Saturday, 8 March 2008

Martin Luther's anti-semitism.

Sooner or later, even the most ardent Luther admirer has to confront his apparent anti-Semitism.

I've mentioned it here.


Roger Gallagher said...

Hi Gordo,
When I click on your link, I get sent to the article on Swedish imperialism.

Gordon Cheng said...

Oi vey! Swedish imperialism, German nationalism—you're telling me there's a difference, already?

Thanks Roger—link now fixed.

One Salient Oversight said...


In 1996 I was studying a B.A at Macquarie University, and I studied a subject called "An Introduction to Modern European History" (HIST189) where we studied the reformation (amongst other events).

I wrote an essay back then (which I got an "A" for, the MU equivalent of a distinction) about what motivated Martin Luther's quest for reformation.

I remember the research I did quite well since I had to spend time reading Luther's writings. Anyone who reads Luther eventually has to encounter his anti-semitic remarks, and I initially attempted to disprove them (thinking they were a misquote rather than a real indication of his character). Like many who researched Luther, though, I discovered to my chagrin that the quote and the attitude was accurate.

Nevertheless, I did discover a few interesting points about this, namely that Luther's anti-semitic attitude developed considerably the older he got. I remember reading some of his works dated around 1517-1519 where he had a very conciliatory attitude towards Jews, seeing in them the importance of them accepting Christ and treating them with respect. By the time he had broken away from the Catholic church and had been embroiled in political and theological turmoil - probably some 20 years later - was when he wrote his "kill the Jews" paragraphs.

So why did Luther's view of Jews change over time? The theory I have is that the world was a much different and more scary place in the post-reformation years (especially in Germany) such that populist threats against the Jews were more likely to be socially acceptable than in the benign pre-reformation years. In that sense, you could argue that Luther's anti-semitical statements evolved and were based upon popular feeling rather than Luther's own heart. Nevertheless he is responsible for his actions which undoubtedly affected historical anti-semitism in Germany throughout the modern era.