News Note: “Campaign posters in ‘Luther country’ raise specter of anti-Semitism”

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 26, Number 1/2 (June 2020)

News Note: “Campaign posters in ‘Luther country’ raise specter of anti-Semitism”

By Christopher Probst, Washington University in St. Louis, University College

Last September, religion scholar and journalist Ken Chitwood asked me to comment on an article he was writing about the use of Martin Luther’s image and legacy in campaign posters for a far-right party, the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (National Democratic Party of Germany, or NPD) in Thuringia. As Chitwood notes in the article, “instead of ‘Here I stand,’ the rebel monk is depicted saying, ‘I would vote NPD, I cannot do otherwise,’ alongside the party’s slogan ‘defend the homeland.’”

Together with Saxony-Anhalt, Thuringia formed the heartland of the German Protestant Reformation. Luther undertook his university studies at Erfurt and also became a monk in that city. While hiding out in Wartburg Castle in Eisenach, he accomplished one of his seminal achievements when he translated the New Testament into what became High German. In 2017, Germans commemorated the five-hundredth anniversary of the German Protestant Reformation. Luther sites across the country, including Erfurt and Eisenach, played host to numerous events celebrating the anniversary. Many Germans, and Thuringians in particular, take great pride in the place that their Heimat (homeland) played in the Reformation.

In Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany, I demonstrated that a large number of Protestant pastors, bishops, and theologians employed Luther’s writings about Jews and Judaism – which were littered with antisemitic and anti-Judaic rhetoric – to buttress the antisemi­tism already present in significant degrees in Protestant circles during the era of National Socialism. Some contemporary German church historians and theologians, while recognizing that Luther attacked Jews and Judaism in stark and unseemly ways, have downplayed the impact of the reformer’s Judenschriften (writings about Jews and Judaism) in subsequent German history, including the widespread apathy toward Nazi oppression and murder of Jews exhibited by many German Protestants. Others, like Hartmut Lehmann, have highlighted this darker aspect of German Protestant history in their scholarly work.

The NPD poster includes a variation on the famous phrase “Hier stehe ich, ich kann nicht anders” (Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise), which was uttered by Luther at the Diet of Worms in defense of his understanding of the Christian gospel. Yet, it also contains the slogan “Heimat verteidigen” (defend the homeland). During the Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933, SA members stood menacingly in front of Jewish-owned storefronts holding signs that read “Deutsche! Wehrt Euch! Kauft nicht bei Juden!” (Germans! Defend yourselves! Do not buy from Jews!) The NPD posters no doubt resonate with some who both revere Luther and – unlike the great majority of Germans, including German Protestants – have no place for “foreigners” in their homeland.

The employment of Luther in NPD’s campaign did not bear fruitful results in Thuringia, as the party finished with less than 1% of the vote. Yet, in this same election, the larger far-right party, Alternative für Deutschland (Alternative for Germany, or AfD) won roughly 23% of the vote, overtaking Angela Merkel’s CDU as the second-largest party in the regional assembly. Chitwood’s article highlights the unsettling reality that, in Germany (as in the United States), xenophobia and racism, far from being relics of the past, have penetrated the body politic in ways not seen in decades.