De Fabel van de illegaal 82/83, Spring 2007

Author: Harry Westerink

Church reformer Luther inspired Hitler

The fierce anti-Semitism of sixteenth century church reformer Martin Luther helped creating the climate in which the Nazi's killed 6 million Jews, René Süss wrote in his recent study "Luthers theologisch testament" ("Luther's theological testament").(1) Luther's hate for Jews was not a small mistake, but rather part of the essence of his reactionary religious ideology. Today, many still see him as one of the greatest German and Christian heroes of all times.

Martin Luther
Luther became famous for his struggle against the Roman Catholic church during the Reformation. His anger was especially caused by the trade in indulgences, with which the rich could get rid of their sins and buy themselves a place in heaven. He also spoke out against the celebration of saints, the cults around relics, celibacy and the papal hierarchy. He got his place in the dominant Christian history books as a fighter for emancipation and individual autonomy, and against Catholic corruption and exploitation of the poor. Because he translated the bible into German and laid the foundations of German nationalism, he is still praised as the symbol of German unity.


Research by Süss and other Luther critics shows how incorrect this positive image of the reformer really is. Luther copied important elements of the extremely conservative Roman Catholic ideology and even amplified them. People who stood at the bottom of the societal ladder or who deviated from the dominant standards, could count on his excessive hate. Together his writing form one big rant against Jews, women, nonbelievers, farmers and handicapped, and furthermore against everyone who didn't want to subject to the tyranny of the nobility and royalty. Subjects would never be allowed to resist the authority of the state, because that power was "given by God". "It's better when tyrants commit 100 injustices against the people, than when the people commit one single injustice against the tyrants", according to Luther. "As bad the administration may be, God would still prefer to tolerate it's existence, than to allow the rabble to mutiny, no matter how rightful it would be. A monarch should remain monarch, even if he is a despot. He will needfully decapitate only a few, for he must have subjects to enable him to rule."(2) In this manner Luther traded one authoritarian religious doctrine, Roman Catholicism, in for another: Lutheranism. Because of it's authoritarian ideas, his form of Protestantism became popular with the middle class and civil servants. Lutheranism was especially popular in Germany. People in the Netherlands preferred the doctrines of the other church reformer: John Calvin.

In 1524 poor and pauperized farmers rose against a government which heartlessly exploited them. They were lead by Luther's colleague theologian Thomas Münzer. Luther unconditionally chose sides with the people in power. In his pamphlet "Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants", he called upon them to strike hard against the rebels. "Therefore, whosoever can, should smite, strangle, and stab, secretly or publicly, and should remember that there is nothing more poisonous, pernicious, and devilish than a rebellious man. Just as one must slay a mad dog."(3) "Witches" and handicapped should also be persecuted and killed, he said, because they supposedly were "devilish". And in his eyes women were nothing but breeding and littering machines, which sole purpose was getting children in the name of God and dying in the childbed if necessary.

Cover of René Süss' book "Luthers theologisch testament"

Luther's most insane rants, however, were reserved for the Jews. Even in those days, when religious anti-Semitism was completely normal and Jews were treated as second rate people, Luther's completely delirious and insane hatred of Jews was noticed by many. "He is a master in the art of distortion, slander, defamation and exaggeration", his contemporary Erasmus - who was also an anti-Semite - mentioned.(1) In his "On the Jews and Their Lies", one of the most horrible anti-Semitic lampoons of all times, Luther calls the Jews among other things "prophet-murderers", "bloodhounds", "liars", "a brood of serpents and children of the devil", "seducers of the people", "usurers", "stranglers", "indolent bellies", "this stinking scum" and "moldy leaven". Jews were supposedly "blinded", "cursed", "evil", "vindictive", "greedy", "blasphemous", "jealous", "conceited", "possessed", "stubborn" and "incorrigible". They would rule "us", poison "our" wells, "kidnap" our children, pierce them through to catch their blood and use it for matzo, a flat Jewish bread. They are "our" land's "misfortune".(4) Luther uses all conceivable anti-Semitic myths and stereotypes, except of course racial anti-Semitism, which was developed only in the nineteenth century.

Luther was one of the first to say that one should get rid of the Jews by killing them all. With him starts the ideology of the "Final Solution" of "the Jewish Question", the horrible objective of a world without Jews. For centuries Christian rulers and ideologues had argued that the Jewish religion had become redundant and should end. With the birth of Christ, supposedly the son of God, the promise of the coming of the Messiah was fulfilled. And since the Jews had not accepted the Messiah and had supposedly even crucified him, they were rejected and doomed by God. God had punished the Jews by sending them forever into exile. He would no longer consider the Jews his chosen people, they were replaced by the Christians.

"Therefore, in any case, away with them!!", was the essence of Luther's propositions to the authorities of his day and age. Because "we are at fault in not slaying them". He urged the rulers to really start persecuting the Jews. "Meanwhile our princes and rulers sit there and snore with mouths hanging open and permit the Jews to take, steal, and rob from their open money bags and treasures whatever they want. That is, they let the Jews, by means of their usury, skin and fleece them and their subjects and make them beggars with their own money. For the Jews, who are exiles, should really have nothing, and whatever they have must surely be our property. They do not work, and they do not earn anything from us, nor do we give or present it to them, and yet they are in possession of our money and goods and are our masters in our own country and in their exile. A thief is condemned to hang for the theft of ten florins, and if he robs anyone on the highway, he forfeits his head. But when a Jew steals and robs ten tons of gold through his usury, he is more highly esteemed than God himself", Luther complains. Sometimes his social economic anti-Semitic rants seems to outpace even his traditional religious anti-Semitism. "They let us work in the sweat of our brow to earn money and property while they sit behind the stove, idle away the time, fart, and roast pears. They stuff themselves, guzzle, and live in luxury and ease from our hard-earned goods. With their accursed usury they hold us and our property captive. Moreover, they mock and deride us because we work and let them play the role of lazy squires at our expense and in our land." From his self made underdog position, Luther accused the people in power that they were letting themselves be ruled by Jews. In reality Jews were repressed, outlawed and driven out of many countries in Luther's age.

TV show

"Although one cannot declare Luther guilty of the Nazi crimes, he also cannot be found innocent of his co-responsibility for the rise and the criminal history of this anti-Semitism. One has to at least say that Luther has seriously lowered the threshold from ousting to the liquidation of the Jews", Süss writes. What Hitler did, Luther advised, with the exception of the gas chambers. Luther was a trailblazer to the Shoah. That's the inevitable conclusion one has to draw from Luther's writings. In "On the Jews and Their Lies" he had developed a seven point pogrom plan which the Nazi's strictly followed, starting with the Kristallnacht on November 9th, 1938. "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", he wrote. He furthermore called to destroy the homes of the Jews, to take away their holy books, to kill rabbis who still want to teach, to disallow Jews on the streets, to forbid their "usury", to take all their money and jewelry, and to impose forced labor on strong and young Jews. And when the rulers didn't want to do all that, to at least drive them out of the country, towards Jerusalem. He influenced German rulers to persecute the Jews more.

Lutheran church in Leyden (Photo: Eric Krebbers)
The Nazi's didn't need to exaggerate the demonization of the Jews to be able to use it gratefully. In 1923 Hitler praised Luther, and called him the greatest German genius, who "saw the Jew as we today are starting to see him."(1) In the days after the Kristallnacht, the Bishop of Thüringen wrote happily that Luther, who was born on November 10th 1483, couldn't wish a more beautiful birthday gift. During the Second World War many religious leaders called upon Luther to justify the liquidation policy against the Jews. And during the Nuremburg trails after the war, Julius Streicher, chief editor of the anti-Semitic magazine Der Stürmer, defended himself by saying that even a "genius" like Luther hated the Jews, and he was loved by friend and foe alike. "He would today have been in the dock in my place, if "On the Jews and Their Lies" would have been brought in by the prosecutors", Streicher claimed.

Luther is still popular nowadays. In 2003 the reformer landed on the second place during a TV show about the greatest German ever. And in the movie "Luther" he was shown as the "German hero who ended the Middle Ages". Even the Social Democratic SPD and Die Grünen (Greens) have promoted Luther as liberator and symbol of the German nation state.(5) The Lutheran World Federation (LWF) does distance itself from anti-Semitism since the eighties, but refuses to acknowledge Luther's co-responsibility for the persecution of the Jews by the Nazi's. Luther didn't want a Kristallnacht, the Dutch Lutheran professor Boendermaker said in reaction to Süss's study. But a pogrom against the Jews was exactly what the church reformer proposed. The newly founded Protestantse Kerk in Nederland (PKN, Protestant Church in the Netherlands), with it's 2.3 million members, amongst which Lutherans, will have to discuss Luther's anti-Semitism more thoroughly. As LWF member the PKN wants to also support the "Lutheran tradition" within Dutch Protestantism. The question is whether the organization will distance itself enough from the "Lutheran tradition" of anti-Semitism.

About the translation. Most English quotes from Luther's "Von den Juden und ihren Lügen" have been taken from a translation by Martin H. Bertram on the Humanitas International-website, see note (4). Other English quotes are our own translations of a Dutch translation by Süss of the German original.