Culture Mark Silk: Spiritual Politics Opinion

Playmobil’s Luther v. the Jews?

Playmobil’s toy figure of Martin Luther, in its trademark style aimed at children up to 12 years old. The word “Ende” (End) at the bottom of the left page of the Bible raised objections that the toy could be anti-Semitic. Photo taken Dec. 31, 2016. RNS photo by Tom Heneghan

I first encountered Playmobil’s Martin Luther in in my Religion News Association goody bag in Washington last September, courtesy of the German National Tourism Board. To mark the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, here’s Young Dr. Luther, one hand holding the quill with which he wrote his famous translation of the Bible, which he holds in the other.

1821 statue of Luther in Wittenberg by Gottfried Schadow

1821 statue of Luther in Wittenberg by Gottfried Schadow

A couple of months later, I mentioned the toy to Dr. Martin Hauger, an official of the German Lutheran Church, who was in New York for a panel discussion on Luther and Anti-Semitism at the Morgan Library.

Oh yes, Hauger said. The most popular Playmobil figure ever. Modeled on the famous statue of Luther in front of Wittenberg Town Hall.

But, like the statue, controversial. At the bottom of the left-hand page of the open Bible, the Old Testament ends with the word “End.” The New Testament begins on the right-hand page, evidently superseding the Old.

Closeup of Schadow Luther statue

Closeup of Schadow Luther statue

If you take a close look at the original statue, you’ll see that the fuss is not just about the End. Luther’s right hand partially covers the Old Testament as his right forefinger points to the New.

So the Hebrew Bible is finished. The Christian sequel  — “Germaned” (verdeutscht) rather than merely, as Playmobil has it, “translated” (übersetzt) by Dr. Luther — takes over.

Judensau (Jews' Sow) on church in Wittenberg.

marjy

Judensau (Jews’ Sow) on church in Wittenberg.

Not that the 19th-century statue is the only visible expression of disrespect for the Jews in Wittenberg. A carved bas relief on the town church features one of those late medieval Judensauen, showing Jews and piglets sucking on a sow’s teats while a rabbi peers into her anus.

Or as Luther put it in 1543, “Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud, as though he were reading something acute or extraordinary.”

Actually, Luther began his career as a reformer expressing a degree of friendly sympathy for the Jews, who he thought would convert once they saw how he had returned Christianity to its original pure state. But when it became clear that that was not going to happen, he turned against them. Anger management wasn’t Luther’s strong suit.

Blindfolded statue of Luther, Wittenberg 2015.

Evangelisch

Blindfolded statue of Luther, Wittenberg 2015.

Two years ago, to show its rejection of Luther’s hatred of the Jews, the German Lutheran Church for a short time placed a blindfold over the eyes of the Wittenberg statue. It was a rather clever allusion to the conventional medieval portrayal of two women representing Church and Synagogue, in which Synagogue is blindfolded.

The point is, there’s a strong sense in Germany that when it comes to Martin Luther, anti-Semitism is not something you can afford to ignore. That became evident following the panel discussion at the Morgan, when a group of visiting German students jumped all over the curator of the Library’s current Luther exhibit.

Sure, there were the Cranach paintings of Luther and his wife, the rare broadside copy of the 95 Theses supposedly nailed to the Wittenberg church door, the iron chest for receipts from the sale of Indulgences, the early printed Luther Bibles. But why, they wanted to know, was there nothing dealing with Luther’s anti-Semitism, like a copy of his infamous pamphlet, “On the Jews and their Lies”?

Well, stammered the curator, his anti-Jewish writings were issued in only one or two small editions, they didn’t circulate widely. But yes, perhaps he should have pressed to get one of them.

As for Playmobil, after due consideration they’ve decided to remove “End” from the Old Testament page of the Bible in the Luther toy accessory packet. While they’re at it, they might consider adding a little blindfold as well.

About the author

Mark Silk

Mark Silk is Professor of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College and director of the college's Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life. He is a Contributing Editor of the Religion News Service

7 Comments

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  • “As for Playmobil, after due consideration they’ll be removing ‘End’ from the Old Testament page of the Bible in the Martin Luther accessory package.”

    Why?? That was like THE stupidest reason for calling the toy antisemitic out of the plethora of reasons they could have chosen.

    OH MY GOODNESS, CHRISTIANS BELIEVE THAT THERE ARE BOOKS THAT CAME AFTER THE TANAKH, HOW SHOCKING AND OFFENSIVE.

    OH MY, THE END OF THE OLD TESTAMENT HAS “THE END” WRITTEN ON IT, WHAT AN INTENTIONAL SLIGHT AGAINST THE JEWS THIS MUST BE!!

    BEHOLD THE HORROR, MARTIN LUTHER’S HAND IN A STATUE IS SORT OF KIND OF COVERING UP PART OF THE PAGE THAT IS THE END OF THE OLD TESTAMENT, CLEARLY A SIGNAL OF JUDAISM AS BAD.
    /sarc

    How is that news to anyone or grounds for offense?? Where is the people calling Islam or Mormonism offensive for having books later than the Gospel or people calling Baha’is offensive for having books later than the Quran?? So they wrote some books after you did, it’s nothing to get your panties in a knot over.

  • Really, Fast Eddie, you need to review the long and despicable history of the persecution and slaughter of Jews based to some extent on Luther’s anti-Jewish diatribes. Historically, these are not just word games.

  • Still looking for any evidence that the Playmobil Luther toy exhibits any Anti-Semitism at all. None has been offered so far, by anybody. That’s pitiful.

    The word “END” clearly (and merely) demarcates where the Old Testament text physically ends and the New Testament Text physically begins. There are no words on the Playmobil toy, in either German or English, that say or suggest any superiority or inferiority of either Testament. Finally, on the Playmobil toy, the Old Testament page is NOT covered up by Luther’s hand, not even slightly.

    So it really, REALLY looks like Fast Eddie is correct. But alas, Playmobil itself is not caring about simple items like evidence & truth. These are bad economic times, so we gotta keep the toy $$$$ coming in.

  • Odd that we have had two articles or commentaries on this in quick succession. In an earlier posting responding to the first article I made many of the same points that Mark Silk makes here. Yes, we can again point to the symbolism that is apparently evident in the statue that the toy is based on, and the sick rendering in bas-relief carving noted in the article. But in a proper response to such concerns the toy company will delete the term “ENDE” from future versions. Problem solved.

  • Wow, okay, I guess I actually need to SPELL IT OUT FOR YOU.

    I was, in fact, ~referring~ to Luther’s anti-Jewish diatribes with my comment “out of the plethora of reasons they could have chosen.”

    The reason they chose to go with WASN’T that issue that both you or I acknowledge as a potentially valid issue to bring up.

    Instead they went for the stupid reason: The end of a chapter in a book has “the End” written on it. They ~could’ve~ gone the route of Luther’s statements. They ~instead~ decided something innocuous and inoffensive was the hill they wanted to die on.

  • Thus, Luther now proposed seven measures of “sharp mercy” that German princes could take against Jews: (1) burn their schools and synagogues; (2) transfer Jews to community settlements; (3) confiscate all Jewish literature, which was blasphemous; (4) prohibit rabbis to teach, on pain of death; (5) deny Jews safe-conduct, so as to prevent the spread of Judaism; (6) appropriate their wealth and use it to support converts and to prevent the lewd practice of usury; (7) assign Jews to manual labor as a form of penance.

    Luther advised clergy, their congregations, and all government officials to help carry out these measures. Since most Jews had been expelled from Germany before 1536, Luther’s counsel was implemented by few officials. Yet a harsh anti-Jewish measure in 1543 mentioned Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies.

    Both Luther’s friends and his foes criticized him for proposing these measures. His best friends begged him to stop his anti-Jewish raving, but Luther continued his attacks in other treatises. He repeated as true the worst anti-Semitic charges from medieval literature. Jews killed Christian babies; they murdered Christ over and over again by stabbing Eucharistic hosts; they poisoned wells.

    I would just add that Jews became moneylenders, because they were locked out of almost all the professions and guilds.

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