Foundations of the Holocaust: Martin Luther, Theologian of Hate

“At his trial in Nuremberg… Julius Streicher… argued that if he should be standing there arraigned on such charges, so should Martin Luther.”

(Problems with uploading resulted in no hyperlinks this edition.)


Background: In what appear to have his “last straw” of grievances, the Vatican encouraging fundraising through the sale of indulgences (remission of punishment for the buyer’s sins), Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Castle Church on 31 October, 1517. By his act of defiance the Great Reformer played a part in changing the course of history. Already a period of social unrest the conservative Augustinian monk became the symbol of religious radicalism and reform and would weaken the authority of the Church, a step towards the 17th century emergence of the secular nation state. It also inspired the transformation of religious anti-Judaism into modern secular antisemitism.


Accused of “being a Jew at heart” by his Catholic critics for his “kinder, gentler” approach to converting the Jews he chides past Church efforts,

“speaks of the Jews and of the way to convert them to Christianity. "Our fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks, these coarse blockheads, dealt with the Jews in such a manner that any Christian would have preferred to be a Jew. Indeed… If the Apostles had dealt with the heathen as the Christians deal with the Jews, none ever would have been converted to Christianity"

The issue that defines Luther’s “empathy” for “the Jews,” that which most explains his eventual rage at “this damned, rejected race of Jews” is his failure at himself having failed as well. Luther was determined to succeed where, “[o]ur fools, the popes, bishops, sophists, and monks” had failed. A thousand years earlier Paul experienced failure to convince Palestinian Jewry of the mission of Christ Jesus, and similarly expressed his frustration. Luther’s writings reflecting even less tolerance for failure than Paul, rages at “the Jews” for rejecting his “tolerant” invitation to salvation through conversion.


Of the five “Jewish” works, those that would prove most fateful to the future of Jews were his last two, On the Jews and Their Lies (JTL) and Of The Unknowable Name and The Generations of Christ (UNC) written months apart in 1543, just two years before his death.

“If we wish to find a scapegoat on whose shoulders we may lay the miseries which Germany has brought upon the world -- I am more and more convinced that the worst evil genius of that country is not Hitler or Bismarck or Frederick the Great, but Martin Luther.” Reverend William Ralph Inge, 1944.

In many ways a forerunner of the 17th century Age of Reason and the Enlightenment Luther had a profound impact on the conditions of existence, the physical survivability of the Jews. His theology was always and traditionally Supersessionist: Christianity replaced Judaism in God’s favor, inherited God’s covenant; was the “new” Israel. In his last works he would revert to theological tradition and describe “the Jews” condition in the world as justifiably debased, homeless and despised. From, The Jews and their Lies:

“‘Listen, Jew, are you aware that Jerusalem and your sovereignty, together with your temple and priesthood, have been destroyed for over 1,460 years?’. . . This work of wrath is proof that the Jews, surely rejected by God, are no longer his people, and neither is he any longer their God...Therefore the Jews have lost this promise, no matter how much they boast of their father Abraham… They are no longer the people of God.”

Luther, the “antisemite:” I draw a clear boundary between anti-Judaism as represented by Christian scripture and centuries of theology, and antisemitism which I reserve for the secular inheritance of that religious inspiration. Clearly Luther’s last two works, and particularly On the Jews and their Lies, bridge the theological and the secular in both form and intent. Luther’s immediate audience in OJL is, “dear princes and nobles who have Jews in your domains,” and in it he lays out instructions on how to deal with “their” Jews.


On the Jews and their Lies, cover page, (Wikipedia)


OJL was the first to appear, will be first to be discussed.

On the Jews and Their Lies: In this work Luther lays out his understanding of Jewish lies and the danger he feels they represent to Christians. In 65,000 words divided into 13 sections he systematically quotes Jewish scripture to rebut each of his asserted Jewish lies. In the end he asks, “What shall we Christians do with this rejected and condemned people, the Jews… Since they live among us, we dare not tolerate their conduct.” He solution is the following seven steps:

“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.

Second, I advise that their houses also be razed and destroyed.

Third, I advise that all their prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing and blasphemy are taught, be taken from them.

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

Fifth, I advise that safe conduct on the highways be abolished completely for the Jews… Let they stay at home.

Sixth, I advise that usury be prohibited to them, and that all cash and treasure of silver and gold be taken from them and put aside for safekeeping… Whenever a Jew is sincerely converted, he should be handed one hundred, two hundred, or three hundred florins, as personal circumstances may suggest.

Seventh, I commend putting a flail, an ax, a hoe, a spade, a distaff, or a spindle into the hands of young, strong Jews and Jewesses and letting them earn their bread in the sweat of their brow… 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 behind the stove, feasting and farting…”


“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...

“I wish and I ask that our rulers who have Jewish subjects exercise a sharp mercy toward these wretched people, as suggested above, to see whether this might not help (though it is doubtful). They must act like a good physician who, when gangrene has set in, proceeds without mercy to cut, saw, and burn flesh, veins, bone, and marrow…

“If this does not help we must drive them out like mad dogs, so that we do not become partakers of their abominable blasphemy and all their other vices and thus merit God''s wrath and be damned with them. I have done my duty. Now let everyone see to his. I am exonerated.


“OJL” lays out an agenda for solving what is increasingly emerging as the post-Enlightenment Jewish Problem: burning synagogues and prayer books; death as a punishment for serving as a rabbi; expulsion of Jews: all would become all too real four centuries later. But the full flavor of Luther’s wrath towards the Jews appears in his lesser-known, Vom Schem Hamphoras. 


Vom Schem Hamphoras und vom Geschlecht Christi: “Vom Schem,” in English, Of the Unknowable Name of God… appeared several months after “OJL” and raises the John gospel anti-Jewish connard, “You belong to your father, the devil…” According to Wikipedia and confirmed off-site,

“Schem Hamphoras is the Hebrew rabbinic name for the ineffable name of God, the tetragrammaton. Luther''s use of the term was in itself a taunt and insult to Jewish sensitivities.”




“Here on our church in Wittenberg a sow is sculpted in stone. Young pigs and Jews lie suckling under her. Behind the sow a rabbi is bent over the sow, lifting up her right leg, holding her tail high and looking intensely under her tail and into her Talmud

(Vom Schem Hamphoras [Of the Unknowable Name…])

"Even if they were punished in the most gruesome manner that the streets ran with their blood, that their dead would be counted, not in the hundred thousands, but in the millions… they are the devil''s children, damned to Hell...“The Jews too got what they deserved. They had been called and elected to be God''s mouth… they however, kept tightly closed their muzzles, eyes, ears, nose, whole heart and all senses, so he polluted and squirted them so full that it oozes from them in all places and devil''s filth comes from them. Yes, that tastes good to them, into their hearts, they smack their lips like swine. That is how they want it. Call more: ''Crucify him, crucify him.'' Scream more: ''His blood come upon us and our children.'' (Matthew 27:25). Perhaps, one of the merciful Saints among us Christians may think I am behaving too crude and disdainfully against the poor, miserable Jews in that I deal with them so sarcastically and insulting. But, good God, I am much too mild in insulting such devils…”


In most ways Luther is merely restating one thousand years of traditional anti-Jewish theology, with justification from the past. He refers to Paul describing the “the Jews” as “blind regarding Jesus”; reminds that the John gospel identifies them with Satan; that Matthew charges, then condemns them eternally as deicides in the death of Jesus. But Luther was also the first “modern” theologian, challenging the primacy of the pope, translating Christian scripture into the German vernacular. “Modern” also were his suggestions presented above for dealing with Christendom’s Jewish Problem.

Between these two works is represented what Pastor Nichols refers to as, “[the] concept of ‘severe mercy’ [which] follows from [Luther’s] disillusionment with the prospects of large-scale Jewish conversion.”

“At his trial in Nuremberg after the Second World War Julius Streicher, the notorious Nazi propagandist, editor of the scurrilous antisemitic weekly, Der Stumer, argued that if he should be standing there arraigned on such charges, so should Martin Luther.” (Nichols, 1993, pps.270-271)


Recent writings in this Series:

1. Foundations of Holocaust: From Inquisition to “Purity of Blood”
2. Foundations of Holocaust: The Crusades, 1096 - 1272
3. Foundations of antisemitism: anti-Judaism turns lethal
4. Foundations of antisemitism: Augustine and Christian Triumphalism