Germany: How Much “Progress” We Have Made after 500 Years of Reformation!

It is our human responsibility to remember what has happened, to try to understand why, and to ask how things could have been different. It is our Christian responsibility to reassess the structures of our beliefs and the effects of these beliefs on others. It is both a human and a Christian responsibility to take an active role for the sake of the future and begin by rejecting dehumanizing views and actions.

Brooks Schramm and Kirsi I. Stjerna,

Martin Luther, The Bible, and The Jewish People (2012)


1. Introduction

October 31, 2017 will be the five-hundredth anniversary of the posting of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, which initiated the Protestant Reformation. You see, I was born and have grown up in a Protestant environment. I used to imagine Martin Luther a superhero, who had the guts and intellect to challenge the religious perversity in his time. How ignorant of me! I still think that Luther has some merits, but now I realize that Luther and his contemporary were also the “pioneers” promoting the “equality” between animals and human beings. Can we say that they were the earliest “animal rights activists”?

2. Martin Luther on the “Equality” between Human Beings and Animals

Luther equated the papal church to animals:

  1. In 1523, Luther called the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks “the crude asses’ heads” / “die groben Eselköpfe” (cited from That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew / Daß Jesus Christus ein geborener Jüde sei).
  2. In one Table Talk / Tischrede dated to 1533, he named the cardinals and bishops “bloodhounds” / “Bluthunde.”
  3. In another Table Talk / Tishrede dated to 1540s, he bestowed the title “a sow” / “eine Sau” upon his theological enemy, Johannes Eck.
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On a pamphlet entitled “Papstesel” (1523), Lucas Cranach the Elder, a German painter and a fervent follower of Luther, pictured the Pope as a monster with a donkey head, fish skin, female breasts, and oxen hoof. Photo credit: ZEIT Geschichte 05/2016: 33 (N/B: I have blurred the original picture).

Luther equated the Jews to animals:

  1. In 1523, Luther appeared to be sane enough to maintain a distinction between animals and human beings. He chided the papal church for dealing “with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings” / “Denn sie haben mit den Jüden gehandelt, als wären es Hunde, und nicht Menschen” (cited from That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew / Daß Jesus Christus ein geborener Jüde sei).
  2. But later in 1543, he himself called the Jews the “bloodthirsty bloodhounds and murderers of all Christendom” / “durstige Bluthunde und Mörder der ganzen Christenheit” (cited from On the Jews and Their Lies / Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen).
  3. Earlier in 1541, he named the Jews “filthy swine” / “unflätigen Säue” (cited from A New Preface to the Prophet Ezekiel/Neue Vorrede auf den Propheten Hesekiel). In 1543, he invoked the grotesque Judensau image in Wittenberg to mock the the Jewish reverence of the divine name (cf. On the Ineffable Name and on the Lineage of Christ/Vom Shem Hamphoras und von Geschlecht Christi).
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The defamatory picture “Judensau” (Jewish sow) is found on many European churches from the thirteenth century onward. St Mary’s Church in Wittenberg, where Luther preached most of his sermons, houses a small sandstone relief of this image. Luther referred to this image in his treatise entitled “On the Ineffable Name / Vom Shem Hamphoras” Cf. Schramm-Stjerna, 2012: 18, 178. Photo Credit: ZEIT Geschichte 05/2016: 77 (N/B: I have blurred the original picture).

Didn’t Luther and his contemporary find the comparisons between animals and human beings offensive? Apparently not. They “loved” the animals so much that they wished to turn their fellow human beings into animals such as dogs and pigs. These people were so “civilized” toward the animals that they ate horses, dogs, and cats only during the famine. According to ZEIT Geschichte 05/2016: 73, a famine struck Münster when some radical reformers took over the city (1535). The citizens then ate their horses, dogs, and cats (“Die Bürger essen ihre Pferde, Hunde und Katzen”).

3. Martin Luther in Today’s Germany

ZEIT Geschichte 05/2016: 108 features an interview with the media lawyer Jörg Nabert. According to the lawyer, if Luther lived in Germany today, he would not only face criminal charges on account of libel and defamation, he would also be fined a great amount of money:

ZEIT Geschichte: Luther ging mit seinen Gegnern nicht zimperlich um. Wäre er Ihr Mandant, was würde ihm heute für seine Schmähungen drohen?

Jörg Nabert: So einen Mandanten wünscht man sich der kein Blatt vor den Mund nimmt. Allerdings langt Luthe so sehr hin, dass er heute durchaus mit Unterlassungsklagen und Strafanzeigen wegen Beleidigung oder Verleumdung rechnen müsste.

ZEIT Geschichte: Wie hoch wäre das Strafmaß?

Nabert: Nehmen wir mal an, dass Luther trotz Reichsacht nicht vorbestraft ist, dann käme heutzutage eine überschaubare Geldstrafe dabei heraus. Die Kosten eines zivilrechtlichen Verfahrens wären meist schmerzhafter.

Mr. Nabert must be an expert in his field of specialization and I do appreciate his good intention to give voice to the fact that people who speak like Luther should be sued and fined. From the text itself, it is not very clear to me how Mr. Nabert defines Luther’s “Schmähungen.” The left column cites some sentences where Luther attacked the pope, cardinals, bishops, and a European noble (Heinz von Wolfenbüttel), but did not mention the cases where the Jews were villified. Even though Thomas Kaufmann has mentioned Luther’s hatred for not only the papal church, but also the Jews and Turks in another article of the same magazine (pp. 74-79), only Luther’s attacks on the papal church and European nobles have been selected in that column next to the interview. In any case, I have grave doubts if Mr. Nabert is being realistic about the world he is living in. In my view, if Luther and his contemporary lived in Germany today, these two scenarios would arise in all probability:

  1. Luther’s contemporary who ate dogs, cats, and horses would face legal punishments and would ultimately commit suicide due to cyberbully. Since 1986, the German Law on Meat Hygiene has forbidden monkey-, dog-, and cat-eating. Last month, a popular Spanish huntress, Melanie Capitan, committed suicide weeks after she had received online threats from animal rights activists, according to the Daily Mail’s report. The exact connection between those threats and her suicide cannot be ascertained. Striking are the critics flooding her Facebook page AFTER HER DEATH. One person wrote: “You have done a favour to humanity! Bye Bye.” Another mocked: “Ciao Mel! You made a favour to nature.” Still another penned: “She’s finished the lives of many animals and no one defended them…I think our [lives are] worth the same as theirs.” Don’t some European royals and Melanie’s followers hunt animals at their leisure? Based on the principle of the “equality” between animals and human beings, do these animal rights activists expect the royals and followers start committing suicide too?
  2. Luther’s popularity among his people means that instead of being charged on account of slanders, he would be acquitted with impunity. On the principle of “freedom of speech,” Luther would be allowed to continue propagating his idea about the “equality” between human beings and animals. To spread this idea as widely as possible, Luther’s followers would even print out “Papstesel“- and “Judensau“-like images on T-shirts and sell them publicly on Spreadshirt’s website. A legal reply from the Leipzig public prosecutor (Herr Staatsanwalt Merkel) gives weight to the validity of my imagination. A few months ago, a Chinese from the Chinesischehandel courageously filed a criminal complaint against the Spreadshirt company’s T-shirt “Save a dog, eat a Chinese” on the ground of defamation and incitation of racial hatred. My husband got in touch with him and received a copy of the dissappointing reply from the prosecutor. If you can read German, you can understand the content of the letter (see below). If not, here is my attempt to summarize the letter’s content. In response to the charge of the incitation of racial hatred, the prosecutor responds that the call to “eat the Chinese” is not meant to be serious but is clearly humorous and satirical (“Angesichts des offensichtlich humoristischen bzw. satirischen Charakters des Äußerung…”). [My comment: Well, Luther also meant to “satirize Jewish reverence of the divine name” when he invoked the offensive image of the Judensau in Wittenberg (cf. Schramm-Stjerna, 2012: 178). His satires of the Jews further influenced and fueled the anti-Semitism and anti-Judaism sentiments in Nazi Germany (cf. Probst, 2012).] According to the prosecutor, designating a human life (more specifically a Chinese life) as less than a dog’s life in no way diminishes the human dignity. In response to the charge of defamation, the letter states that the accusation only stands when the statement under inspection refers to a clearly defined and manageable group of persons. The overgeneralized statement encompassing all Chinese does not constitute a slander. [My comment: Don’t you think his utterance of “einen klar abgrenzbaren und überschaubaren Personenkreis” very fuzzy? I am a Chinese, and I have never eaten a dog. The T-shirt clearly targets every single Chinese, it is saying that you can save a dog by eating a Chinese. Its overgeneralization conveys a false information of an individual, but does not constitute defamation. Well, I don’t get it.]
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To protect the privacy of the letter’s recipient, only the content of the letter is shown.

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4. Conclusion

About 500 years ago, Martin Luther, who translated the famous “Lutherbibel” and gave the Germans a new language “Lutherdeutsch, contributed a lot in “promoting” the “equality” between animals and human beings. Many pastors, bishops, and theologians, and Nazi members reused Luther’s anti-Semitic and anti-Jewish writings to reinforce their perceptions of German Protestant nationalism during the Third Reich (cf. Paras, 2008; Probst, 2012; ZEIT Geschichte 05/2016: 94). Did Luther’s words exert their reality-altering power when human beings were gathered into cattle carts during the Second World War?

Today, “about 30 “Judensau” sculptures still exist on churches [including St Mary’s Church in Wittenberg] mostly throughout Germany, and the majority without explanatory plagues,” according to the Christianity Today’s report. What has changed is that many people now take pride in their equality to animals. Right now, Spreadshirt’s “Save a dog, eat a Chinese” and other similar T-shirts are still available online for sale. These T-shirts show us how those who deem themselves as the equal counterpart of animals, like their ancestors, happily compromise the lives and dignity of other human beings they do not like. Wow, the Europeans have “progressed” so much within these 500 years!

After all these ruminations, I think I should not be hypersensitive by taking the attacks on my people “too personally.” I ought to embrace the European, esp. the German “sarcastic humour” (as one William Sherman and one Ines Nitsch told me on the facebook pages of VIENNA.AT and Spreadshirt.de respectively. For reasons unbeknownst to me, Ines Nitsch deleted her comments after I had replied to her very politely on the Spreadshirt.de’s facebook page), despite the fact that their jokes are based on stereotypes / overgeneralization / discrimination / cannibalism. I must understand that the European passion for animals has been cultivated from their long historical traditions, which are to be “admired” and even “emulated” by the rest of the world. Germany/Europe is indeed the yardstick of “enlightenment,” “freedom,” and “democracy.” Now let us stand up “respectfully” and give them a round of applause for such “wonderful” expressions of humanism/animalism.

N/B: On the Spreadshirt.de website, if you type “Chinese,” you will no longer find those offensive T-shirts clutter together as they were in March. But they are still there online for sale. To be fair, I have read that Germany has a really good legal system that trains dogs and integrates them into human society. I do not endorse the abuse of animals. But does that mean we should accept animals’ rights at the expense of human lives and dignity? I think we should not erase any evidence that demonstrates how much “progress” the Europeans have made in their treatments of other fellow human beings. But should such evidence be sold online publicly as just any other commodity? Why can’t they just put those T-shirts in a museum that displays the European attitudes and actions toward other peoples throughout the centuries? I shall refrain myself from saying any further. According to the Chinese proverb,  it is better to be a dog in peace than a man at war (宁为太平犬,莫作乱离人). Now you have to be less than a dog to maintain peace,  however superficial peace is.

5. Bibliography

  1. Frank Werner (ed.). Luther. Die Revolution des Glaubens. ZEIT Geschichte 05/2016.
  2. Brooks Schramm and Kirsi I. Stjerna (eds.). Martin Luther, the Bible, and the Jewish People: A Reader. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2012.
  3. Christopher J. Probst. Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012.
  4. This website contains the Weimar Edition of Martin Luther’s works (in Latin and German). The spelling of “Lutherdeutsch” used in this edition is a bit different from the modern German’s spelling, which I deploy in the above citations.
  5. Paras, Emily. “The Darker Side of Martin Luther,” Constructing the Past (2008) Vol. 9: Iss. 1 , Article 4. Available at: http://digitalcommons.iwu.edu/constructing/vol9/iss1/4

Last Updated: 23.08.2017


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