Stages of reception history

Memorial against the “Jewish Sow” at the City Church of St. Mary in Wittenberg
(Photo: epd-bild/Norbert Neetz)

The Luther scholar Bernhard Lohse calls the Reformer's attitude towards the Jews a “dark chapter”. Martin Luther (1482-1546) turned so vigorously against the People of the Scripture that, centuries later, it was easy for the National Socialist rulers to refer to him. Even if there exists no direct connection with Hitler or even the holocaust, Luther's hatred towards the Jews remained a burdensome legacy for the Evangelical Church. This also holds true in view of the imminent Reformation anniversary.

Even before posting his theses in Wittenberg, Luther has dealt with the issue of the Jews. His first statements in a letter were written exactly 500 years ago. On August 5th, 1514, in a letter to Georg Spalatin, Luther supports the humanist Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), who rejects the burning of the Talmud. At the same time, Luther leaves no doubt about the fact that be believes Jewish writings to be blasphemous. He wanted to convert the Jews to Christianity. When he failed, he demanded that they should be expelled and the synagogues burned.

A side issue of Reformed theology

Luther's writings on the Jews were spread far and wide, but during the centuries after his death they were considered as side issues of Reformed theology. Orthodox Lutherans rejected the proselytising of Jews because of their “impenitence”, whereas the Pietistic revivalist movement wanted to continue to promote Jesus as the Messiah amongst the Jewish community. Often, a distinction was made between the “early” Luther with his seemingly friendly attitude towards the Jews, and the ageing Reformer with his terribly abusive utterances.

In the 19th century, when the legal equality of the Jews in Germany was discussed, this led to the paradox situation that both the supporters and the opponents of the emancipation of Jews were able to refer to Luther. At the same time, Luther's theological anti-Judaism was used increasingly even from circles outside the church, while he was stylised into a national hero. It is astonishing that, for example, a radical anti-Semite, the Protestant court preacher and founder of the Christian Socialist Party Adolf Stoecker from Berlin, rarely referred to the Reformer's hatred towards the Jews.

Luther as a treasure trove for radical nationalists

Instead, Luther became a treasure trove for radical nationalists. Racially inspired anti-Semitism locked almost seamlessly into theological anti-Judaism. Heinrich von Treitschke's slogan “The Jews are our misfortune”, which later became the motto of the National Socialist movement, was taken from a passage of Luther's writings against the Jews. The folkish chief ideologist Houston Steward Chamberlain from Bayreuth stylised Luther into the hero of a pseudo-religious, “Aryan” Christianity. And Hitler explained that he himself was the successor of the “small, insignificant monk” who had dared to fight against “a world full of enemies”.

After Hitler's accession to power, the National Socialist German Christians supported and propagated Luther's hatred towards the Jews. When, in November 1938, the synagogues burned all over the German empire, Martin Sasse, regional bishop of Thuringia, published excepts from Luther's anti-Jewish text “On the Jews and their lies” under the title “Martin Luther about the Jews: Away with them!” He was pleased about pointing out that even the Reformer had intended the synagogues to be set on fire.

Finally abstaining from proselytising the Jews

After the Second World War and the murder of millions of European Jews, a radical change of mind happened in the Evangelical Church. Theologically, this was expressed by finally abstaining from proselytising the Jews, as it was decided, for example, by the Rhenish Regional Synod in 1980. It refers to a phrase from the Letter to the Romans: “It is not you who carries the root, but the root that carries you.” On a historical level, a critical reflection on Luther's anti-Judaism and the role of Protestant Christians between 1933 and 1945 and their responsibility for the holocaust was set into motion.

In view of the imminent Reformation anniversary, the debate has now expanded and also partly intensified. Recently, the church historian Johannes Wallmann from Bochum rejected the wide-spread notion that Luther's anti-Judaism within the church had only been overcome after 1945. The latter position is supported, for example, by the Special Envoy for the Reformation anniversary of the Evangelical Church in Germany, Margot Käßmann. Wallmann argues that Luther's writings about the Jews had remained “unnoticed for centuries, and were only retrieved during the National Socialist regime.

However, this does nothing to change the failure of the church during the years of the “Third Reich”. The Protestant church historian Dorothea Wendebourg demands it to be openly discussed during the celebrations in 2017. But when the issue “the church and the Jews” is assessed, it becomes clear that the Reformation did not only consist of Luther: other Reformers, like Justus Jonas, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, or Andreas Osiander, had a much more friendly attitude towards the Jews, and sometimes strongly contradicted Luther. This variety of opinions also belongs to the Protestant heritage.