Evolution of his views
Luther’s attitude toward the Jews changed over the course of his life. In the early phase of his career—until around 1536—he expressed concern for their plight in Europe and was enthusiastic at the prospect of converting them to Christianity through his religious reforms. Being unsuccessful in that, in his later career, Luther denounced Judaism and called for harsh persecution of its followers, so that they might not be allowed to teach. In a paragraph from his On the Jews and Their Lies he deplores Christendom‘s failure to expel them. Moreover, he proposed ”What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews”:
- ”First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools … This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians …”
- ”Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.”
- ”Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.”
- ”Fourth, I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb …”
- ”Fifth, I advise that safe-conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews. For they have no business in the countryside …”
- ”Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them …”
- ”Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow … But if we are afraid that they might harm us or our wives, children, servants, cattle, etc., … then let us emulate the common sense of other nations such as France, Spain, Bohemia, etc., … then eject them forever from the country …”
Luther’s first known comment on the Jews is in a letter written to the Reverend Georg Spalatin in 1514:
Conversion of the Jews will be the work of God alone operating from within, and not of man working — or rather playing — from without. If these offences be taken away, worse will follow. For they are thus given over by the wrath of God to reprobation, that they may become incorrigible, as Ecclesiastes says, for every one who is incorrigible is rendered worse rather than better by correction.
In 1519, Luther challenged the doctrine Servitus Judaeorum (”Servitude of the Jews”), established in Corpus Juris Civilis by Justinian I from 529–534. He wrote: ”Absurd theologians defend hatred for the Jews. … What Jew would consent to enter our ranks when he sees the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them—that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts?”
In his 1523 essay That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew, Luther condemned the inhuman treatment of the Jews and urged Christians to treat them kindly. Luther’s fervent desire was that Jews would hear the Gospel proclaimed clearly and be moved to convert to Christianity. Thus he argued:
If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian. They have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but only subject them to popishness and mockery…If the apostles, who also were Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles … When we are inclined to boast of our position [as Christians] we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are…If we really want to help them, we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.
Luther successfully campaigned against the Jews in Saxony, Brandenburg, and Silesia. In August 1536 Luther’s prince, Elector of Saxony John Frederick, issued a mandate that prohibited Jews from inhabiting, engaging in business in, or passing through his realm. An Alsatian shtadlan, Rabbi Josel of Rosheim, asked a reformer Wolfgang Capito to approach Luther in order to obtain an audience with the prince, but Luther refused every intercession. In response to Josel, Luther referred to his unsuccessful attempts to convert the Jews: ”… I would willingly do my best for your people but I will not contribute to your [Jewish] obstinacy by my own kind actions. You must find another intermediary with my good lord.” Heiko Oberman notes this event as significant in Luther’s attitude toward the Jews: ”Even today this refusal is often judged to be the decisive turning point in Luther’s career from friendliness to hostility toward the Jews.”
Josel of Rosheim, who tried to help the Jews of Saxony, wrote in his memoir that their situation was ”due to that priest whose name was Martin Luther — may his body and soul be bound up in hell!! — who wrote and issued many heretical books in which he said that whoever would help the Jews was doomed to perdition.” Robert Michael, Professor Emeritus of European History at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth writes that Josel asked the city of Strasbourg to forbid the sale of Luther’s anti-Jewish works; they refused initially, but relented when a Lutheran pastor in Hochfelden argued in a sermon that his parishioners should murder Jews.
Luther’s main works on the Jews were his 65,000-word treatise Von den Juden und Ihren Lügen (On the Jews and Their Lies) and Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ) — reprinted five times within his lifetime — both written in 1543, three years before his death. It is believed that Luther was influenced by Anton Margaritha‘s book Der gantze Jüdisch Glaub (The Whole Jewish Belief). Margaritha, a convert to Christianity who had become a Lutheran, published his antisemitic book in 1530 which was read by Luther in 1539. Margaritha’s book was decisively discredited by Josel of Rosheim in a public debate in 1530 before Charles V and his court, resulting in Margaritha’s expulsion from the Empire.
On the Jews and Their Lies
In 1543 Luther published On the Jews and Their Lies in which he says that the Jews are a ”base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth.” They are full of the ”devil’s feces … which they wallow in like swine.” The synagogue was a ”defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut …” He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these ”poisonous envenomed worms” should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing ”[w]e are at fault in not slaying them”. Luther claims that Jewish history was ”assailed by much heresy”, and that Christ swept away the Jewish heresy and goes on to do so, ”as it still does daily before our eyes.” He stigmatizes Jewish Prayer as being ”blasphemous” (sic) and a lie, and vilifies Jews in general as being spiritually ”blind” and ”surely possessed by all devils.” Luther has a special spiritual problem with Jewish circumcision. The full context in which Martin Luther advocated that Jews be slain in On the Jews and Their Lies is as follows in Luther’s own words:
There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses – namely, that God has struck [the Jews] with ‘madness and blindness and confusion of mind’ [Deuteronomy 28:28]. So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them.
Vom Schem Hamphoras
Several months after publishing On the Jews and Their Lies, Luther wrote the 125-page Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi (Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ)’, in which he equated Jews with the Devil:
Here in Wittenburg, in our parish church, there is a sow carved into the stone under which lie young pigs and Jews who are sucking; behind the sow stands a rabbi who is lifting up the right leg of the sow, raises behind the sow, bows down and looks with great effort into the Talmud under the sow, as if he wanted to read and see something most difficult and exceptional; no doubt they gained their Shem Hamphoras from that place.
The English translation of Vom Schem Hamphoras is contained in The Jew in Christian Theology, by Gerhard Falk (1992).
Warning against the Jews
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Shortly before his death on February 18, 1546 Luther preached four sermons in Eisleben. He appended to the second to the last what he called his ”final warning” against the Jews. The main point of this short work is that authorities who could expel the Jews from their lands should do so if they would not convert to Christianity. Otherwise, Luther indicated, such authorities would make themselves ”partners in another’s sins”.
Luther began by saying:
We want to deal with them in a Christian manner now. Offer them the Christian faith that they would accept the Messiah, who is even their cousin and has been born of their flesh and blood; and is rightly Abraham’s Seed, of which they boast. Even so, I am concerned [that] Jewish blood may no longer become watery and wild. First of all, you should propose to them that they be converted to the Messiah and allow themselves to be baptized, that one may see that this is a serious matter to them. If not, then we would not permit them [to live among us], for Christ commands us to be baptized and believe in Him, even though we cannot now believe so strongly as we should, God is still patient with us.
Luther continued, ”However, if they are converted, abandon their usury, and receive Christ, then we will willingly regard them our brothers. Otherwise, nothing will come out of it, for they do it to excess.” Luther followed this with accusations:
They are our public enemies. They do not stop blaspheming our Lord Christ, calling the Virgin Mary a whore, Christ, a bastard, and us changelings or abortions (Mahlkälber: ”meal calves”o). If they could kill us all, they would gladly do it. They do it often, especially those who pose as physicians—though sometimes they help—for the devil helps to finish it in the end. They can also practice medicine as in French Switzerland. They administer poison to someone from which he could die in an hour, a month, a year, ten or twenty years. They are able to practice this art.
He then said:
Yet, we will show them Christian love and pray for them that they may be converted to receive the Lord, whom they should honor properly before us. Whoever will not do this is no doubt a malicious Jew, who will not stop blaspheming Christ, draining you dry, and, if he can, killing [you].
This work has been newly translated and published in volume 58 (Sermons V) of Luther’s Works, pages 458–459.
The influence of Luther’s views
In 1543 Luther’s Prince, John Frederick I, Elector of Saxony, revoked some of the concessions he gave to Josel of Rosheim in 1539. Luther’s influence persisted after his death. John of Brandenburg–Küstrin, Margrave of the New March, repealed the safe conduct of Jews in his territories. Philip of Hesse added restrictions to his Order Concerning the Jews. Paul Johnson writes that Luther’s followers sacked Berlin in 1572 and the following year the Jews were banned from the entire country.[which?] Throughout the 1580s riots saw the expulsion of Jews from several German Lutheran states.
Nevertheless, no ruler enacted all of Luther’s anti-Jewish recommendations.
According to Michael, Luther’s work acquired the status of Scripture within Germany, and he became the most widely read author of his generation, in part because of the coarse and passionate nature of the writing. In the 1570s Pastor Georg Nigrinus published Enemy Jew, which reiterated Luther’s program in On the Jews and Their Lies, and Nikolaus Selnecker, one of the authors of the Formula of Concord, reprinted Luther’s Against the Sabbatarians, On the Jews and Their Lies, and Vom Schem Hamphoras.
Luther’s treatises against the Jews were reprinted again early in the 17th century at Dortmund, where they were seized by the Emperor. In 1613 and 1617 they were published in Frankfurt am Main in support of the banishment of Jews from Frankfurt and Worms. Vincenz Fettmilch, a Calvinist, reprinted On the Jews and Their Lies in 1612 to stir up hatred against the Jews of Frankfurt. Two years later, riots in Frankfurt saw the deaths of 3,000 Jews and the expulsion of the rest. Fettmilch was executed by the Lutheran city authorities, but Michael writes that his execution was for attempting to overthrow the authorities, not for his offenses against the Jews.
These reprints were the last popular publication of these works until they were revived in the 20th century.
Influence on modern antisemitism
The prevailing view among historians is that Luther’s anti-Jewish rhetoric contributed significantly to the development of antisemitism in Germany, and in the 1930s and 1940s provided an ideal foundation for the Nazi Party‘s attacks on Jews. Reinhold Lewin writes that ”whoever wrote against the Jews for whatever reason believed he had the right to justify himself by triumphantly referring to Luther.” According to Michael, just about every anti-Jewish book printed in the Third Reichcontained references to and quotations from Luther. Diarmaid MacCulloch argues that Luther’s 1543 pamphlet On the Jews and Their Lies was a ”blueprint” for the Kristallnacht. Shortly after the Kristallnacht, Martin Sasse, Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Thuringia, published a compendium of Martin Luther‘s writings ; Sasse ”applauded the burning of the synagogues” and the coincidence of the day, writing in the introduction, ”On November 10, 1938, on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany.” The German people, he urged, ought to heed these words ”of the greatest anti-Semite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews.”
Christopher J. Probst, in his book Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (2012), shows that a large number of German Lutheran clergy and theologians during the Nazi Third Reich used Luther’s hostile publications towards the Jews and their Jewish religion to justify at least in part the anti-Semitic policies of the National Socialists. Published In 1940, Heinrich Himmler wrote admiringly of Luther’s writings and sermons on the Jews. The city of Nuremberg presented a first edition of On the Jews and their Lies to Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, on his birthday in 1937; the newspaper described it as the most radically antisemitic tract ever published. It was publicly exhibited in a glass case at the Nuremberg rallies and quoted in a 54-page explanation of the Aryan Law by Dr. E.H. Schulz and Dr. R. Frercks. On December 17, 1941, seven Lutheran regional church confederations issued a statement agreeing with the policy of forcing Jews to wear the yellow badge, ”since after his bitter experience Luther had [strongly] suggested preventive measures against the Jews and their expulsion from German territory.”
Michael states ”Luther wrote of the Jews as if they were a race that could not truly convert to Christianity. Indeed, like so many Christian writers before him, Luther, by making the Jews the devil’s people, put them beyond conversion.” He notes that in a sermon of September 25, 1539, ”Luther tried to demonstrate through several examples that individual Jews could not convert permanently, and in several passages of The Jews and Their Lies, Luther appeared to reject the possibility that the Jews would or could convert.”
Franklin Sherman, editor of volume 47 of the American Edition of Luther’s Works in which On the Jews and Their Lies appears, responds to the claim that ”Luther’s antipathy towards the Jews was religious rather than racial in nature,” Luther’s writings against the Jews, he explains, are not ”merely a set of cool, calm and collected theological judgments. His writings are full of rage, and indeed hatred, against an identifiable human group, not just against a religious point of view; it is against that group that his action proposals are directed.” Sherman argues that Luther ”cannot be distanced completely from modern antisemites”. Regarding Luther’s treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote: ”There you already have the whole Nazi program”.
Other scholars assert that Luther’s antisemitism as expressed in On the Jews and Their Lies is based on religion. Bainton asserts that Luther’s position was ”entirely religious and in no respect racial. The supreme sin for him was the persistent rejection of God’s revelation of himself in Christ. The centuries of Jewish suffering were themselves a mark of the divine displeasure. They should be compelled to leave and go to a land of their own. This was a program of enforced Zionism. But if it were not feasible, then Luther would recommend that the Jews be compelled to live from the soil. He was unwittingly proposing a return to the condition of the early Middle Ages, when the Jews had been in agriculture. Forced off the land, they had gone into commerce and, having been expelled from commerce, into money lending. Luther wished to reverse the process and thereby inadvertently would accord the Jews a more secure position than they enjoyed in his day.”
Paul Halsall argues that Luther’s views had a part in laying the groundwork for the racial European antisemitism of the nineteenth century. He writes that ”although Luther’s comments seem to be proto-Nazi, they are better seen as part of tradition [sic] of Medieval Christian anti-semitism. While there is little doubt that Christian anti-semitism laid the social and cultural basis for modern anti-semitism, modern anti-semitism does differ in being based on pseudo-scientific notions of race. The Nazis imprisoned and killed even those ethnic Jews who had converted to Christianity: Luther would have welcomed their conversions.”
In his Lutheran Quarterly article, Wallmann argued that Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies, Against the Sabbabitarians, and Vom Schem Hamphoras were largely ignored by antisemites of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. He contended that Johann Andreas Eisenmenger and his Judaism Unmasked, published posthumously in 1711, was ”a major source of evidence for the anti-Semites of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries” and ”cast Luther’s anti-Jewish writings into obscurity”. In this 2000 page tome Eisenmenger makes no mention of Luther at all.
The Lutheran court chaplain to Kaiser Wilhelm I, Adolf Stoecker, founded in 1878 an antisemitic and antiliberal party called the Christian Social Party (Germany). However, this party did not enjoy the mass support which the Nazis received during the 1930s, when the Great Depression hit Germany especially hard.
Debate on influence on Nazis
At the heart of the debate about Luther’s influence is whether it is anachronistic to view his work as a precursor of the racial antisemitism of the Nazis. Some scholars see Luther’s influence as limited, and the Nazis’ use of his work as opportunistic.
The prevailing scholarly view since the Second World War is that the treatise exercised a major and persistent influence on Germany’s attitude toward its Jewish citizens in the centuries between the Reformation and the Holocaust. Four hundred years after it was written, the Nazi Party displayed On the Jews and Their Liesduring Nuremberg rallies, and the city of Nuremberg presented a first edition to Julius Streicher, editor of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer, the newspaper describing it as the most radically antisemitic tract ever published. Against this view, theologian Johannes Wallmann writes that the treatise had no continuity of influence in Germany, and was in fact largely ignored during the 18th and 19th centuries. Hans Hillerbrand argues that to focus on Luther’s role in the development of German antisemitism is to underestimate the ”larger peculiarities of German history.”
Martin Brecht argues that there is a world of difference between Luther’s belief in salvation, which depended on a faith in Jesus as the messiah — a belief Luther criticized the Jews for rejecting — and the Nazis’ ideology of racial antisemitism. Johannes Wallmann argues that Luther’s writings against the Jews were largely ignored in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that there is no continuity between Luther’s thought and Nazi ideology. Uwe Siemon-Netto agrees, arguing that it was because the Nazis were already antisemites that they revived Luther’s work. Hans J. Hillerbrand states that the view that ”Luther significantly encouraged the development of German anti-Semitism… puts far too much emphasis on Luther and not enough on the larger peculiarities of German history”. Other scholars argue that, even if his views were merely anti-Judaic, their violence lent a new element to the standard Christian suspicion of Judaism. Ronald Berger writes that Luther is credited with ”Germanizing the Christian critique of Judaism and establishing anti-Semitism as a key element of German culture and national identity.” Paul Roseargues that he caused a ”hysterical and demonizing mentality” about Jews to enter German thought and discourse, a mentality that might otherwise have been absent.
The line of ”anti-semitic descent” from Luther to Hitler is ”easy to draw”, according to American historian Lucy Dawidowicz. In her The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945, she writes that both Luther and Hitler were obsessed by the ”demonologized universe” inhabited by Jews, with Hitler asserting that the later Luther, the author of On the Jews and Their Lies was the real Luther.
Dawidowicz writes that the similarities between Luther’s anti-Jewish writings and modern antisemitism are no coincidence, because they derived from a common history of Judenhass, which can be traced to Haman’s advice to Ahasuerus. Although modern German antisemitism also has its roots in German nationalism and Christianantisemitism, she argues that a foundation for this was laid by the Roman Catholic Church, ”upon which Luther built”. Michael has argued that Luther scholars who try to tone down Luther’s views on the Jews ignore the murderous implications of his antisemitism. Michael argues that there is a ”strong parallel” between Luther’s ideas and the antisemitism of most German Lutherans throughout the Holocaust. Like the Nazis, Luther mythologized the Jews as evil, he writes. They could be saved only if they converted to Christianity, but their hostility to the idea made it inconceivable.
Luther’s sentiments were widely echoed in the Germany of the 1930s, particularly within the Nazi party. Hitler’s Education Minister, Bernhard Rust, was quoted by the Völkischer Beobachter as saying that: ”Since Martin Luther closed his eyes, no such son of our people has appeared again. It has been decided that we shall be the first to witness his reappearance … I think the time is past when one may not say the names of Hitler and Luther in the same breath. They belong together; they are of the same old stamp [Schrot und Korn]”.
Hans Hinkel, leader of the Luther League‘s magazine Deutsche Kultur-Wacht, and of the Berlin chapter of the Kampfbund, paid tribute to Luther in his acceptance speech as head of both the Jewish section and the film department of Goebbel‘s Chamber of Culture and Propaganda Ministry. ”Through his acts and his spiritual attitude, he began the fight which we will wage today; with Luther, the revolution of German blood and feeling against alien elements of the Volk was begun. To continue and complete his Protestantism, nationalism must make the picture of Luther, of a German fighter, live as an example ‘above the barriers of confession’ for all German blood comrades.”
According to Daniel Goldhagen, Bishop Martin Sasse, a leading Protestant churchman, published a compendium of Luther’s writings shortly after Kristallnacht, for which Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church in the University of Oxford argued that Luther’s writing was a ”blueprint”. Sasse ”applauded the burning of the synagogues and the coincidence of the day, writing in the introduction, ”On November 10, 1938, on Luther’s birthday, the synagogues are burning in Germany.” The German people, he urged, ought to heed these words ”of the greatest antisemite of his time, the warner of his people against the Jews.”
William Nichols, Professor of Religious Studies, recounts, ”At his trial in Nuremberg after the Second World War, Julius Streicher, the notorious Nazi propagandist, editor of the scurrilous antisemitic weekly Der Stürmer, argued that if he should be standing there arraigned on such charges, so should Martin Luther. Reading such passages, it is hard not to agree with him. Luther’s proposals read like a program for the Nazis.” It was Luther’s expression ”The Jews are our misfortune” that centuries later would be repeated by Heinrich von Treitschke and appear as motto on the front page of Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer.
Some scholars have attributed the Nazi ”Final Solution” directly to Martin Luther. Others dispute this point of view, pointedly taking issue with the thesis advanced by William Shirer and others.