The world has been effected with the hatred of anti-Semitism for many centuries. This hatred can most commonly be seen from the events which occurred during the peak of Nazism which has come to be labeled as the Holocaust. Hitler devised many plans to rid of Jews from European society yet one of the most severe plans in history comes from Martin Luther who wrote an essay in 1543 called “Concerning the Jews and their Lies”. This text presented an eight step plan to destroy the presence of Jews in Europe. This text seems to propose that Martin Luther, who was the leader of the Protestant Reformation and starter of German nationalism, and his ideas that he taught had a deep influence on the anti-Semitic thinkers that came to follow in the proceeding centuries. It is very much a possibility that that Martin Luther and Hitler had a common religious and ideological outlook.
Martin Luther’s position toward Jewish people is incredibly concerning. Throughout his religious writings it can be seen that Luther made an extreme change from sympathy to hateful paranoia towards the Jews. Very early in his Protestant career Luther wrote an essay entitled “That Jesus Christ Was Born A Jew”. Within this text he calls for tolerance, compassion, and peaceful conversion. “…they have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs and not human beings” (Luther “That” 33). Luther believed that a purified Christianity, which in his mind was his Christianity, would attract Jews to wanting to convert (Patterson 16). The Jewish people were a population of value to Luther. Luther questioned how Jews could improve his society (Luther “That” 34). Luther called into question those who advocated violence against the Jews. How could a Jew become a contributing member of a Christian society if he or she was beaten into compliance or conversion? Luther understood that Jews had been forced into usury as their only means of survival. Above all else, one can see that Luther advises Christian charity when dealing with the Jews.
This all brings into question how just two decades later Martin Luther was able to change in viewpoints so drastically and focus on oppressing the Jews and kicking them out of Germany which he announced in one of his last sermons (Patterson 17). What sparked such a drastic shift in his ideology? The words of Erasmus, the great Catholic humanist proved that Martin Luther was not the only Catholic with such a negative view on Jews, as he said, “If it is Christian to hate Jews, then we are all good Christians” (Patterson 16). Luther knew Hebrew well enough that he translated the Old Testament from Hebrew to German which shows that he had some expansive knowledge about Judaism. This brings up again the question of why he became an anti-Semite before he died.
A potential reason for Luther’s abrupt change of ideology can be seen in the recurring theme of patricide in Christian doctrine. For Luther to be able to found Protestantism as an independent theology he needed to destroy its roots: Catholicism and Judaism. The complication is still present that Luther’s essay ‘Concerning the Jews and their Lies’ was written and its historical impact must be attended to. The essay itself was a clean call for action against Jewish people. Luther offered a deliberate and methodical plan for removing them from European society.
“…we cannot tolerate them Jews if we do not wish to share in their lies, curses, and blasphemy” (Luther “Concerning” 34).
It is seen that Luther no longer had any trust and little tolerance for the Jews. He even went so far to believe that they cursed Christians during their morning prayers (“Concerning’”34). He did not believe they could be converted passively and in his mind they had become an inhuman immoral burden on his society. “…if they could kill us all, they would gladly do so” (Prager 102). He urged his followers to practice “merciful severity’ (“Concerning” 34).
Throughout Luther’s essay there is practically no mercy towards the Jews. Luther created an eight step plan based in violence and cruelty: Burn Jewish synagogues, destroy Jewish homes, Take away Jewish holy books, forbid rabbis to teach, do not allow Jews to travel, forbid usury in all form, force Jews to do physical labor, if all else fails, expel them (“Concerning” 34-36).
Luther was following the anti-Semitic example set by other European nations such as France and Spain (Luther “Concerning” 36). Luther wanted Jews kept in concentrated areas and makes it clear that he believes Jews should be made to feel as though they were captives in a Christian land. Luther’s verbal attacks legitimized anti-Semitism.
Through his action Luther created the foundation for future developments in anti-Semitism ultimately leading to Hitler and Nazism. Hitler took Luther’s advice and expanded upon it. After becoming chancellor of the Reich in 1933, Hitler slowly instituted increasingly harsh anti-Semitic laws (Mosse 202). Racism was assimilated into the middle class through the law (Mosse 207). Starting in 1935 with the Nuremburg Laws Jews were attacked as a group (Mosse 205). As Racism became the norm and nationally accepted, it can be argued that Hitler used Martin Luther as an leading example for his people to follow.
In addition to creating the basis for Hitler and the entirety of Nazism, Martin Luther changed the course of life for Jews throughout the proceeding decades after his death. Around Europe, cities implemented harsh restrictions that were put in place to make life for Jews difficult and put them at higher risk for arrest and execution. In Augsberg, Germany, laws were put in place which required all Jews to announce their reason for entering the city and if approved by the city they were allowed in for certain amounts of time (“Jews” 190). The violent anti-Semitism adopted by the people of Augsberg lead to several instances of reasonless abuse of Jews outside of the city, “a gate guard criminally and viciously attacked us without warning… and for absolutely no reason”. Such cruelty like this has continued for centuries towards Jews and such instances have resulted in the deaths of millions such as the Holocaust.
It is apparent that Hitler somewhat revered Luther. In Hitler’s autobiographical book, Mein Kampf, he ranks Luther as one of the three great German cultural heroes. The first large scale pogrom where synagogues were burnt and thirty five Jews were killed was carried out officially in honor of Martin Luther’s birthday on November 9, 1938 (Prager 107). Hitler’s plan moved from isolation and expulsion to extermination. The ideas created by Luther helped form the footing for many legal attacks focused towards Jews. However, it seems as though Luther was not an advocate for killing. Thus, it is unfair to say that Martin Luther was a direct cause of the Holocaust. Rather, Luther’s anti-Semitic ideas and proposals provided a fertile soil from which the seeds of new even more horrific visions could germinate and grow into full bloom.
- Luther, Martin. “Concerning the Jews and their Lies”. 1543.
- Luther, Martin. “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew”. 1523.
- Author Unknown. “Jews in Reformation Augsberg”. 1538-1584.
- Mosse, George L. “Toward the Final Solution”. New York: Howard Fertig, 1978.
- Patterson, Charles. “Anti-Semitism”. New York: Walker and Company, 1982.
- Prager, Dennis and Joseph Telushkin. “Why the Jews?”. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1983.
- “Martin Luther, Translator of the Bible.” Musée Virtuel Du Protestantisme, Musee Protestant,