Martin Luther and German Anti-Semitism: Graham Noble Illustrates Luther's Anti-Jewish Views and Distinguishes Them from Those of the Nazis. (the Unpredictable Past)

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`What shall we Christians do with these rejected and condemned people, the Jews?' This rhetorical question, posed in 1543 by the great Protestant reformer Martin Luther, he answered in the most blood-chilling manner. Their synagogues should be burned to the ground; their houses destroyed; their prayer books seized; their rabbis forbidden to teach on pain of death. They should be prevented from travelling in the countryside and their wealth confiscated. The young and strong should be forced to do menial work in order to prevent them `feasting and farting ... and blasphemously boasting of their lordship over Christians'. Luther went on to call for their expulsion from Germany: `We should toss out these rogues by the seat of their pants'. He even recommended, for a number of them, an even more terrifying fate. The authorities, he urged, must act like a good physician and cut out the gangrene by slaying three thousand, `lest the whole people perish'.

Luther had once been more restrained in his writings about the Jews. As the Reformation was establishing itself in Saxony, he felt able to express pity for the poor conditions in which they were forced to live. He even invited Catholics, who grew tired of abusing him as a heretic, to revile him instead as a Jew, since Jews were related by blood to the Lord. Anyone denying that Jesus Christ was born a Jew, he wrote in 1523, was guilty of a foolish heresy. But underlying this reasonableness was a biting intolerance of the Jewish faith, which produced from Luther ever more furious demands for their conversion to his own brand of Christianity.

The vicious tone and language of On the Jews and Their Lie, the 60,000-word tirade quoted above, was repeated by Luther in his Schem Ha Mphoras of the same year. Its name is derived from an anti-Semitic stone relief carved in the City Church of Wittenberg, where Luther regularly preached, which mocks the traditional lore of the Jews, their CABBALA, and depicts a rabbi lifting the leg and tail of a pig to look into its anus. Luther's very last sermon, preached in Eisleben in February 1546, three days before his death, contained an Admonition against the Jews. They were identified as the sworn enemies of the true faith who would gladly `kill us all' if they could.

For students of later German history, the resonance of all this is obvious and appalling. Indeed the Lutheran Church in America has been moved to denounce its founder's `intemperate remarks' on the subject. But where did Luther's anti-Semitism come from, and how far did his writings, as has been suggested, encourage or lend support to National Socialist policies against the Jews 400 years later?

The Anti-Semitic Context

Luther's ideas did not emanate from personal experience. The evidence is that he had very little contact with Jews. They were, after all, allowed to live in very few German cities and were severely restricted in their freedom of movement. In August 1536 a decree to expel them entirely from his Saxon lands was passed by that lover of religious liberty, Frederick the Wise. (Luther abruptly rejected an appeal made to him to intervene with the Elector on behalf of Jewish merchants, who wanted exemption.)

In early modern Europe, anti-Semitism was widespread. Jews were burned at the stake for a variety of imagined crimes, including the desecration of churches, infanticide and ritual castration. They were blamed for spreading plague and poisoning wells and were commonly reviled as lazy parasites. Frederick's policy in Saxony was part of a series of similar banishments, including Ferdinand's and Isabella's expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, which drove them further and further east in search of new homes. The intolerance of the medieval Christian Church had formed an unholy alliance with secular anti-Semites. Those who saw the Jews as heretics and Christ-killers found ready support amongst others who were suspicious of these curious, self-contained outsiders, whose speech and dress appeared so odd, and whose success in business was so enviable. …