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Martin Luther, Jews, and the Third Reich

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I was raised as a Lutheran at Trinity Lutheran Church in Bismarck, North Dakota. I memorized hundreds of bible verses and most of Luther’s Small Catechism. When I attended a Lutheran college, Concordia College, in Moorhead, Minnesota, I learned more about the Lutheran faith. But I never heard about the treatise that Martin Luther wrote in 1543 entitled “The Jews and Their Lies.”

Before I go into detail about what he said, let me state that Martin Luther, in starting the Protestant Reformation, did get rid of a lot of bad practices in Catholicism. Selling of indulgences to help a person escape purgatory and proceed directly to heaven after their death was certainly one of the more onerous practices that filled the coffers of the church in Rome. The Reformation also played down the role of the Virgin Mary, which in the long run I think was a positive move. Holding out a symbol for a mother who is a virgin doesn’t say much for the rest of us who have to have children the normal way. And, as opposed to pagan goddesses, she could only intercede with the monotheistic father god. As Gerda Lerner says, “she has no power for herself, and the very sources of her power to intercede separate her irrevocably from women. The goddess Ishtar and other goddesses like her had power in their own right.”[1]

The website entitled the Jewish Virtual Library[2] states that “Martin Luther was apparently sympathetic to Jewish resistance to the Catholic Church. However, he expected the Jews to convert to his purified Christianity; when they did not, he turned violently against them.” It also noted that we should be careful to criticize the sort of language he used as not befitting a clergyman. Apparently, they were a bit brazen back then. Listed below are a few excerpts followed by more of the essay. All are drawn from the website listed above.

Motivation for writing

Luther: I had made up my mind to write no more either about the Jews or against them. But since I learned that these miserable and accursed people do not cease to lure to themselves even us, that is, the Christians, I have published this little book, so that I might be found among those who opposed such poisonous activities of the Jews who warned the Christians to be on their guard against them. I would not have believed that a Christian could be duped by the Jew into taking their exile and wretchedness upon himself. However, the devil is the god of the world, and wherever God’s word is absent he has an easy task, not only with the weak but also with the strong. May God help us. Amen.

Therefore be on your guard against the Jews, knowing that wherever they have their synagogues, nothing is found but a den of devils in which sheer self­glory, conceit, lies, blasphemy, and defaming of God and men are practiced most maliciously and veheming his eyes on them.

Citing the Gospel of Matthew

In the passage in Matthew 3:7 that is cited, John the Baptist excoriates a group of Pharisees and Sad’ducees who have come to be baptized. Matthew 11:18 refers to a comment about John the Baptist. In John 8:39,44 Jesus is addressing the Jews who do not accept him.

Luther: He did not call them Abraham’s children, but a “brood of vipers” [Matt. 3:7]. Oh, that was too insulting for the noble blood and race of Israel, and they declared, “He has a demon” [Matt 11:18]. Our Lord also calls them a “brood of vipers”; furthermore in [John 8:39,44] he states: “If you were Abraham’s children ye would do what Abraham did…. You are of your father the devil. It was intolerable to them to hear that they were not Abraham’s but the devil’s children, nor can they bear to hear this today.

Accusation of theft and robbery

Luther: Moreover, they are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury. Thus they live from day to day, together with wife and child, by theft and robbery, as arch­thieves and robbers, in the most impenitent security.

Advice as to how to deal with the Jews

Luther: First to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn, so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them…

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 safe­conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews… Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping…Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jew and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Gen 3:19]…

Influence on Nazi Party and Holocaust

The Lutherans were the dominant protestant denomination in Germany during the 1930’s. As such, they had a large influence on Hitler and the Nazi Party. Prior to the annexation of Austria, which was predominantly Catholic, the Protestants formed 67% of the German population. The Reich Minister of Education, Bernard Rust, stated the following, “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.” In 1933, the Protestant Reich Church was formed from a merger of the Lutheran, Reformed, and United churches of Germany. The head of this new church was anointed the Reich bishop and answered to the Nazi Party. There were, of course, Lutheran pastors who were opposed to the state taking over the church and some ended up in concentration camps. But how many did support this effort by turning in their neighbors and friends who were Jewish? I believe that Hitler could not have undertaken the mass extermination of the Jews without complicity from the population. I will never forget my first reading of the Diary of Anne Frank as a child. I simply couldn’t imagine their huddling each day and night with the constant fear of someone exposing them. As an adult I had a chance to visit the attic where she and her family lived in hiding. It was indeed a very moving experience.

While Martin Luther is just one example of religion being used to separate people into opposing camps, marginalize them, and even exterminate them, it is hardly the only example. As an atheist, I no longer have to be concerned with the label Lutheran, but I wonder if Lutherans today who read this article will be as comfortable with the label.

Karen L. Garst

 

 

 

 

[1] Gerda Lerner, The Creation of Patriarchy (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986), 143

[2] https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/anti-semitism/Luther_on_Jews.html They have drawn their version of this treatise from Internet Medieval Sourcebook: From Luther’s Works, Volume 47: The Christian in Society IV, (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 268­293.

 

About the Author Karen Garst

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