As Martin Marty rightly notes, it doesn't really help to stress that Luther's verbal attacks here seem to have been motivated largely, if not exclusively, by theological concerns, not primarily racial ones: he hoped that the Jews in the "latter days," which he thought was "now," would read their Bible the way he did, Christologically, as pointing to Jesus of Nazareth as the promised Christ, and he got bitterly angry when "the rabbis" saw things differently. So "he struck out at them as enemies of the gospel" [Martin Marty, Martin Luther (Viking, 2004), 169].)
Today, living in the shadow of Auschwitz and remembering the murders of the six million Jews at the hands of Nazi perpetrators--many of them German Lutherans who appealed to the Great German Reformer to justify their attitude and actions--Luther's role in "the teaching of contempt" and his actual wrathful words can only be condemned. That his writings are a part of the pre-history of the Holocaust cannot be ignored. Even when some might point to mitigating factors (e.g., "expelling unbaptized Jews is not quite as bad as trying to annihilate them") or stress how here he shows just how much he was a man of his time (e.g., Erasmus and John Eck were other prominent Jew-haters of that era), we cannot exculpate him or explain away his vitriol and vulgarity. (It is shocking to see garbled passages from "On the Jews and Their Lies" being posted on the internet today by neo-Nazis.) Most Lutheran churches (cf. "The Declaration of the ELCA to the Jewish Community") and the Lutheran World Federation have rightly, publicly condemned Luther's antisemitism and all forms of hatred toward the Jews.
As many scholars have noted, Luther should have known better. Eric Gritsch's recent study of Luther's antisemitism (Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism [Eerdmans, 2012]) is subtitled "Against His Better Judgment." After all, Luther had published a widely read explanation to the Fifth Commandment ("You Shall Not Kill"): "We are to fear and love God, so that we neither endanger nor harm the lives of our neighbors, but instead help and support them in all of life's needs" (Kolb/Wengert, 352). He had regularly preached against hatred of others. Luther certainly did not condone the mass murder of men, women, and children. Earlier in his life, in 1523, he had published a rather remarkable essay for its day, "That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew," which, largely free of the hostility he expressed later on, taught that Christians should not mistreat Jews but be guided by "the law of Christian love" in their actions toward them (LW 45.229). Christians and Jews, he insisted against the anti-Judaism of the Roman Church, shared a common ancestry. Unlike his medieval forebears, Luther frequently taught that "we and our great sins and gross misdeeds nailed Jesus, God's true Son, to the cross" (WA 35.576), and thus "you, poor Judas, we dare not blame, nor the band of Jews; ours is the shame" (ibid.; trans. by Denis Janz, The Westminster Handbook to Martin Luther [WJK, 2010], 78 [slightly rev.]). Moreover, Luther could have viewed Jews from the center of his theology, namely, justification by grace alone through faith alone in the universal atoning work of Christ. The principal scholarly biographer of Luther, Martin Brecht, thus concluded that "in advising the use of force, [Luther] advocated means that were essentially incompatible with his faith in Christ" (Martin Brecht, Martin Luther, 3 vols. [Fortress, 1990-93], 3.350-51). Still, we can only contemplate with the Marburg Lutheran theologian, Hans-Martin Barth, about why there is no connection between faith and love in Luther's anti-Jewish writings, when elsewhere he so strongly stresses that connection. Why could Luther never see "the Jew" as his neighbor? "Why did [Luther] not appeal to his Jewish contemporaries by pointing to the justification of the ungodly? Why is his faith not expressed in good works toward Jews as well, as the Reformer otherwise expects and often declares? If there is no answer to these theological questions, how is it that Luther, the lover of Hebrew and the Old Testament, reacted with such prejudice, and indeed hatred, to the living tradents of the Hebrew language and Bible?" (Hans-Martin Barth, The Theology of Martin Luther: A Critical Assessment [Fortress, 2013], 30).
Since I am myself a Lutheran Christian and teach at a Lutheran university, I tend to focus on Lutheran theologians in my course on "Christians in Nazi Germany" (e.g., Althaus, Asmussen, Bonhoeffer, Bultmann, Elert, Hirsch, Niemoeller, Schlink, Tillich). In that course we also examine Luther's anti-Judaic writings and their reception among Germans between the sixteenth century and the early twentieth. One of the questions we address is, "To what extent does Luther bear responsibility for the Shoah, the mass-murder of European Jews during the Nazi regime?" We look at the evidence and arguments put forth by those who blame Luther most of all for what happened to the Jews during the reign of Hitler. For example, we note that Luther's portrait appears prominently in many Holocaust museums, along with descriptions of his anti-Judaic writings. We also look at assertions by the American journalist, William Shirer (The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich), the German writer, Thomas Mann, the Anglican priest, R. W. Inge, and his friend, Peter Wiener (Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor [Hutchinson, 1945]), as well as the following statement by Harvard emeritus professor of law, Alan Dershowitz:
Toward the end of his life--and at the height of his influence--Luther articulated a specific program against the Jews which served as bible of anti-Jewish actions over the next four centuries, culminating in the Holocaust. In many ways, Luther can be viewed as the spiritual predecessor of Adolf Hitler. Indeed, virtually all the themes that eventually found their way into Hitler's genocidal writings, rantings, and actions are adumbrated in Martin Luther's infamous essay "Concerning the Jews and Their Lies." ...It is shocking that Luther's ignoble name is still honored rather than forever cursed by mainstream Protestant churches. (Alan Dershowitz, Chutzpah [Little, Brown, and Company, 1991], 106-7).
To the above, we can now add the statement by Yehiel Poupko and Rabbi David Sandmel that appeared in the May 10th issue of The Christian Century. Poupko and Sandmel were responding to Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson's essay on Luther that had appeared in the March 15th issue of that magazine. One of their concerns arose from having read the following lines by Wilson: "Luther's fame and eloquence, not to mention his being German and therefore charged with guilt by association with the Nazis, causes him to come under fire more often than others. But the truth is worse: the whole church has been anti-Judaic from the get-go" (Sarah Hinlicky-Wilson, "Still Reckoning with Luther," The Christian Century [March 15, 2017]).
In response to this, Poupko and Sandmel write:
While we agree with most of this statement, it does not adequately describe the direct connection between Luther's Jew-hatred and Nazi anti-Semitism--it was more than mere "association." Though Luther cannot be labeled a racial anti-Semite in the 19th-century meaning of the word, his anti-Jewish writings provided a roadmap for later Nazi anti-Jewish actions. Luther's hostility was an absolutely necessary but decidedly insufficient cause for the Nazi murder of the Jewish people. (Yehiel Poupko [Jewish United Fund/Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago] and Rabbi David Sandmel [Anti-Defamation League, New York], The Christian Century [May 10, 2017], 60)Was Luther's hostility toward the Jews an absolutely necessary cause of the Shoah? This question must be taken quite seriously. If I understand the clarification offered by Poupko and Sandmel correctly, it appears that they think the Holocaust could not have happened were it not for the publication of Luther's anti-Judaic writings, that without Luther's hatred of the Jews the Shoah could not have occurred. That judgment, it seems to me, is questionable, at least if one closely examines the history of the effects of Luther's writings on subsequent generations of Germans, the long and sordid history of racial antisemitism in Europe (both before and after Luther's time), and the differing motivations between Luther's theologically oriented writings (which do, in fact, contain antisemitic statements that are in conflict with the center of his theology) and the Nazis' racially-oriented acts of scapegoating and murder.
I cannot here explore the multiplicity of perspectives on the topic "Luther and the Jews." It is, as they say, a complicated issue. Nevertheless, I would like to draw attention to some works by other scholars that my students and I have found helpful for gaining some clarity. In addition to the important final chapter and conclusion in the above work by Gritsch (pp. 97-142), there is the important essay by Johannes Wallmann, "The Reception of Luther's Writings on the Jews from the Reformation to the End of the 19th Century," Lutheran Quarterly 1/1 (Spring 1987): 72-97, which demonstrates that Luther's 1523 writing was far more well known, studied, and appreciated among German Christians in subsequent centuries than his 1543 works, which were largely ignored, unknown among the mainstream laity, and even criticized by fellow Lutherans (e.g., by his own wife, Katie; by the Lutheran Hebraist, Osiander; by other Lutherans, such as Urbanus Rhegius and Johannes Brenz; by Lutheran Pietists who were concerned for missionary work among Jews). "[Luther's] recommendations concerning social policy in regard to the Jews seem to have had little direct impact, even in Saxony, although they continued to provide a theological framework of interpretation and contributed to fierce anti-Judaism among some Lutheran clergy in the century after Luther's death. Only in the late nineteenth century did his severe anti-Jewish writings have renewed widespread influence, albeit shorn of their original theological context and placed in the framework of developing German anti-Semitism" (Miller, "Luther's Views of the Jews and Turks," 431). (In my opinion, Gritsch gives too much weight to a horrific comment Luther is supposed to have made at his dinner table about how he would kill a blaspheming Jew, if he could. Luther's "table talk" comments are notoriously unreliable as sources. How much beer or wine had the one remembering the supposed comment imbibed? What about Luther himself? Most all context is missing.) Another work that offers a solid refutation of the position of Shirer et al., is the important dissertation by Uwe Siemon-Netto, The Fabricated Luther: The Rise and Fall of the Shirer Myth (CPH, 1995).
Still another important and most helpful study is the new work by Thomas Kaufmann, Luther's Jews: A Journey into Anti-Semitism (Oxford, 2017). Following the path taken by the late English Luther scholar, Ernst G. Rupp, whose own criticism of the position taken by Wiener et al. is devastating, Kaufmann argues that the appropriate way of dealing with "Luther's Jews" is to see them in historical context, "by locating the reformer in the history of medieval anti-Semitism" (Kaufmann, 151). In this history, according to Rupp (and Kaufmann), Luther is an appalling, disgraceful chapter, but no more than one chapter. Seeing him in historical context "is the only option," one that "creates the right critical distance" (Kaufmann, 156). But that historical context, as Kaufmann stresses, also includes the history of the reception of his writings. The most extreme consequence of that history is how the Nazis claimed Luther's support for their policy of extermination of the Jews.
Certainly, Rupp, Gritsch, Kaufmann, and several other historians reject a simple "causation" between Luther's anti-Judaic writings--which largely reflect the hateful perspective he had received from his medieval teachers, one that was shared by Erasmus and others, and then transmitted in numerous ways to subsequent generations--and Hitler's racist-nationalist-pagan-technological program of Jewish annihilation. Historicizing Luther means both relativizing his work and making it possible "to resist the tendency to read modern ideas into historical figures and subjects" (Kaufmann, 159). In light of the work by Gritsch and Kaufmann, it is difficult to see how Luther's anti-Judaic polemics is an "absolutely necessary, if insufficient cause of the Holocaust." To be sure, Luther's hateful words against the Jews, later used by several Nazis, likely made Hitler's aims easier to execute, but it is quite possible, alas, that the Shoah would have occurred, even if Luther hadn't written those words. More plausible is the thesis of Milton Himmelfarb; "No Hitler, No Holocaust."
In the fall, I will be leading a group of 120 alumni and friends of Valpo University to Germany in order to observe the official anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. Valpo's chorale will be singing in the Castle Church on October 31. My group and I will be visiting places connected with Luther and J. S. Bach, including Buchenwald. On the day of our visit there, I will tell my fellow travelers, we cannot avoid addressing the issue of Luther and the Holocaust.
Addendum (6/7/17): My wife, my mother, and a few other Lutherans have told me over the past couple of days how troubled they are to have learned about Luther's antisemitism and his hateful polemics against the Jews. I have responded briefly to them by noting that Luther was a sinner like the rest of us, that he, too, needed God's unmerited forgiveness in Jesus Christ. The heart of Luther's theology thus applied to Luther himself, namely, God's justification of the ungodly.