’s view of Judaism and his vilification of Jews are, according to our understanding today, in contraction to the faith in the one God who revealed himself in the Jew Jesus.”
In November, the EKD’s 2016 synod officially renounced the “Mission to the Jews,” an evangelism project that most regional churches had given up in the decades after the Holocaust but that retained some support among more conservative congregations.
In his article, Brumlik reminded his readers that Luther was “one of the founding fathers of modern anti-Semitism” and author of the infamous book “On the Jews and Their Lies,” in which the former Catholic monk urged his followers to burn down Jews’ homes and synagogues and confiscate their money.
Playmobil toys have made so many children happy that the company cannot possibly belong to this tradition, Brumlik said. Recalling all the Luther figures was not the answer, but maybe the company could remove “END” from the book page, or at least write it smaller.
After discussions among its sponsors, the Nuremberg tourist bureau announced that the word “END” would be removed from all future copies of the toy. The theologically more correct model will be available from March.
The Playmobil Luther has become so well-known in Germany that Bishop Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, chairman of the EKD, mentioned it in his New Year’s sermon in Berlin.
“In this jubilee year, it’s not primarily about Luther Playmobil figures, Luther socks and Reformation candies,” he said Sunday (Jan. 1). “They only open the door so the message can be heard. And it is clear and more relevant than ever — rediscover Christ!”
(Tom Heneghan is a correspondent based in Paris)