Theologian Martin Luther was controversial enough in his own time. And though it may be for different reasons, the father of the Protestant Reformation is still a divisive figure, most recently in Berlin.
With the Evangelical Church gearing up to celebrate 500th anniversary of the posting of his 95 theses next year, it teamed up with the Berlin senate to hold a competition for the design of a new Luther memorial. The conflict over the winning entry shows how complicated Luther’s cultural legacy in Germany remains.
The debate revolves around a 3.5-meter, or 11.5-foot, historic statue of the theologian that has been tucked away for years next to the Marienkirche church at the central Alexanderplatz square. Built in 1895, it has been collecting verdigris and pigeon droppings since, and was recently delivered for restoration ahead of being integrated into the modern memorial designed by Berlin artist Albert Weis, who works for German-Mexican architect firm Zeller & Moye.
“It cannot be that we spend taxpayer money to find a good solution, and then we toss it out and hire another artist. That would be a step backward in construction and culture policy.”
But the church is nervous about the message the new memorial might send. The original statue was built during a time when the Kingdom of Prussia instrumentalized Luther for nationalistic purposes, turning him into a national hero whose likeness graced many a pedestal.
In its original incarnation, the statue in question was part of a bombastic 100-square-meter monument. Wearing a massive cloak and staring proudly into the distance with his hand on a Bible, the figure was surrounded by fellow warriors of the Reformation, all of them guarded by knights with swords. At the time, it was the largest memorial in the city.
Half a century later, the Nazis melted down the surrounding figures for weaponry, sparing only Martin Luther. After the war, no one knew quite what to do with him, so he was stored in a depot before eventually being returned to the shadows of the Marienkirche.
But the Evangelical Church isn’t keen to celebrate a figure that bears the hallmarks of the nationalistic exaltations of the late 19th Century. Its aura not only smacks of pre-Nazi ideology, but scholars have spent too much time dissecting Martin Luther’s anti-semitism for him to maintain that kind of heroic status.
That’s why the winning memorial entry plans to integrate the old statue into a scene that features a mirrored modern duplicate to reflect and highlight the contradictions of history.
But church officials are outraged. They fear the memorial doesn’t reflect the values of the Reformation, and has proposed an “interim solution” to hire sympathetic artists to take over the design.
The Berlin Senate is not amused. “It cannot be that we spend taxpayer money to find a good solution, and then we toss it out and hire another artist,” said Manfred Kühne, who led the design contest and sat on the jury. “That would be a step backward in construction and cultural policy.”
Nevertheless, the Berlin Evangelical Church has planned a symposium for September to “bring everyone together in dialogue again” on the matter.
This article originally appeared in the newspaper Der Tagesspiegel. To contact the author: email@example.com