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.
As a conservative Christian and a qualified admirer of Luther – no mere mortal should ever be put on a pedestal – I had some reservations about Manfred Gailus’ article “Luther’s Evil Writings.”
For one thing, Gailus stated “silence prevailed throughout the Protestant milieu after the Kristallnacht pogroms of 1938.” Of course, silence prevailed everywhere else among those who did not approve of the pogroms but were afraid to speak out. Silence in the face of the injustices of a totalitarian state is hardly a uniquely Protestant trait. Also, the only public protest against Kristallnacht that I know of was by a Lutheran pastor – Pastor Julius von Jan (see John Conway’s “The Nazi Persecution of the Churches”).
Elsewhere Gailus referred to “the anti-Jewish conditioning” of Heinrich von Treitschke and Adolf Stoecker – he might also have mentioned the powerful anti-Jewish influences of Kant, Fichte, Lagarde, Wagner, H.S. Chamberlain and others more relevant to modern antisemitism than Luther. Nietzsche also expressed a fierce hatred of Jews in his book “The Antichrist,” in which he railed against Christianity as a Jewish plot and saw the Jews behind all forms of modern decadence.
Concerning the Nazi era Luther revival, the Nazis were interested in Luther only because he was a great German. They had no interest in his Jewish-inspired teachings about a resurrection from the dead and a day of judgment followed by heaven or hell, nor did they have any interest in Christ’s death as a sacrifice for the sins of the world and his resurrection from the dead – all essential aspects of Luther’s teaching (along with the divine authority of the Bible, including the Old Testament). Neither did they have any interest in Calvin or other non-Germanic reformers whose ideas were in many respects identical to Luther’s.
When it comes to the “powerful antisemitism [that] had spread among Protestant theologians,” Gailus asks if they got it from Luther. Before trying to answer this question, we need ask how many of those theologians were theological liberals who denied many essentials of the faith, who considered the Bible to be a merely human book full of myths and legends, and who were thus fully open to secular influences. To put it another way, did their antisemitism come from Luther, or from a modernistic denial of traditional Christianity that left them open to other more sinister influences?
I was glad to see that Gailus mentioned Luther’s recommendation that the Jews be expelled from Germany. This is usually overlooked in favor of more inflammatory statements like forcing the Jews to work, forbidding them to worship, destroying their synagogues, and so on. Now expulsion would have been unChristian, cruel, and wrong, but it was the same conventional, traditional religious anti-Judaism that had led to expulsions of the Jews from France, England, Spain, and parts of Germany before Luther was even born. It might even have prevented the Holocaust.
At this point, it might be constructive to consider what Luther did not believe. He did not believe that the blonde, blue-eyed Aryans were the master race. He did not believe that all Germans should be unified in a gigantic superstate that would militarily dominate Europe. He did not believe that a ruler was above God’s law, able to act on his whims as he pleased with no higher moral restraint. Nor did he believe that life was in essence a struggle for survival in which the strong survived and the perishing of the weak was natural and healthy. It took the modern era, freed from the shackles of traditional religion, to come up with these and other ideas that were central to Nazi ideology but had nothing at all to do with Luther. We might in this context consider Denmark and Holland, whose strong Protestant backgrounds did not lead them to any noticeable degree of National Socialistic fervor.
If Luther had died a few years earlier he would not be figuring so prominently in these conversations. His main life’s work was not concerned with the Jews, and the vast majority of his works did not deal with them. References to Paul’s comments on the Jews in Romans and elsewhere are standard Christian teachings accepted by many people today, including myself, who have no desire to see the Jews exterminated as subhuman vermin. And I do believe Luther’s many ailments were a factor in his last angry and bitter comments.
Were it not for subsequent developments in German history for which Luther cannot be blamed, his misguided attacks on the Jews would have long since been forgotten by all but scholars as a secondary blemish on Luther’s otherwise great work.