by Sheldon Kirshner, The Kirshner File, The Canadian Jewish News, February 15, 1996
Protestants in Germany will mark the 450th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther - the father of the Reformation - later this week at solemn ceremonies.
The special events - church services, exhibitions and tours - will take place in several locales: Eisleben, where he was born (Nov. 10, 1483) and died (Feb. 18, 1546); Erfurt and Wittenberg, where he completed part of his studies; Wartburg, where he found safety from prosecution by the pope; and Augsburg, Nuremberg and Worms, where his rebellious ideas initially took root.
In paying homage to the man and his doctrine, Lutheran leaders should also reflect on Luther's darker side, his crazed anti-Semitic dimension, which surfaced when he was middle aged.
To their credit, thoughtful Lutherans have already begun to come to grips with this embarrassing legacy, which was exploited to the hilt by the Nazis. Last summer, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada denounced Luther's "anti-Judaic diatribes" at its biennial national conference in Winnipeg. Prior to that, Lutheran churches in the United States and elsewhere had issued similar declarations.
As a glance at his career indicates, Luther's open hostility to Jews was formed by his conviction that they had utterly rejected his well-meaning theological message.
Before he was infected by the bacillus of anti-Semitism, Luther was something of a defender of Jews, condemning their persecution and recommending greater tolerance of them.
In a pamphlet entitled That Christ Was Born a Jew, Luther expressed understanding that Jews had rebuffed the conversionary overtures of the Roman Catholic church, which he considered spiritually lax and corrupt.
"For they have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs and not human beings," he wrote indignantly. "They have done nothing for them but curse them and seize their wealth. Whenever they converted them, they did not teach them either Christian law or life but only subjected them to papistry and monkery."
In an aside, he added: "I hope that, if the Jews are treated friendly and are instructed kindly enough through the Bible, many of them will become real Christians and come back to the ancestral faith of the prophets and patriarchs..."
Luther's show of friendship for Jews was not motivated by any respect for Judaism, but by "a thirst to redeem them by destroying Judaism," British/Israeli scholar Paul Lawrence Rose has written in Revolutionary Anti-Semitism in Germany.
Once it was apparent to Luther that the children of Israel were resistant to the call of Christianity, he performed a volte-face, turning his wrath on Jews.
In the first glimmerings of his growing antipathy, Luther upbraided Jews for their misguided interpretation of Scripture. Later, Luther's condemnation of usury took on an anti-Jewish cast, while his mean-spirited characterization of Jews as "stiff-necked, iron-hearted and stubborn as the devil" drove him further into fanaticism.
In 1543, Luther's animus probably reached its apotheosis in a vituperative pamphlet, Concerning the Jews and Their Lies, in which he urged the authorities to act against Jews with the utmost severity.
A vile and calculating document, it drips with anger and contempt.
"What then shall we Christians do with this damned, rejected race of Jews? Since they live among us and we know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we cannot tolerate them..."
Not content with merely demonizing Jews, Luther listed seven methods of punishing them.
"First, their synagogues or churches (sic) should be set on fire, and whatever does not burn up should be covered or spread over with dirt so that no one may ever be able to see a cinder or stone of it.
"Secondly, their homes should likewise be broken down and destroyed.
"Thirdly, they should be deprived of their prayer books and Talmuds in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught.
"Fourthly, their rabbis must be forbidden under the threat of death to teach any more...
"Fifthly, passports and travelling privileges should be absolutely forbidden to Jews.
"Sixthly, they ought to be stopped from usury. All their cash and valuables of silver and gold ought to be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping.
"Seventhly, let the young Jews and Jewesses be given the flail, the ax, the hoe, the spade, the distaff and spindle, and let them earn their bread by the sweat of their noses..."
Luther's admonitions, a grand elaboration of traditional anti-Semitic themes, were gleefully expropriated by the Third Reich and carried out to the letter during Kristallnacht in November 1938. Adolf Hitler, of course, considered Luther a great German, and the Nazi party institutionalized his anti-Jewish ravings.
Fusing the anti-Semitic elements of Luther's dogma with the rabid German nationalism espoused by Hitler, the Nazis created the ultimate nightmarish vision of a chauvinistic society run amok.