The original Protestant’s slide into hatred
Oxford University Press, £18.99 Reviewed by David-Hillel Ruben
MARTIN LUTHER (14831546) was perhaps the seminal figure in the Protestant Reformation. Many will know the legend of his nailing his critical of many of the practices of Catholicism, on the door of the church in Wittenberg, symbolically seen as the founding act of Protestantism.
In Thomas Kaufmann chronicles Luther’s changing views about Jews during the crucial years from 1523 — when he published
— to 1543, which saw the publication of
Kaufmann argues that the principal change was over the likelihood of their conversion.
In Luther’s “friendly” period, he hoped that, by extending the hand of friendship, some significant progress Martin Luther: conversion problem could be made in the conversion of the Jews to Christianity. Perhaps surprisingly, optimism about their conversion was coupled with a relatively favourable view about the Jews’ character; after all, if they could be converted, they could not be so defiled or degraded as to be incapable of positive response to the Gospel.
By 1543, however, Luther was of the view that Jews were irredeemable, incapable of hearing and understanding the word of God. So his abandonment of the hope of their conversion was accompanied by a far less favourable attitude towards them.
They were now seen as immovably obstinate. Luther doubted that Jews would convert in any significant numbers from authentic rather than selfinterested motives.
Kaufmann, without in the least attempting to justify Luther’s views in this period, does explain that they may have been coloured by illness and deep grief at the death of his young daughter.
But, if not conversion, Luther had other plans for the Jews. He called for their synagogues to be burned, Jewish worship to be banned, all Hebrew books to be taken away from the Jews and for them to be driven out of their homes and made to sleep in barns.
Finally, he advocated expulsion. But there were few Jews left by then in what is present-day Germany. Jews represented for Luther more a category than a reality; there is only one fully sub- stantiated encounter he had with Jews in his entire lifetime.
Havingdismissedsuchchargesinthe early period, the later Luther accused Jews of some of the luridly imagined accusations from the Medieval past, most of which were no longer believed by his enlightened contemporaries: poisoning wells, ritual murder, and abducting children and running them through with “a spike”. The concept of the Jew’s irredeemable and unchangeable degeneracy is an early sign of antisemitism rather than anti-Judaism.
In the final chapter, Kaufmann describes the two different, subsequent Lutheran responses to all of this: while one looks to the Luther of his “friendly” period (with friends like this, who needs enemies?), the other response, ascribing a devilish character to the Jew, leads straight to National Socialism. Peter Stanford’s scholarly
focusing, in the main, on the earlier period up to 1530, will appear later this year.