Title page of Luther's 'Von den Juden...'

Luther and the Holocaust

On 27 January, people around the United Kingdom are encouraged to observe Holocaust Memorial Day. The date itself commemorates the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau in 1945. This year, the anniversary provides the occasion for 500 Reformations to reflect on the possibility that the famous reformer Martin Luther paved the way for Hitler to exterminate more than 6 million European Jews.

Professor Sue Vice‘s main research explores literary responses to the Holocaust. For 500 Reformations, Sue tackles the question:

Is Martin Luther responsible for the Holocaust?

Title page of Luther's 'Von den Juden...'Even the most cursory search online for the terms ‘Luther’, ‘Holocaust’ and ‘Jews’ generates conflicting opinion and scholarship. Some commentators claim it is as if there are ‘two Luthers’: The ground-breaking protester and reformer whose legacy and innovations are felt and commemorated today. And a more shadowy, forgotten Luther. The one who wrote such tracts as On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), arguing for the punishment and expulsion of Germany’s Jews.

Luther’s hostile writings

There is of course more to this story of ‘two Luthers’ than at first appears. Luther wrote about ‘the Jews’ in terms that are incontrovertibly full of disturbing prejudice. He uses crude and vulgar language. He claims that the Jews are worthless, as ‘rotten, stinking, rejected dregs’. And that they are possessed of great power and enmity against Christians, since ‘they alone want to have the Messiah, and be masters of the world’.

Luther illustrated his hostility with a list of recommendations: That synagogues and schools be burned to the ground. That Jews’ houses should be ‘razed and destroyed’. That Jewish ‘prayer books and Talmudic writings’ be confiscated. That rabbis should be ‘forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb’. That they should be denied safe-conduct on the highways. That usury (profiting from loans) should be prohibited to them. And their valuables taken away. Finally, that they should be subjected to hard manual labour. He urges that the ruler of any country where Jews live ‘must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow’. The metaphor sounds eerily like the Nazis’ argument that the Jews had to be removed for the sake of the body politic’s health.

Put into practice?

What Luther recommended, the Nazis appear to have put into practice some 400 years later. The Nazis themselves seized on Luther as an important forebear. Hitler mentions him approvingly in Mein Kampf. In November 1933, the Nazis celebrated the 450th anniversary of Luther’s birth with a nationwide ‘German Luther Day’. And they were eager to point out that the pre-war pogrom of Kristallnacht, which started on 9 November 1938, was still going in the early morning of 10 November, Luther’s birthday. In 1946 Julius Streicher was put on trial in Nuremberg for war-crimes. Streicher had edited the Nazis’ toxically racist newpaper Der Stürmer [The Attacker]. He declared that if he deserved to be tried for crimes against humanity, Luther ought to be in the dock too.

However, we do not usually tend to believe what Nazis say. Particularly not in the case of what they claimed at Nuremberg in their own defence. Commentators point out that when they took Luther as support for their brand of racist thought, they ignored his writings’ religious nature. So, is there more to this apparent link between Luther’s and the Nazis’ antisemitism than meets the eye? Is there a continuity of vocabulary and ideas? Or is there a greater link: Did Luther in some way cause the genocide? Or did his ideas enable it to take place?

Anti-Jewish v. antisemitic

Some theologians have argued that Luther is better described as ‘anti-Jewish’ than antisemitic. The two terms might not seem that different. Or the distinction might sound like an attempt to excuse him. Yet to be anti-Jewish, in the theological sense of viewing ‘the Jews’ negatively for refusing to recognize Jesus Christ as the Messiah, was a widely-shared sentiment in medieval Christian thought. Arguing for Jews’ wholesale conversion to Christianity was sadly normal (and remains so in some circles). Luther was an unfortunate channel for such views rather than their inventor. We might wish he had distanced himself from the medieval myths and slanders about Jews murdering Christian children and poisoning wells. He did not. Rather, his invective grew worse.

The Jews are the victims of Luther’s ambitions for his new brand of Christianity: He wrote sympathetically about their lives under Catholic rule, claiming he could see why they would not want to convert in such conditions. He was enraged by their failure to do so when reformed Protestantism was on offer.

‘Turned upside down’

Antisemitism, by contrast to the anti-Judaism of Luther’s era, is seen as a modern phenomenon arising from 19th-century theories of ‘race’ and eugenics. All of course now discredited. This is not to deny the link between religious and secular hatreds. Both are equally to be deplored. But Luther’s religiously-motivated words emerged from a different tradition from that of the racially-minded Nazis. The Protestant theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was killed by the Nazis in 1945. He claimed that in Nazi Germany, ‘Luther’s words are everywhere, but turned upside down from truth to self-deception.’

It is still chilling to read the conclusion to Luther’s On the Jews and Their Lies: ‘We are at fault in not slaying them’. It is hard not to conclude that his anti-Jewish theology had turned into a version of what we would now call antisemitism. Perhaps there are not ‘two Luthers’ after all, but a single thinker, who held very varied and often alien-seeming opinions over time. The progressive thought that characterized Luther’s views on religion did not stretch to those of other religions.

“Luther and the Holocaust”, Sue Vice for 500Reformations.net, January 2018. —
You are welcome to republish this article and other pieces from this blog in a magazine or newsletter. Please credit the author and 500 Reformations.

Interested in hosting a 500 Reformations event with Sue Vice or another of our speakers? Find out how.

More from the University of Sheffield:
The Holocaust is a difficult topic to study and communicate about sensitively. Watch University of Sheffield research Dr Eleanor Kent discuss the scale of the challenges she faces in this video recorded at the 2017 Tales from the Ivory Tower event:

Main image: Detail from the title page of Luther’s most anti-Jewish writings, Von den Juden und iren Lugen (1543), via Wikimedia.