Main Point 8
Martin Luther’s relationship to Hitler and Naziism is continually misrepresented by those who have no sympathy for or understanding of the principles of the Reformation.
I saw this comment on the internet recently:
I despise Luther and, obviously, all he stands for. I think his words set a terrible precedent and helped convince Hitler to do what he did. but I still do not know whether Luther was clearly a racist in the sense that he saw the Jews’ “evil” as inherited.
A right understanding of Christianity (and in the present context its relation to Naziism) must come from the bible alone, not from Luther, Calvin, Augustine, Aquinas, or any of the other church leaders who have written many things (true, partly true, or false) about Christianity. Many theologians have distorted the message of Christ and it is to Christ alone, and his teachings as expressed in the Old and New Testaments, that we look to for guidance. To the extent that Luther deviated from the bible’s message, his teachings are to be condemned and dismissed.
Late in his life, Luther wrote a couple of tracts, “On the Jews and their Lies” and “Vom Shem Hamphoras.” These contained many hostile and bitter comments about the Jews that have been a great embarrassment to the church and have caused a lot of confusion in the attempts to understand the relationship of Christianity to Naziism.
It would be easy to dispense with Luther’s lamentable attacks as simple disobedience to the plain teachings of scripture, which says: “And the servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle unto all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God peradventure will give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth” (II Timothy). These tracts represent not Christianity, but a deviation from it. However, since Luther (and by extension Christianity) have so often been linked to Hitler because of these remarks, it might be helpful to make a few general observations.
To begin with, the Jews were not an issue in any of Luther’s major Reformation works (The 95 Theses, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Bondage of the Will, and others).His main concern was elsewhere, contrary to what some have asserted, and if he had not written some hostile comments at the very end of his life his name would not be so prominent in discussions of the Holocaust.
Secondly, modern racial antisemitism was unknown in Luther’s time. This is a strictly modern phenomenon, beginning with Gobineau, and amplified in the German context by Lagarde and Langbehn, with heavy doses of German modifications of Darwin (as shown by Daniel Gasman in The Scientific Origins of National Socialism). Luther had no interest in racial supremacy, a concept that is contrary to the bible’s teaching that God “has made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth” (Acts 17:26). Hitler’s basic approach had deep roots in 19th-century secularism going back to Hegel and even farther, with the addition of modern racial elements. The affinities between Hitler and Wagner, Ernst Haeckel, and Nietzsche (in The Antichrist) are unmistakable, and all of those men expressly rejected and attacked Christianity. The link from Shirer given in Sect. VI above shows a veneration by Hitler for Nietzsche that was never accorded to Luther.
Thirdly, in all of his life, even at the height of his influence, Luther never harmed anyone. His oft-quoted but little read tract “On the Jews and Their Lies” even refers to Jews coming to him to discuss the scriptures and being left to depart in peace. The Jews were basically well-treated in Germany before 1914, and in all other Protestant countries. It is significant that these sentiments were echoed by no other Protestant leader, and even caused some embarrassment in Luther’s time. In countries where for centuries prior to 1914 Protestantism was dominant and Luther’s basic teachings were deeply influential, these policies were never acted out or even seriously advocated.
Another point that should be made is that Luther was in part responding angrily to some insulting and hostile attacks on Christianity by some Jews (“Mary was a whore, Jesus was a highwayman who deserved to be hanged,” and so on). Here Luther would have done well to pay more attention to I Timothy, which warns that “doting about questions and strifes of words” leads to “strife, railings, evil surmisings.” This describes Luther’s anti-Jewish tracts exactly. Luther also went against a passage in II Timothy, which says “shun profane and vain babblings: for they will increase unto more ungodliness.” If Luther had been stronger in the faith, as he was earlier in life, he would have rejected the mocking of Christianity by some Jews without allowing himself to become obsessed by it.
Next, his constantly quoted remarks from “On the Jews and Their Lies” about forcing the Jews to work and burning their synagogues etc. were followed later in the same work by a statement that I have never seen quoted by anyone except myself. He said that those repressive measures would accomplish nothing, and that the Jews should be expelled instead. Here is the quote [http://www.humanitas-international.org/ showcase/chronography/documents/luther-jews.htm] – this passage comes from Part 12:
But what will happen even if we do burn down the Jews’ synagogues and forbid them publicly to praise God, to pray, to teach, to utter God’s name? They will still keep doing it in secret. If we know that they are doing this in secret, it is the same as if they were doing it publicly. For our knowledge of their secret doings and our toleration of them implies that they are not secret after all, and thus our conscience is encumbered with it before God. So let us beware. In my opinion the problem must be resolved thus: If we wish to wash our hands of the Jews’ blasphemy and not share in their guilt, we have to part company with them. They must be driven from our country. Let them think of their fatherland; then they need no longer wail and lie before God against us that we are holding them captive, nor need we then any longer complain that they are burdening us with their blasphemy and their usury. This is the most natural and the best course of action, which will safe guard the interest of both parties.
This was unchristian and wrong, but not as bad as what he is usually accused of.
As to whether or not Luther saw the Jews’ evil as inherited, Luther contradicted himself in “On the Jews and their Lies” a number of times. Some comments refer to the possibility of Jews converting, others deny it. Luther’s basic Reformation teachings were, in agreement with the bible, that the entire human race is sinful. The sin of unbelief in God as he revealed himself in Christ was confined not only to the Jews but to the Turks and to the Papists whom Luther also referred to as being lost and separated from God. As Paul says in Romans, “…we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin” (chapt. 3 v.9). This sin of the Jews is the sin of the human race. Since the New Testament obviously refers to Jews converting, any statement that Jews cannot convert must be regarded as unbiblical and contrary to scriptural Christianity. Luther’s statements about the Jews being separated from God due to their unbelief in Christ are not antisemitic or racial, because this basic biblical teaching of salvation through Christ alone applies equally to the entire human race. Hindus, Moslems, Buddhists, agnostics, atheists, Christians who are Christians in name only but reject the essential doctrines of Christ’s person and work and have not received the Spirit of Christ by faith, they also are separated from God by the sin of unbelief.
It is too easy to read these things looking backward from the Holocaust. The horrors of Hitler were undreamed of in Luther’s time, and Luther’s comments were dismissed by all serious Christians as a bad mistake of Luther and a personal lapse from a lifetime of much better things. The dust was blown off his forgotten and minor tracts in an evil age centuries later by someone approaching the Jewish question from an entirely different angle. Luther’s quotes were useful to Hitler and gave him a free propaganda bonus, particularly as there were numerous Christians who agreed with Hitler’s main political goals (end the instability of Weimar, regain lost territory, defeat the threat of Communism, and so on) but felt uncomfortable with his more extreme statements.
Luther was praised and admired by the Nazis and by Hitler, not for his basic doctrines about God, Jesus, the bible, salvation, and the afterlife, which were anathema to them, but rather (in addition to his anger at Jews) as a hero of German nationalism, who supposedly helped to liberate the Nordics from the undue Mediterranean influence of Catholic Rome. Karl Marx also spoke well of Luther, not because he cared for Luther’s teachings, but because Luther helped to liberate Europe from medieval dogmas.
It was not the old order but the destruction of the old order – politically, economically, philosophically, and spiritually – that opened the door for new things Luther never dreamed of. Luther’s influence on modern German history is vastly overrated. Lutheranism had ceased to be a culturally dominant force long before 1900. Mosse’s Crisis of German Ideology, a detailed analysis of 19th-century German culture, refers to Luther 5 times – once in passing, and once because someone objected to Luther’s emphasis on the bible. What did Luther have to do with WWI, the Weimar Republic, the Great Depression, the rise of Communism, imperialism, technology? The Germans were not lemmings without will, helplessly subject to Luther’s all-pervading influence.
It has been said that Luther established the German tradition of obedience to authority – but this obedience to authority was not in evidence during the Napoleonic era, nor was it in evidence in the revolutions of 1848. Germans in the Weimar era did not hesitate to express their hostility to the government and seek to overthrow it. They obeyed Hitler not because of Luther’s magical influence extending hypnotically over the centuries, but for two reasons: genuine support for Hitler, or fear of the Gestapo. How did Stalin and Mao exalt themselves to the status of demi-gods and rule entire nations by force without the benefit of a Lutheran tradition?
Those who approach Luther’s most important works with the proper attitude will find a deep spirituality and many profound biblical truths. His influence for the good in delivering the body of Christ from Roman superstitions far outweighs the abuse of his worst and long-forgotten blunders by a modern ideology derived from sources unknown in Luther’s day. He was far above the limitations of his age, and if he had not lapsed so badly into bitterness and hostility at the very close of his life, his name would not figure in these discussions.