Martin Luther’s Anti-Semitic Legacy—500 Years Later
By Marilyn Cooper
Five hundred years ago, legend has it that a renegade Catholic monk named Martin Luther (1483-1546) angrily strode up the steps of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany and defiantly nailed Ninety-Five Theses harshly critiquing the Roman Catholic Church to the chapel door. It was the proverbial shot heard round the world. Due to a game changing new piece of technology—the printing press—copies of the Ninety-Five Theses spread through Germany within two weeks and throughout Europe in the next two months. The document catalyzed the Protestant Reformation, a revolutionary movement that resulted in a permanent schism in the Christian Church and radically altered the entire course of history in Western Europe.
The 500th anniversary, which numerous conferences, museum exhibits and special events and publications are commemorating throughout 2017, has a much darker significance for Jews. While Martin Luther initially had a relatively positive relationship with German Jews, he eventually adopted vociferously anti-Jewish rhetoric and promoted violence against Jews. His views helped shape centuries of anti-Semitic attitudes in Western Europe, and the Nazis later used his writing to stir up anti-Jewish sentiment.
During the first decade or so of his career, Martin Luther personally identified with the plight of Jews in Europe and declared that both he and the Jews had suffered at the hands of the Catholic Church. Luther broke with the then-prevalent view that the Jews had killed Christ and in his 1523 essay “That Jesus Was Born a Jew” condemned the harsh treatment of the Jews. “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,” he wrote. “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.” Luther’s motivations were not entirely altruistic, he hoped to persuade German Jews to join his anti-Catholic crusade and convert to Christianity.
Failing at that and following an epic case of food poisoning in 1528 brought on by eating a kosher meal—Luther was convinced that the Jewish community had tried to poison him—in a dramatic about face, Luther denounced the Jewish religion and called for severe persecution of Jews. This culminated in his infamous 1543 pamphlet, “Concerning the Jews and Their Lies” in which he urged Christians to “set fire to their synagogues or schools” and ordered that Jewish “houses also be razed and destroyed” and additionally declared that, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.” Even on his deathbed, Luther raged that the Christians had failed to slay the Jews.
Luther’s writings incited violence against Jews for the next half-millennium; this culminated in the 1930s and 1940s. In 1933, pro-Nazis in the Lutheran Church formed the German Christian’s Faith Movement. This virulently anti-Semitic movement adhered to the Nazi doctrine of a German super race and the inferiority of all other races, especially the Jews. This “Reich Church” banned the use of the Hebrew Bible because of its Jewish origins, barred Christians with “Jewish blood” and eventually replaced the cross with the swastika. On December 17, 1941, seven Lutheran regional confederations issued a statement supporting the laws that forced Jews to wear a yellow star writing that “Luther had strongly suggested [such] preventive measures against the Jews.” Deeply devoted to Martin Luther’s anti-Judaism, this church dominated German Protestantism and Lutheranism throughout World War II.
The ideas and writings of Martin Luther impacted Hitler’s regime well beyond the “Reich Church.” According to historian Robert Michael, almost every anti-Jewish book published in the Third Reich referred to, and quoted from, Martin Luther. Similarly, British historian Diarmaid MacCulloch argues that Luther’s 1543 pamphlet was the “blueprint” for Kristallnacht, noting that Lutheran Bishop Martin Sasse in his published compendium of Luther’s writings rejoiced in the coincidence that Kristallnacht took place on Luther’s birthday. The Nazi Party forcefully asserted that Adolf Hitler was continuing the work of Luther. Bernhard Rust, the Nazi Minister of Education, echoed this when he wrote, “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.”
After the end of World War II and the revelations of the horrors of the death camps, a slow process of reconciliation began. The Roman Catholic Church renounced its theological anti-Semitism at the Second Vatican Council of 1965, but took another 50 years to withdraw its official support of missionary work aimed at converting Jews. In 1994, the 5-million-member Evangelical Lutheran Church in American recognized and renounced Luther’s “anti-Judaic diatribes” and rejected “the violent recommendations of his later writings against the Jews.” The European branches of the Lutheran church have gradually followed suit. After Josef Schuster, head of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, called upon the Protestant church to disavow Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, in November of 2016 the Lutheran Church in Germany issued a statement condemning Luther’s anti-Semitism and acknowledging, “the part played by the Reformation tradition in the painful history between Christians and Jews.” The state Lutheran churches of Norway and the Netherlands have since made similar declarations.
Today, two images displayed on the outside wall of Castle Church in Wittenberg, German aptly reflect the complex legacy of the protestant Reformation. The first is a Judensau or “Jew-Pig,” a sculpture from the late 14th century that disparagingly depicts a rabbi pulling up the tail of a female pig and looking into its backside while other Jews kneel down to suckle on the animal’s teats—Martin Luther praised the sculpture in one of his pamphlets. Directly below the Judensau is a Holocaust memorial plaque. The Castle Church installed it on the 50th anniversary of Kristallnacht to counteract the anti-Semitic sculpture. There have been demonstrations and repeated calls for the removal of the Judensau and 30 other similar “Jewish pig” sculptures on churches around Germany, but local Jewish leaders in Wittenberg want the Judensau to remain as a testimony to the anti-Semitism of Germany’s past. When viewed together, they contend, the two images ensure that today’s Germans will recognize and grapple with the totality of their troubling past.