Luther, the Jews, and the Holocaust

ImageWe live in a post-Holocaust world. One of the consequences of this is that many people think that anything that even smells like anti-Semitism must in fact be anti-Semitism. We are right to express serious concern over the seeds of Jewish hatred because we have seen the devastation to which it can lead and have seen how deep that hatred can go. However, as valid as this concern may be, many have let it misshape their reading of pre-Holocaust history and claim to see anti-Semitism where it doesn’t truly exist. This proclivity to see anti-Semitism where it doesn’t exist is nowhere worse than in much of the historical scholarship that seeks to explain just how German Nationalism came about and what historical ideologies led to the Holocaust. One explanation commonly offered is that Martin Luther’s written work on the Jews was the precursor to late nineteenth, and early twentieth-century German anti-Semitism and that the ideological program for the Holocaust was energized by these writings.

Adolph Hitler

The logic usually runs along these lines: because Luther, a influential figure in German history, said terrible things that he shouldn’t have said about the Jews, it must have helped spark  the ideology of Nazi anti-Semitism. However, as we will see, such an understanding of history can only stand on a highly selective and narrow reading of Luther.

A Pro-Jewish Luther

Luther’s criticism of the Jews near the end of his life is often the place where people begin and end their study of Luther on this matter. But when we take into account the whole corpus of Luther’s writings on the Jews, we find that there is too much that not only doesn’t support Nazi ideology but directly challenges and contradicts it. Consider whether the following statements could serve to support Nazi anti-Semitism:

They [Roman Catholic leaders] have dealt with the Jews as if they were dogs rather than human beings; they have done little else than deride them and seize their property. When they baptize them they show them nothing of Christian doctrine or life, but only subject them to popishness and monkery.[1]

Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks — the crude asses’ heads — have hitherto so treated the Jews that anyone who wished to be a good Christian would almost have had to become a Jew. If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian.[2]

Therefore, I would request and advise that one deal gently with them [the Jews] and instruct them from Scripture; then some of them may come along. Instead of this we are trying only to drive them by force, slandering them, accusing them of having Christian blood if they don’t stink, and I know not what other foolishness. So long as we thus treat them like dogs, how can we expect to work any good among them? Again, when we forbid them to labor and do business and have any human fellowship with us, thereby forcing them into usury, how is that supposed to do them any good?[3]

If we really want to help them [the Jews], we must be guided in our dealings with them not by papal law but by the law of Christian love. We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either.[4]

Absurd theologians defend hatred for the Jews….What Jew would consent to enter our ranks when he sees the cruelty and enmity we wreak on them-that in our behavior towards them we less resemble Christians than beasts.[5]

I do not defend Martin Luther in order to defend Christianity. One can rightly dismiss any of Luther’s wrongdoing as  rooted in a misunderstanding of Scripture and the Christian faith. Any shortcomings of Martin Luther are no invection against the truth of the Christian faith. No one stated more clearly the faults of Luther than Luther himself. As he once said to his wife Katie, “Why, I sometimes rage about a piddling thing not worthy of mention. … Isn’t that a shameful thing?”

As with the study of any aspect of Luther’s thought, we should make no attempt to whitewash Luther’s view of the Jews. There are good reasons that the church no longer speaks about the Jews as he said. Nevertheless, in our treatment of Luther we must not lay blame where it doesn’t belong. There are things for which one can legitimately fault Luther, but contributing to Nazi ideology is not one of them.

“On the Jews and Their Lies”

Luther’s favor toward the Jews turned to “harsh mercy”[6] when he saw how greatly opposed they were to the message of the gospel that he preached. He originally thought that they would be converted since the gospel was no longer being perverted by Rome, but soon became frustrated with the reaction of the Jews to his preaching.

There is not space here to wade through all of the negative things Luther said about the Jews, so I’ll quote the sections that are clearly the most egregious and offensive. The following is the advice that Luther gives to magistrates regarding Jews.

“First, to set fire to their synagogues or schools and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not burn so that no man will ever again see a stone or cinder of them.” While this statement cannot be defended in general, we can nevertheless see from Luther’s next statement that it does not share even so much as the same motivation as Nazism: “This is to be done in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christians, and do not condone or knowingly tolerate such public lying, cursing, and blaspheming of his Son and of his Christians.”[7]

Luther also writes, “I recommend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam.”[8]

“I advise that their rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of loss of life and limb. For they have justly forfeited the right to such an office by holding the poor Jews captive with the saying of Moses.”[9]

Two Luthers?

Often critics argue that in “On the Jews and Their Lies” Luther was repudiating his earlier pro-Jewish statements.

Luther scholar, Heiko Oberman, rejects the notion that we have a contrast between “two Luthers” – one, the “bold Reformer, the liberating theologian, the powerfully eloquent German”; the other, an “anti-Semite” who “wrote mainly about Jews,” and “preached hatred.”[10] Oberman demonstrates, this is nothing but a caricature of Luther.

As divergent as Luther’s later statements may appear to be from his earlier statements, there are too many statements in the later part of his life that harken back to the younger Luther for us to ultimately divide the two ideologically.

Even when the older Luther discussed one of the most extreme questions of whether the authorities should expel the Jews from the country, he still acknowledged a special status of Jews over Gentiles. He wrote to Josel von Rosheim that nothing would prevent the misery of exile unless “you accept your cousin and Lord, the beloved crucified Jesus, along with us heathens.”[11] This statement provides a strong point of continuity with his earlier statements in which he upholds the Jewishness of Jesus and the Jews as his wayward people. The historical context of Luther’s statement is also significant. Luther was responding to Rosheim’s request that Luther help protect the Jews against exile. He appealed to Luther specifically because he knew that Luther did not share in the common anti-semitic attitude and was often ridiculed by Catholics as a “friend of the Jews.”

In his reply to Rosheim he also wrote, “Would you kindly accept my advice….Because for the sake of the crucified Jew, whom no one shall take from me, I would gladly do my best for all you Jews, unless you should use my favor for your stubbornness. This is what you should know.”[12]

That Luther recognized the familial relation of Jews and Christ establishes a sharp discontinuity with the widely-held Nazi belief that Jesus was Aryan not Jewish. H. S. Chamberlain’s book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century was probably the most influential anti-semitic work on this question. He wrote: “The probability that Christ was no Jew, that he had not a drop of genuinely Jewish blood in his veins, is so great that it is almost equivalent to a certainty.”[13]  As influential as this work was, it was only one of many at the time denying the Jewishness of Christ.

Luther’s last statement on the Jews is found in his final sermon just three days before his death. In this sermon he writes, “we want to practice Christian love toward them [the Jews] and pray that they convert.”[15]

Luther wrote all of these statements in the later years of his life and they are clearly consistent with previous pro-Jewish writings such as, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.”

In spite of these later positive statements, Luther’s negative statements remain the object of focus much more. What he said is indeed regrettable and shameful. Whether Luther said terrible things about the Jews is an altogether different question from whether he shares responsibility in any way for the atrocities of the Holocaust. On the latter issue, he shares no guilt — not because his statements can be excused altogether — but because the asymmetry between Luther’s view of the Jews and the Nazi view of the Jews is simply too great.

Luther’s criticism of the Jews was theological not biological or political. He had no concept of ethnic superiority or a desire to witness the extermination of the Jewish race. The Holocaust was rooted in an entirely different motivation. Nazism was not angered by the Jewish rejection of Jesus as the Messiah, but simply by the Jewishness of the Jews.

Furthermore, it was not Luther’s desire to rob Jews of prosperity. He simply did not want them to be prosperous in Germany, and believed that their prosperity had not been achieved by ethical means. Right or wrong, Luther believed that Jews were taking advantage of Christian nations in the commerce sector of society and wanted to see them stopped. In his mind, because of immoral business practice, Jews should be forced to return to agriculture where one cannot cheat the land. There they would earn what they earn by the honest work of the sweat of their brow not by chicanery.

As Roland Bainton  writes:

“Luther’s criticism of the Jews was entirely religious and in no respect racial. The supreme sin for him was the persistent rejection of God’s revelation of himself in Christ. The centuries of Jewish suffering were themselves a mark of the divine displeasure. They should be compelled to leave and go to a land of their own. This was a program of enforced Zionism. But if it were not feasible, then Luther would recommend that the Jews be compelled to live from the soil. He was unwittingly proposing a return to the condition of the early Middle Ages, when the Jews had been in agriculture. Forced off the land, they had gone into commerce and, having been expelled from commerce, into money lending. Luther wished to reverse the process and thereby inadvertently would accord the Jews a more secure position than they enjoyed in his day.”[16]

For all the wrong that he spoke against the Jews, Luther nevertheless thought them worthy of the gospel. He believed that Christ was their Messiah: “I also would wish that through your example and your work, Christ might also be made known among other Jews, who were predestined, are called, and shall come to their king David, in order that he might lead and save them.”[17] In Luther’s historical Christian context this sentiment was at odds with the popular Christian opinion.  His method for bringing them to Christ was undoubtedly flawed, but we can nevertheless establish for Luther an entirely different motivation than that of Hitler.

Luther was not against Jews as Jews. In fact, Luther always thought Jews have advantages that Gentiles do not.[18] If a Jew did not blaspheme Christ and call him “a bastard son” or speak of “that whore, Mary” (both were phrases which Luther heard from many Jews) then Luther had no problem with this person. Luther even went so far as to argue that money should be taken from unbelieving Jews and given to Jews who convert to the Christian faith.[19] While immoral in its own right, this statement nevertheless demonstrates that Luther thought highly of converted Jews. Nazism, on the other hand, did not care in the least what confession Jews made about Christ. Christian Jews (and there were some) were under just as much oppression by Nazi government as any Jew. Properly used, then, the term “anti-Semite” does not apply to Luther. He was not against Jews as a race; he was against Jews according to their religious creed and to the extent that they rejected faith in Jesus Christ. His position is properly characterized as anti-Judaism. Even in his most virulent attack against the Jews, “On the Jews and Their Lies,” he still says of the Jewish people that “they are set apart from all other nations by this holy circumcision and made a holy people of God.” Statements such as this cannot be attributed to an anti-Semite and certainly could not energize an entire genocidal program.

Also, unlike many in his time, Luther did not even hold Jews responsible for the death of Christ. As he wrote in a hymn: “Our great sin and sore misdeed/ Jesus the true Son of God, to the Cross has nailed./ Thus you poor Judas, as well as all the Jews/ we may not upbraid inimically,/ for the guilt is ours.”[20] Blaming Jews for the death of Christ was frequently the cause of Christian violence against Jews in Luther’s day. Yet he recognized that the blame is upon all of us not a certain few.

This evidence distances Luther both from the attitude toward Jews in his own day as well as that of the Nazis. Nothing in Luther’s writings even hints at a program of racial extermination, or a desire to see them wiped from the face of the earth.

Luther in a Nazi context

I have argued that when we situate Luther in the context of his own day he stands out as a much more moderate voice. But what of Luther’s place in the context of pre-Nazi and Nazi Germany? When Luther’s view is contrasted with Hitler’s program of ethnic cleansing, it is clear just how impossible it is that Luther could motivate such a dedicated anti-Semitism. As we consider Luther’s place in the religious context of Nazi Germany, there are numerous facts which we must take into account.

  • Six thousand of the nearly 14,000 Protestant pastors in Germany (the vast majority of which were Lutheran) illegally expressed opposition to the Nazi state.[21] This is a far greater percentage than that of the Catholic German priests who expressed opposition.
  • Those pastors who opposed Hitler’s Jewish program did not do so by abandoning Lutheran theology, rather Lutheran theology was the very basis of their opposition to it. Devout Lutherans such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Lutheran Mayor of Leipzig, Carl Goerdeler were executed for their opposition to the Third Reich, and they staked their opposition on Lutheran theology. Lutherans Hanns Lilje, Martin Niemoeller, and Heinrich Grueber were all imprisoned for their resistance to the Nazi party and remained committed to Lutheran theology..[22]
  • Following World War Two, the Lutheran church in Germany drew from Luther’s writings to show that those who used Luther to justify their racism had done so only by selectively quoting him and ignoring his many statements contrary to their racism.
  • The Confessing Church, a Protestant organization of clergy and layleaders that opposed Nazism, was comprised almost entirely of devout Lutherans who saw no support for the Holocaust in Luther’s writings.

Now there is no doubt that Hitler and other Nazis appealed to Luther in defense of their anti-Semitism and the atrocities they committed against the Jews. But the question of whether the Nazis appropriated Luther for their anti-Semitism is not the same as the question of whether Luther’s writings were responsible for their anti-Semitism. The appeal to Luther was a post-facto justification of their anti-Semitism and not the impetus of it. Furthermore, as we have seen, it was a selective appropriation of Luther without due consideration for his pro-Jewish sentiments.

Who gets the blame?

Nazi Belt BuckleGordon Rupp was one of the first post-war Luther scholars to disconnect Luther from the motivation of Nazi anti-Semitism “…Needless to say, there is no trace of such a relation between Luther and Hitler. I suppose Hitler never once read a page by Luther. The fact that he and other Nazis claimed Luther on their side proves no more than the fact that they also numbered Almighty God among their supporters. Hitler mentions Luther once in Mein Kampf in a harmless context.”[23]

What many who associate the Holocaust with Luther often fail to recognize is that Hitler and the leading members of his cabinet – Himmler, Goebbels, and Streicher – were all lapsed Roman Catholics. There was much more of an abundance of anti-Semitism (not just anti-Judaism) in Catholic writings than one could hope to find in the narrow slice of Luther’s writings.

As Rupp points out:

Luther’s antagonism to the Jews was poles apart from the Nazi doctrine of “Race”. It was based on medieval Catholic anti-Semitism towards the people who crucified the Redeemer, turned their back on the way of Life, and whose very existence in the midst of a Christian society was considered a reproach and blasphemy. Luther is a small chapter in the large volume of Christian inhumanities toward the Jewish people.[24]

Moreover, the anger, negativity, and call for resistance found in Luther’s writings on the Jews is outmatched – both in sheer volume and in the tone –  by what is found in Luther’s comments against medieval Roman Catholicism. If Luther opposed anything it was the Catholic religion into which Hitler himself was baptized. This fact alone is enough to demonstrate that any appropriation which Hitler made of Luther’s writings was not built widely on the whole of his theology but only a highly selective reading of him for the purpose of supporting his own pre-formed ideology. It is no surprise that Nazi leaders claimed Luther for their cause. He was only one of many sources brought into to propagandize the nation, sources which extended even as far as the Jewish Scriptures themselves.

Remarkably then, those who see a parallel between Luther’s attitude toward the Jews and the Nazi attitude toward the Jews are still reading Luther in the same selective and shallow way that the Nazi’s did. Those who knew better then and who know better now recognize that for all of Luther’s failures to deal properly with the Jews, the Nazi program differs too greatly from Luther to say that he bears any of the responsibility.

As unacceptable as Luther’s views of the Jews are today, when we place them in their historical context, his view of the Jews surpassed and matured far beyond the medieval soil from which Luther himself grew. His unchanging belief in the positive ontological status of the Jews transcended his criticism of their behavior or their religion, and with this he separates himself from the common perception of Jews in his own day as well the perception of Jews under Nazism. Both medieval theology and Nazi ideology can be united by the more severe action which they called for with no regard for the Jewish spiritual condition. Luther’s is a view all his own. Luther’s theology was properly used to combat the ideology of Nazism both during and after it’s reign. If one is looking for a historical link between the Holocaust and Christianity, she will find a much more likely source in medieval theology than could ever be found in Luther.


[1] Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew” (1523). This entire document is available in sections at: http://www.suite101.com/article.cfm/lutheranism/108584

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Luther quoted in Elliot Rosenberg, But Were They Good for the Jews? (New York: Birch Lane Press, 1997), 65.

[6] Luther, “On the Jews and Their Lies.” This work is available at: http://reactor-core.org/jewish-lies.html

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Luther 1537, quoted in Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, trans. Eileen Walliser-Schwartzbart, 2nd Eng. Ed. (New York: Image Books, 1992), 294.

[11]Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Chamberlain quoted in Maurice casey, “Who’s Afraid of Jesus Christ? Some Comments on Attempts to Write a Life of Jesus Christ,” in Writing History, Constructing Religion, eds. James G. Crossley, Christian Karner (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing, 2005), 130.

[14] “On the Jews and Their Lies”

[15] Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978), 299.

[16] Luther, “Letter to Bernhard, a Converted Jew”, 1523.

[17] “We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord. Therefore, if one is to boast of flesh and blood the Jews are actually nearer to Christ than we are” (“That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew”).

[18] “On the Jews and Their Lies”

[19] Luther quoted in Oberman, Luther, 297.

[20] Heiko Oberman, The Roots of Antisemitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation, trans. James I. Porter (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), 94.

[21] William Lazareth, Christians in Society: Luther, the Bible, and Social Ethics (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001), 9.

[22] For a detailed account of the Lutheran resistance to Nazism, see: Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: Refuting Nazi Connections and Other Modern Myths 2nd ed. (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 2007).

[23] Gordon Rupp, Martin Luther: Hitler’s Cause or Cure? (London: Lutterworth Press, 1945), 84.

[24] Ibid., 75.

3 thoughts on “Luther, the Jews, and the Holocaust

  1. This might be difficult for you to handle, but Luther did say, “God help us if we do not slay them.” (the Jews) Nazism was an unholy marriage between historic Christian antisemitism and Darwinian racial theories, along with a bit of this and that. It takes two to tango. There was even a precursor hint of “bad blood,” theory during the Spanish middle ages, with the idea that Jewish blood was contaminated beyond redemption via conversion.

    There was only one significant public protest against Hitler, and that was 200 German women who demanded their arrested Jewish husbands be returned to them. You can’t alter your history, but you can choose to turn away from it and make amends, or you can reframe and excuse it.

    Here’s an interesting tidbit: We know there are no accidents in the heavenly economy. I met a guy, an author of a book I was discussing via Amazon, who is a descendent of Martin Luther, and he is an ardent Zionist and lover of Israel and his wife has a German-Jewish grandfather. Luther would be turning over in his grave.

    • chaya1957,

      I really don’t know what point you’re trying to make. Perhaps you can make it clearer. Also, I don’t know why you would think Luther saying, “God help us if we do not slay [the Jews]” might be difficult for me to handle. You assume that I’m ignorant of the statement. Why exactly?

      • Rev. John Frasier,

        While that statement might not be in line with Nazi ideology, it was certainly in line with practice. You might be an exception, but my experience is that historic Christian antisemitism is rarely taught in seminary, and if it is, it is minimized. I think most would agree that, “The Jews and Their Lies,” was a blueprint for Kristallnacht, whether this was Luther’s intention or not, but it sounds like it was, and he only lacked the authority for implementation. Yes, Luther was initially friendly toward the Jews just like Mohammed was, turning on them with a vengence when they refused to capitulate.

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