Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment

Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment

Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment

Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment


In this book Eric W. Gritsch, a Lutheran and a distinguished Luther scholar, faces the glaring ugliness of Martin Luther's anti- Semitism head-on, describing Luther's journey from initial attempts to proselytize Jews to an appallingly racist position, which he apparently held until his death.

Comprehensively laying out the textual evidence for Luther's virulent anti-Semitism, Gritsch traces the development of Luther's thinking in relation to his experiences, external influences, and theological convictions. Revealing greater impending danger with each step, Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism marches steadily onward until the full extent of Luther's racism becomes apparent. Gritsch's unflinching analysis also describes the impact of Luther's egregious words on subsequent generations and places Luther within Europe's long history of anti-Semitism.

Throughout, however, Gritsch resists the temptation either to demonize or to exonerate Luther. Rather, readers will recognize Luther's mistakes as links in a chain that pulled him further and further away from an attitude of respect for Jews as the biblical people of God. Gritsch depicts Luther as a famous example of the intensive struggle with the enduring question of Christian-Jewish relations. It is a great historical tragedy that Luther, of all people, fell victim to anti-Semitism -- albeit against his better judgment.


In 1543, three years before his death, Luther wrote a treatise titled “On the Jews and Their Lies,” urging secular rulers to execute a sevenfold program regarding Jews: (1) burning all synagogues and schools; (2) razing all private homes and properties; (3) confiscating religious writings; (4) prohibiting the teaching by rabbis on pain of loss of life; (5) no safe conduct on highways; (6) no money trading to avoid usury; and (7) labor camps for young Jews. “We are at fault in not slaying them,” he fumed. He called on pastors to cooperate and, in addition, to prohibit Jews “on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly, [and] to utter the name of God within our hearing.”

Modern readers, aware of the Holocaust, cannot help but link such an attitude with twentieth-century National Socialists (“Nazis”) who, led by Adolf Hitler, began their public anti-Semitic campaign in 1938 by the burning of synagogues, Jewish homes, and shops in all parts of Germany during the night before Luther’s birthday (November 910); it is remembered as the infamous “Crystal Night” (Kristallnacht). Moreover, Hitler’s “final solution” for the Jews through mass extermination, a holocaust, in labor camps, known as “concentration camps” (Konzentrationslager) echoes part of Luther’s polemical outbursts. a best-selling American history of the Hitler regime cites the influence of Luther on “the behavior of most German Protestants in the first Nazi

1. wa 53, 523:1, 24, 30, 32; 524:16, 18; 525:31; 536:34-37. lw 47, 268-72, 286. Quotation 522:9-12. lw 47, 267.

2. Martin Gilbert, Kristallnacht: Prelude to Destruction (New York: HarperCollins, 2006).

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