Luther’s Evil Writings
Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Volume 23, Number 3 (September 2017)
Luther’s Evil Writings
The reformer was not only anti-Jewish, but also antisemitic. So he was understood in the Nazi era, too.
By Manfred Gailus, Technical University of Berlin; translated by Kyle Jantzen, Ambrose University
The original article was published in German as “Luthers böse Schriften” in Der Tagesspiegel, 18 July 2017, and is available at http://www.tagesspiegel.de/wissen/hass-auf-juden-luthers-boese-schriften/20071254.html. It is produced here in translation by permission of the author and newspaper.
Martin Luther’s late “Jewish writings” are no longer as unknown as they were for a long time—and the horror over the sharp anti-Jewish tone of the reformer is great everywhere. Heinrich Bedford-Strohm, Chair of the EKD, has repeatedly confessed in interviews that he is ashamed of such texts by the principal founder of the Protestant churches in Germany.
Was Martin Luther an antisemite? And what would that mean for the Lutheran Churches as public-law institutions? For the many churches named after him? For a city which proudly bears the name “Lutherstadt Wittenberg”? For the many schools and streets that bear his name? Or was he perhaps not antisemitic, but “merely” an anti-Judaist motivated by Christian theology?
In the writing of church history, things have been seen this way for a long time. Certainly, most would concede that Luther’s “Jewish writings” are bad, but would add that his case is not one of genuine antisemitism, but “merely” one of theologically based (though also harsh) anti-Judaism. It is often added, however, that in his youth he wrote in a friendly manner, and that later he had grown old, was suffering from physical affliction and depression, and had long been disappointed by the stubborn unteachability of his Jewish contemporaries.
He was “only” anti-Jewish, reads the official view of the Church
Margot Käßmann, commissioned by the EKD as a Reformation and Luther ambassador for the 2017 commemorative year, is not always to be envied for her job, especially when it comes to the topic “Luther and the Jews.” As far as can be seen, the Luther ambassador (like Bedford-Strohm) maintains that Luther was “anti-Jewish” in his bad omissions about the Jews, and thus not antisemitic.
It’s easy to understand. After Hitler and the Holocaust, how today can anyone—no matter their undisputed achievements and merits—be advertised as an antisemite? At their Synod in Bremen (November 2015) the EKD approved a statement “Martin Luther and the Jews – A Necessary Reminder on the Occasion of the Reformation Anniversary.” The reformers, it says, stood in a tradition of anti-Jewish patterns of thought, whose roots reached back to the beginnings of the Church. With regard to Luther’s utterances, “hatred of Jews,” “resentments,” or “invective against Jews” is the language used—the word “antisemitism” is carefully avoided. Here, as elsewhere, the view is that antisemitism exists only in cases of racial antisemitism, which had only existed since the second half of the nineteenth century. So, it is said, we cannot talk about antisemitism when it comes to Luther.
Luther was taken up with the expulsion of the Jews
Thomas Kaufmann, the Göttingen church historian who stands beyond reproach as an expert in the Reformation period, came to the conclusion in his study Luthers Juden (2014) that Luther’s Jew hatred had included motifs that went beyond traditional Christian anti-Judaism. In addition to Luther’s central theological anti-Judaism, Kaufmann also attributes “premodern antisemitism” to the reformer. Luther ‘s recommendations to sixteenth-century authorities and church leaders, which he described as “severe mercy,” were notorious: destruction of synagogues, homes, and writings; confiscation of money and property; forced labor; prohibition of Jewish worship services; and, as the ultima ratio, the expulsion of Jewish communities from city and country. With relation to Luther’s evil writings, the church historian Kaufmann speaks of “a literary final solution of the Jewish question.”
It is well known that by 1933 a powerful antisemitism had spread among Protestant theologians. Did they get it from Martin Luther? Pastor Siegfried Nobiling, who held a position in the “Zum Guten Hirten” (“Good Shepherd”) parish (Berlin-Friedenau) since 1928, professed in a 1932 statement on National Socialism: “In conclusion, I can confess quite sincerely that National Socialism was for me destiny and experience.”
“The interests of the race,” he said, “are always valid only to the extent that they are useful to the nation as a whole. We see in Judaism the spiritual-biological poisoning of our race.”
Already in 1932, Nobiling joined the “Faith Movement of the German Christians” (DC). There he met numerous like-minded colleagues.
For the theologian-generation of 1933, the Reformations of the sixteenth century and with them Luther’s image of the Jews lay far in the background. There were, first and foremost, other impulses directly and personally experienced, which were closer to them and which determined their attitudes toward Jews. Paramount for the anti-Jewish conditioning of this generation were, for example: the historian Heinrich von Treitschke, the Berlin court preacher Adolf Stoecker, the influential theology professor Reinhold Seeberg, then also the antisemitic and Christian “Association of German Student Fraternities” (VVDSt); and the unloved Weimar democracy, which was maligned as the “godless republic.”
In the Nazi era, there was a remarkable Luther revival
The sense of religious excitement of 1933, marked by the antisemitic “German Christians,” also included a remarkable Luther revival: the reformer as German national hero, as the prototype of the quintessential German man and fighter. Not infrequently, historical lines of tradition were drawn from Luther to Hitler—by Protestants themselves, and with pride. In the “Advent” parish (Prenzlauer Berg), “German Christian” member Haertel spoke on December 12, 1933, about “Luther and the Jews.” It must be the task of the “German Christians” to fully re-establish Luther’s clear position in the “Jewish question,” which Hitler had taught anew.
In the Spandau “Luther” parish, in parallel with the passing of the “Nuremberg Laws,” the parish church council decided in September 1935 to undertake the immediate free distribution of one thousand copies of “Luther and the Jews” as well as the procurement of display cases for Streicher’s Der Stürmer. In March 1937, Johannes Schleuning, a superintendent in Berlin East, referred in particular to Martin Luther and Adolf Stoecker as Christian champions against Judaism, in an article entitled “Judaism and Christianity.” He praised the most recent special issue of Der Stürmer on the “Jewish question” and emphasized that Christ had been an “Aryan,” a Nordic hero, as described by Houston Stewart Chamberlain.
In contrast to the “Nuremberg Laws,” which were widely endorsed in the “German Christian” press, silence prevailed throughout the Protestant milieu after the Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938. Explicit approval of the excesses was rare, but it did occur. On November 20, 1938, the “German Christian” theologian Immanuel Schairer wrote a commentary on the events, expressly referring to Luther’s “On the Jews and their Lies.” Immediately after the pogroms, the Thuringian Protestant bishop, Martin Sasse, printed extracts from Luther’s “Jewish writings” and sent them to Thuringian pastors. The intense Protestant antisemitism of the Hitler period fed on many sources—not only religious or theological—and mainly on those which were closer to the protagonists historically and biographically than Luther’s “Jewish writings.” Thus, on the one hand, these writings were not needed at all to generate the massive antisemitic confessions in the churches of the Hitler period. Since 1933, however, everywhere Luther’s “Jewish writings” were dug out and disseminated in the media, they reaffirmed the already-existing Protestant antisemitism and gave it additional legitimation.
Even before 1933, Luther’s “Judenschriften” had to be regarded as a serious derailment
Even before the year 1933, Luther’s “Jewish writings” had to be regarded as a serious derailment in the eyes of unbiased readers. After Hitler and the Holocaust, these writings stand in a changed historical context, which once again places the texts in a different light and makes Luther’s verbal derailments even more serious.
The current 2017 memorial year is the first Lutheran and Reformation commemoration ever to make the existence and explosiveness of the “Jewish writings” known to a broader public. This is to be welcomed as a historical clarification. For today’s Protestant churches, however, it is not easy to deal with this problematic heritage. In the long run, euphemistic assessments such as “anti-Judaism” or the discordant metaphor of the regrettable “shadows” of the great theologian will not suffice. One also wonders what the Protestant “learning history,” much invoked during the 2017 commemorative year, is supposed to mean, considering the churches’ performance (after 400 years of learning time) during the “Third Reich.”
Luther the confession-founder will not be taken away from anxious church contemporaries. The reformer is historically significant, and that will continue into the future. Still, the current image of Luther will have to keep changing. His status as a monumental figure will diminish, while the Luther-dilemma associated with his antisemitism will grow.
The author is Professor of Modern History at the Centre for Antisemitism Research at the Technical University of Berlin.