iD magazine


- Martin Luther

When historians compile lists of Germans who changed the course of history, one name is often among the top three: Martin Luther. A monk, priest, professor, theologian, and church reformer, he questioned the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church and inspired the Protestant Reformatio­n. In doing so, he’d risked not just excommunic­ation but his life as well. Luther deeply influenced the doctrines of the Lutheran and other Protestant traditions and thus the course of Western civilizati­on. But at the same time, his views on Jews and Judaism also paved the way for the largest genocide in history.

In the end, all denial was fruitless: On October 1, 1946, Julius Streicher, founder of the virulently anti-semitic and vitriolic newspaper Der Stürmer, was convicted of “crimes against humanity” and sentenced to death by the Internatio­nal Military Tribunal in Nuremberg. His furious reaction: “If Martin Luther were alive today, he would be here in my place!” In 1543 Luther wrote the treatise On the Jews and Their Lies in which he asserted: “Such a desperate, thoroughly evil, poisonous, and devilish lot are these Jews, who for these fourteen hundred years have been and continue to be our plague, our pestilence, and our misfortune.” Luther had suggested a solution to the “Jewish problem” that would become a barbarous reality some 400 years later: “Set fire to their synagogues and schools…” Even today some churches prefer to ignore Luther’s statements about the Jews, viewing them as “merely” anti-judaic rather than anti-semitic. But Dutch historian and Luther biographer Heiko Augustinus Oberman sees the matter differentl­y. He says the theme of the Jews shouldn’t be viewed as a dark footnote in Luther’s work but rather as a central theme of his theology. Fellow historian and Luther expert Thomas Kaufmann agrees. He sees Luther’s controvers­ial writings as “a literary final solution to the Jewish question,” and he’s of the opinion that Luther’s hatred of Jews went beyond any kind of Christian anti-judaism.

As Germany prepared to enter the Nazi era, Protestant theologian­s took up that old banner once more. In 1932 Berlin pastor Siegfried Nobiling wrote: “We see in Judaism the spiritual and biological poisoning of our race.” That same year Nobiling had joined the Faith Movement of German Christians where he met like-minded colleagues. As the nation headed further toward Nazism, Luther’s ideas became a sort of enabling factor. And on Kristallna­cht in 1938 the synagogues did burn—on Martin Luther’s birthday, of all days.

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