Martin Luther: “First set fire to their synagogues… that God might see that we are Christians”


“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.”

(Anglican priest William Ralph Inge, 1944)



I. Luther and “the Jews”

Martin Luther had two preoccupations as “reformer”: to reform the Catholic Church, and to convert “the Jews.” It is his conversion project that interests us here, his expectation reflected in his 1523 essay, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew in which he blamed Church persecution for discouraging Jewish conversion: 

“If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian… We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching…”


In agreement with Theodore Herzl four centuries later who suggested that freed from persecution Jews would voluntarily assimilate. As he put it, freed of Church persecution Jews they voluntarily seek out his new “reformist” Christianity. That same year Luther sent, That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew along with a personal letter to a recent convert, Bernhard:

“Now since the golden light of the Gospel rises and shines, the hope is at hand that many of the Jews will be honestly and sincerely converted and drawn in earnestness to Christ, like you…”

As it became increasingly obvious that his more “tolerant” approach to conversion was not achieving the success he anticipated barely three years later he wrote On the Jews and Their Lies and Of the Unknowable Name and the Generations of Christ within months in 1546. These works would have a profound impact on the future of Jews, Christendom’s pursuit of a solution to its Jewish Problem.  His directives for dealing with “the Jews” would four centuries later be embraced by Hitler and Germany’s National Socialist (Nazi) Party as inspiration and justification for the final solution to the persistent and, under religion, unsolved Jewish Problem.   

II. Luther and the dawn of the Final Solution 

"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” 

For all the persecutions, lethal and not, the Church maintained that its approach to “the Jews” be guided by Augustine’s Witness Doctrine: conversion of “the Jews” as evidence of Christian claims as successor to Judaism, God’s “new Israel.” At the outset Luther was consistent with the ideal, “voluntary” conversion; differed only by recommending carrot over stick. When his more “gentle” approach proved no more successful he returned to more traditional means, entirely abandoning “tolerance.” Within three years Luther would turn from tolerance to openly advocating burning Jewish books and synagogues; he would  recommend forced labor, expulsion and murder. As Nazi propagandist Julius Streicher argued at his trial at Nuremberg, 

“Dr. Martin Luther would very probably sit in my place in the defendants' dock today, if this book had been taken into consideration by the Prosecution. In this book The Jews and Their Lies, Dr. Martin Luther writes that the Jews are a serpent's brood and one should burn down their synagogues and destroy them...” 

As “the Great Reformer” Luther became a symbol of religious radicalism and reform which would both weaken the authority of the Church and help propel Europe towards social revolution and secularism. He would also serve as bridge between Chrysostum’s lethal anti-Judaism and Hitler’s secular Final Solution to the Jewish Problem.