The Legacy of Martin Luther

Christianity’s persecution of the Jews has dominated Jewish history since the Christianization of the Roman Empire under the Emperor Constantine in the early fourth century AD. To the Jews, the cross has been as much a symbol of persecution and terror as the swastika, only provoking dread. Under the banner of the cross and in the name of Christ, the Jews have been cast out of nations, confined to ghettos, lost their possessions and frequently their lives. They have been forced to convert to a Christianity which compelled them to break the Sabbath, to not circumcise their children, and to eat swine. They had to disobey the Bible to become Christians.

Everyone blames the Nazis for the Holocaust, yet their treatment of the Jews was rooted in the Christianity that shaped the German nation. It has to be remembered that the Nazi Holocaust was nurtured in the land of the Protestant Reformation. In fact the seed of all that Adolf Hitler would do was carefully transplanted from the Catholic Inquisition into Protestantism by none other than Martin Luther, the greatest spokesman of the Reformation and one of the most influential men in all of history.

Is this is a shocking accusation? What could such a hero of the faith have to do with the nightmare of the Third Reich and the demonic figure of Adolf Hitler? Surely, the man who liberated the Gospel from the grasp of meaningless tradition and restored the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith alone would not be guilty of such things, would he? Yet Martin Luther’s violent, venomous views and bitter treatment of the Jews was not something he sought to hide. Far from it. By every means at his disposal -- the pen, the pulpit, and persuasion -- he sought to gain not merely acceptance of his views but concrete, violent action against the Jews.

His Three Treatises

Martin Luther was certainly not ashamed of his words. He wanted them to be remembered and obeyed. It is only his followers who would like to have his words forgotten, since they seemingly invalidate all that he stood for. And so the chances are almost certain that you have never heard of the three treatises Martin Luther wrote against the Jews in 1543: 1) On the Jews and Their Lies ; 2) On the Ineffable Name ; and 3) On the Last Words of David .

These treatises represented a lifetime of thought concerning the Jews. His first attempt to win them was by persuasion.

As a young man, Luther had written, “If we wish to help them, we must practice on them not the papal law but rather the Christian law of love, and accept them in friendly fashion, allowing them to work and make a living, so that they gain the reason and opportunity to be with and among us and to see and to hear our Christian teaching and life.”1

It was only when such preaching and persuasion failed (“soft mercy” in Luther’s theology) that more forceful measures were taken. For over the course of Luther’s life it became apparent to him that the prejudices against the Jews he had sought to combat in his earlier writing were justified. In his mind they were accursed blasphemers whose Lord was the devil and any suffering inflicted upon them would remind them that they were God’s rejected people.

Luther’s Legacy

The following measures are in a sense Martin Luther’s last will and testament, his legacy to the world. The legacy of a man is what his descendants derive from him, a living memorial to who he was long after he is dead. In one of these formal, systematic presentations of his mature convictions he summarized the wisdom his 32 years of Bible study had gained for him into seven recommendations:2

What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews? Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct, now that we are aware of their lying and reviling and blaspheming. If we do, we become sharers in their lies, cursing, and blasphemy. Thus we cannot extinguish the unquenchable fire of divine wrath, of which the prophets speak, nor can we convert the Jews. With prayer and the fear of God we must practice a sharp mercy to see whether we might save at least a few from the glowing flames. We dare not avenge ourselves ... I shall give you my sincere advice:

Set fire to their synagogues and schools, burying and covering with dirt what won’t burn, so no man will see a stone or cinder of them. This is to be done in honor of our Lord and Christendom.

Second, I advise that their houses be seized and destroyed.

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings be taken from them.

Fourth, I advise that the rabbis be forbidden to teach henceforth on pain of life and limb.

Fifth, I advise that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews, for they have no business in the countryside, since they are not lords, officials, or tradesmen. Let them stay at home.

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and all cash and treasures be taken and kept for safekeeping.

Seventh, I recommend putting a flail, an axe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses, letting them earn their bread by the sweat of their brow, as was imposed on the children of Adam (Genesis 3:19). For it is not fitting that they should let us accursed Goyim toil in the sweat of our faces while they, the holy people, idle away their time ... boasting blasphemously of their lordship over the Christians by means of our sweat ... For, as we have heard, God’s anger with them is so intense that gentle mercy will only tend to make them worse and worse, while sharp mercy will reform them but little. Therefore, in any case, away with them!

To Martin Luther, this “sharp mercy” was needed to bring them to repentance, since they were not being converted by the gospel he was preaching. This was not a passing mood on his part; once he came to these conclusions he never wavered from them. Martin Luther’s last sermon, preached just days before his death, was brimming over with biting condemnation and vulgarities for the Jews. He planted the seed of hatred in fertile soil, and it grew over the centuries.

You Shall Know them by their Fruit

Those with even a modest knowledge of the brutal history of the Third Reich know that the Nazis put into practice all of Martin Luther’s recommendations against the Jews, and more. They burned their synagogues in honor of the “positive Christianity” Adolf Hitler claimed to stand for; they seized and burned their houses; they took public delight in destroying their holy books; they separated life and limb from the rabbis; they certainly abolished safe travel for the Jews (the only travel they had was a one-way trip on cattle cars); they took every bit of their wealth away from them (even the fillings in their teeth and the hair on their heads); and the ones the Nazis didn’t kill immediately they put to demeaning slave labor. All this they were justified in doing, according to Martin Luther, with prayer and the fear of God.

Julius Streicher, one of the most notorious anti-Semites even in the perverse world of the Third Reich, used Martin Luther’s seven recommendations in his defense at the Nuremberg Trials. He even took as the motto for his newspaper, Der Sturmer (the Nazi hate paper) a direct quote of Martin Luther, Die Juden sind unser Ungluck , or, “The Jews are our misfortune.”3

There was another prominent Nazi who saw Luther in a positive light: “Luther was a great man, a giant. In one go, he broke through the dawn; he saw the Jew the way we only start seeing him now.”4 The speaker? Adolf Hitler.

In the World but Not of It?

Make no mistake about it: In spite of being a devoutly Christian nation, the Germans were under no illusions as to Adolf Hitler’s intentions towards the Jews. He had told them a thousand times. Many of the tens of thousands of Protestant and Catholic clergy openly supported Hitler. The rest stayed in the passive state they had always maintained. William L. Shirer, author of, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich , understood how they came to be in this condition:

...in his [Martin Luther’s] utterances about the Jews, Luther employed a coarseness, brutality, and language unequaled in German history until the Nazi time. The influence of this towering figure extended down through the generations in Germany, especially among the Protestants ... In no country with the exception of Czarist Russia did the clergy become by tradition so completely servile to the political authority of the State.5

When the clergy were given the choice of joining Hitler’s state church or going to prison, the overwhelming majority quietly chose the former. Becoming the religious arm of the Third Reich, the pastors, both the enthusiastic and the reluctant, had to support it, since they looked to it to define what was right and wrong. It was far too personally dangerous to let God do this through the Holy Scriptures. To do so was to say that there was a greater authority in men’s lives than the Third Reich. This was treason to Hitler.

So, they adorned their churches with swatiskas, closed their eyes, and pretended they didn’t know what was going on. It is much easier to remember the heroic few like Martin Niemoller and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who chose the concentration camp rather than be silent in the face of such monstrous evil, than to consider the hundreds of thousands of German Christians who filled up Hitler’s armies, police forces, death squads, and pulpits.

Like Mother, Like Daughter

The development of Martin Luther’s thinking was a gradual process, taking shape during his entire adult life. He grew up in Roman Catholicism, for that was Europe’s only religion. It was the binding force in society and government by which everyone knew their place, and heaven was the reward for the generally short and harsh lives people lived. Anything besides strict adherence to Catholicism was perceived as a threat, not only to this life, but to the next. For if the Catholic Church was not the only truth, then heaven might not await good Catholics, and they may have lived their lives in vain. So ingrained was this view of reality that often the Church had to restrain the common people from taking the lives of Jews and other non-Catholics into their hands.

Martin Luther, like other Catholic theologians before him, thought that earthly punishment inflicted by the Church, and where necessary by the state, was actually the working of God’s grace to save some from the flames of hell. In other words, it was always done for their own good . And not only their good, but the good of society as a whole -- for unbelievers in a “Christian nation” represent faction and division, and must be dealt with, or else the society cannot be blessed by God.

This has been the story of practically every nation and society where Christianity has been the predominant influence. It is part of the essential nature of Christianity. For when Christians take the reins of power, ultimately the denial of rights to nonbelievers is considered inconsequential, because they are all going to hell anyway.

Responsibility

It is entirely fair to give Martin Luther the credit (he would not see it as the blame or the shame) for all future Christian rulers who treated the Jews according to the wisdom of his policies. In the light of God’s word, how shall we judge this wisdom? Is it the pure, peaceable, gentle, reasonable wisdom from above, full of mercy and good fruits? Or is it an earthly, natural, demonic wisdom that comes from below? What then was the source for Martin Luther’s words, that with them he could bless Jesus Christ his Savior and with them lay the most bitter curses on men made in God’s image?6

There are other guidelines in the Word regarding righteous judgment as well. The Son of God never said that you would know false prophets by their doctrine . He said you shall know them by their fruit . He also said that a good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit. If Martin Luther and the Reformation were a good tree, then it cannot have produced bad fruit. If it has produced bad fruit, it cannot have been a good tree. These are the words of the Son of God of which we are not to be ashamed.7 He also said:

But if your eye is bad, your whole body will be full of darkness. If therefore the light that is within you is darkness, how great is the darkness! (Matthew 6:23)

Is not Martin Luther the “eye” through which Protestantism saw her clearest doctrines? How did the clarity of his doctrines carry through to the purity of his deeds? So then, if the “eye” is bad, isn’t the whole body of the Protestant church full of darkness? How great is that darkness!

The writer to the Hebrews wrote, Remember those who led you, who spoke the word of God to you; and considering the result of their conduct, imitate their faith .8 We will all receive the reward we merit for the faith we imitate. For each person’s faith is known by his conduct, or as James put it, his works.9

For Martin Luther and those who received his legacy, this faith could be so far removed from their works that they could murder the Jews without invalidating their claim on eternal life. It is obvious that the faith Martin Luther made so much of was not saving faith, or he never would have done and said the things he did. He would have had the heart of the Apostle Paul towards the Jews, for the Savior whom Paul served is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.10

  • 1. Martin Luther, “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew,” published 1523.
  • 2. The whole tract may be found in English in “ Luther’s Works ,” Vol. 45, pp. 199-229. A number of English books have translations of these directives. Among them is “ The Christian in Society,” ed. Franklin Sherman (1971), pp. 268-272. The “Ideas in Conflict” book, “ Religion and Politics -- Issues in Religious Liberties,” by Gary E. McCuen, also quotes them on pages 16-23.
  • 3. For a sample cover, see the Time-Life World War II series, “ At the Center of the Web” (1989).
  • 4. Dietrich Eckart: Dialogs Between Adolf Hitler and Me, 1924, p. 35 quoted according to Friedrich Heer, God’s First Love, 1967, p. 380
  • 5. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, A History of Nazi Germany , by William L. Shirer, page 327 of the 1962 paperback edition.
  • 6. James 3:9-18
  • 7. Matthew 7:15-20
  • 8. Hebrews 13:7
  • 9. James 2:17-20
  • 10. Hebrews 13:8

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