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Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment

Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism: Against His Better Judgment

by Eric W. Gritsch

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In this book Eric W. Gritsch, a Lutheran and a distinguished Luther scholar, faces the glaring ugliness of Martin Luther's anti- Semitism head-on, describing Luther's journey from initial attempts to proselytize Jews to an appallingly racist position, which he apparently held until his death.

Comprehensively laying out the textual evidence for Luther's virulent anti-Semitism, Gritsch traces the development of Luther's thinking in relation to his experiences, external influences, and theological convictions. Revealing greater impending danger with each step, Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism marches steadily onward until the full extent of Luther's racism becomes apparent. Gritsch's unflinching analysis also describes the impact of Luther's egregious words on subsequent generations and places Luther within Europe's long history of anti-Semitism.

Throughout, however, Gritsch resists the temptation either to demonize or to exonerate Luther. Rather, readers will recognize Luther's mistakes as links in a chain that pulled him further and further away from an attitude of respect for Jews as the biblical people of God. Gritsch depicts Luther as a famous example of the intensive struggle with the enduring question of Christian-Jewish relations. It is a great historical tragedy that Luther, of all people, fell victim to anti-Semitism -- albeit against his better judgment.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802866769
Publisher: Eerdmans, William B. Publishing Company
Publication date: 12/28/2011
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 176
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.60(d)

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Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism

Against His Better Judgment
By Eric W. Gritsch

William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Copyright © 2012 Eric W. Gritsch
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8028-6676-9

Chapter One

The Riddle of Anti-Semitism

Efforts to define anti-Semitism have been so numerous and inconclusive as to invite ridicule.

An Etymological Plethora

"Semite" or "Semitic" refers to people who speak Semitic languages, such as Arabs and Assyrians, or to descendants of Shem, one of the three sons of Noah (Gen. 9:18). But "anti-Semitism" always refers to Jews.

The word "anti-Semitic" (antisemitisch in German) appeared first in 1860 when the Austrian Jewish scholar Moritz Steinschneider spoke of "anti-Semitic prejudices" (antisemitische Vorurteile) in comments about the sensational Life of Jesus (La Vie de Jésus, 1863) from the pen of the French philosopher and historian Ernst Renan (1823-1892), who contended that "Semitic" races were inferior to "Aryan" races. The designation "anti-Semitism" became popular in 1880 through a pamphlet by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr (1819-1904), "The Way to Victory of Germanicism over Judaism" (Der Weg zum Sieg des Germanentums über das Judentum). He used the word "anti-Semitism" (Antisemitismus) to define the alleged threat to Germany posed by "Semitism" (Semitismus) embodied in Jewish commercialism. A "League of Anti-Semites" (Antisemiten-Liga) was to organize actions against Jews. In 1895, an international alliance of anti-Semites was organized in Bucharest, Alliance Anti-Semitique Universelle; it made agitation against Jews popular during and after World War I.

The well-known mayor of Vienna, Karl Lüger, increased the popularity of anti-Semitism as "Chairman of the Christian Social Union of the Parliament and of the Anti-Semitic Union of the Diet of Lower Austria." When he died in 1910, the obituary in The New York Times (March 11, 1910) mentioned his anti-Semitic leadership. German Nazi propaganda under Hitler identified "German" with "anti-Semitic." As the Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, put it: "The German people is anti-Semitic. It has no desire to have its rights restricted or to be provoked in the future by parasites of the Jewish race." The Roman Catholic historian Edward H. Flannery identifies four aspects of anti-Semitism: (1) political and economic, exemplified by the Roman statesman, orator, and writer Marcus Tullius Cicero (106-43 B.C.E.) and the American aviator Charles Lindbergh (1902-1974); (2) theological or religious, also known as "anti-Judaism"; (3) nationalistic, exemplified by the French Enlightenment thinker Voltaire (1694-1778); and (4) racial, exemplified by the Nazi Holocaust.

The U.S. Department of State, in its 2005 Report on Global Anti-Semitism, defines it as a "hatred toward Jews — individually or as a group — that can be attributed to the Jewish religion and or ethnicity." The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), a body of the European Union, offers an exhaustive description of anti-Semitism.

Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities. In addition, such manifestations could also target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity. Anti-Semitism frequently charges Jews with conspiring to harm humanity; it is often used to blame Jews for "why things go wrong."

The EUMC then lists "contemporary examples of anti-Semitism in public life, the media, schools, the workplace, and in the religious sphere." They include:

Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews; accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group; denying the Holocaust; and accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to their own nations.

The EUMC also discussed ways in which attacking Israel could be anti-Semitic:

Denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, e.g. by claiming that the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor; applying double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation; using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism (for example, claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel [killing children to use their blood in matzos at Passover]) to characterize Israel or Israelis; drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.

The EUMC added that criticism of Israel cannot be regarded as anti-Semitism so long as it is "similar to that leveled against any other country." Moreover, anti-Semitism also includes "anti-Zionism — rejection of Zionism, a political movement among Jews, which holds that the Jews are a nation and as such are entitled to a national homeland."

In recent years, the term "new anti-Semitism" has been introduced. It focuses attention on opposition to the creation of a Jewish state. In this sense, it broadens the attitude of anti-Semitism. Sometimes the "new anti-Semitism" includes bans on kosher slaughter, for example in Switzerland, Norway, and Sweden, even though the ban was motivated by cruelty to animals that should be stunned rather than slaughtered. The critical study of anti-Semitism has become part of academic curricula, such as the "Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism," part of Social and Policy Studies at Yale University. The Director of the study, Charles Small, said that the increase of anti-Semitism generated a "need to understand the current manifestation of this disease."

The Racist Factor

The designation "anti-Semitism" becomes even more puzzling when linked to "race." The term "race" designates "people of common descent." It appeared first c. 1500, an English translation of the French rasse and the Italian razza; it may have been derived from the Arabic term ra's, meaning the head of someone or something. Beginning in 1774, the term was used to describe divisions of humankind with "physical peculiarities." This definition has been rejected by anthropologists. 13 It is one of the ironies of history that the leading minds of the European Enlightenment spread the myth of a hierarchy of biological races, with the white race at the top. The German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724-1804), the "English Kant" David Hume (1711-1776), and the American statesman Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826) believed in the superiority of the white race. Kant called Jews "vile," "immoral," and a "nation of swindlers," climaxing in the amazing statement that "the euthanasia of Judaism is the pure moral religion." "There never was a civilized nation of any other complexion than white," declared Hume. Jefferson viewed slaves as inferior and slavery as a necessary evil for the time being. Such views were linked to nationalism, or a "folk spirit" (Volksgeist) in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, especially in Germany. The renowned philosopher and churchman Johann Gottfried von Herder (1744-1803) urged care for the purity of the "volksgeist" in every nation by resisting foreign elements. European and American colonialists quickly combined racism with slavery, especially in Africa. It took a long period of "demythologizing" the issue of race. "Pure races do not exist in the human species today, nor is there any evidence that they ever existed in the past."

Anti-Semitism became an integral part of the theories about race that were triggered by Charles Darwin (1809-1882) and his theory of evolution, which tried to show that life is an evolving process of change through a natural selection marked by adaptation, struggle, and the survival of the fittest. Racial theories abound, among them an ancient Chinese claim that "barbarians" with blond hair and green eyes "resembled the monkeys from which they descended."

The "father of modern racism" is the French count Arthur de Gobineau (1816-1882), who viewed world history as a struggle between "races." He assumed that there are three races in the world, each exhibiting specific features identified by the colors yellow, black, and white. The yellow race could be recognized as a people concerned with material prosperity, buyers and sellers. But they lacked physical energy and imagination, and tended to be apathetic. The black race had strong animal senses, especially smell and taste, but their intellect was weak. The white race, which included Jews, were endowed with excellence and intelligence, and exhibited noble virtues such as honor, love of liberty, and a strong sense of beauty. This race is best embodied in a strong Nordic race, the "Aryans." "Aryan" is a Sanskrit word meaning "noble." Gobineau assumed that the "Aryans" were the people speaking an Indo-European language; they replaced the aboriginal people in northern India in the second millennium B.C.E.

In 1894, a "Gobineau Society" was founded in Germany by the librarian Ludwig Schemann (1857-1938), who propagated Gobineau's racial theory and transmitted it to the German National Socialists ("Nazis"); Adolf Hitler awarded him with the Goethe Prize for Art and Literature in 1938. Schemann also was a disciple of the composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883), who used Gobineau's theory to justify the society's hatred of Jews. German anti-Semites linked the French racial theory with German nationalism, calling the Germans the strongest and purest race; it had defeated ancient Rome and was destined to lead other nations. Wagner glorified the ancient German sagas and myths in his operas. In his later years, he warned of "race-mixing," and in 1877 he founded the Bayreuth Leaflets (Bayreuther Blätter), a monthly review promoting "folkish" and anti-Semitic views. He claimed that the racial inferiority of Jews prevented them from creating cultured music and art; they were destined to create only a degenerate culture without any good music and art. Wagner even proposed "annihilation" as the only way to redeem Jews from the terrible curse that hangs over them.

Wagnerian anti-Semitism was enhanced, indeed catapulted to ideological fanaticism, by the British writer Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), who admired Wagner, married his daughter, and became a patriotic German. His best-selling book, The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century, lists the key arguments for racial purity, embodied in a "folk" that is morally, spiritually, and intellectually superior to any other and consists of blond, blue-eyed, and long-skulled German-Aryans. Chamberlain denied that Christ was a Jew, being rather a descendant of noble Aryans. The fall of Rome was due to a racial mixing that diluted Roman high culture. Miscegenation is the ruin of the world. Keeping themselves pure, Germans will rule the world, but only if they prevent the religious mandate of the Jew "to put his foot upon the neck of all the nations of the world." The German emperor William II praised The Foundations as a "hymn to Germanism." Chamberlain became a German citizen and a fanatical supporter of Germany in World War I. The Nazi author of The Myth of the Twentieth Century (1930), Alfred Rosenberg, called The Foundations "the gospel of the Nazi movement." Chamberlain met Adolf Hitler in 1923; Hitler visited Chamberlain on his deathbed and attended his funeral. Chamberlain had provided the foundation for Hitler's conviction that Jews try to seduce other people to mix their blood with them, thus threatening the survival of the world through racial mixing. In his massive autobiographical book, projecting a racially pure Germany as the only superpower, "My Struggle" (Mein Kampf), Hitler constructed an image of racial political rape to warn of the evil intentions of the Jews throughout the world.

With satanic joy in his face, the dark-haired Jew-boy lies in wait for the unsuspecting girl whom he desecrates with his blood, thus stealing blood from her people. He tries to use every means to destroy the racial basis of the people that are to be subjugated. And as he himself methodically ruins women and girls, so he is not afraid to increase his action by destroying the blood barriers for others.

The French journalist Edouard Drumont (1844-1917) argued in his best-selling anti-Semitic tirade, Jewish France (La France Juive, 1886) that the inferior race of Jews made them "covetous, scheming, subtle, and cunning," ruining France through commercial exploitation. "The Semitic Jew and the Aryan French represent two distinct races which are irremediably hostile to each other."

Racism also made bewildering turns. Some well-known intellectuals turned the racial anti-Semitic arguments into "pro-Semitic" ones, claiming that Jews were as strong a race as Aryans. The British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli (1868 and 1874-80), a native Jew who had been raised as a Christian, described himself as a proud member of the Jewish race, claiming that Jews were the cornerstone of western civilization. 26 The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) echoed the opinion of Disraeli, calling the Jews the "strongest, toughest, and purest race now living in Europe."

Racism became irrational in its attempt to judge the quality of people by their "blood," manifested in genealogies and in physical features. When the Nazis ruled Germany (1933-1945), they mandated that every citizen must prove their non-Semitic, Aryan racial descent through an "ancestral passport" (Ahnenpass), showing the family tree of at least three generations (great-grandfather). The irrational aspect of such legislation is disclosed in the fact that Jews could only be identified by typical Jewish names (Hebrew, Yiddish, or other). A desperate, short-term, unsuccessful measure of "proof" was the use of "phrenology — the detailed study of the shape and size of the cranium as a supposed indication of character and mental ability."

Defenders of anti-Semitic racism claimed to advocate a "racial science" when, in reality, it was a pseudo-science and quackery. That is why the United Nations proposed in 1950 to "drop the term race altogether and instead speak of ethnic groups." Such an action is in harmony with the 1776 United States Declaration of Independence, the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen during the French Revolution, and the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The term "race" was to be used only in the context of "racial discrimination," according to the United Nations International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination. It was defined in 1966 as

any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, descent, color, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life.

Scapegoat Mentality

In the Bible a "scapegoat" is "a goat sent into the wilderness after the Jewish chief priest had symbolically laid the sins of the people upon it" (Lev. 16:20-22). The term also describes "a person who is blamed for the wrongdoings, mistakes, or faults of others, especially for reasons of expediency." 31 Similar rituals also existed in the ancient world. The ancient Greeks used human scapegoats. They were blamed for calamities; they were beaten and driven out of cities. Scapegoat mentality has become part of the fabric of culture almost everywhere.

It has been suggested that the phenomenon "blaming the Jews" is rooted in the biblical story of Esau and Jacob (Gen. 25:21–35:29). The twins represent two nations (Jacob the Jew and Esau the non-Jew) struggling with each other in the womb of their mother Rebekah. This struggle foreshadows the enduring enmity between the twins, highlighted by the "sin" of Jacob, who cheated Esau out of his birthright as the elder son. But in the mysterious mixture of divine destiny and human sin Jacob becomes the father of Israel as the people of God in a promised land (Gen. 35:9-12). Occasionally, Jewish commentary expressed guilt about the gift of a "promised land" and blamed Jacob's sin for having lost it and for experiencing persecution and exile. "If the reasons for the punishment are unclear, or if the punishment scarcely fits the crime — as is certainly often the case — then a mystical purpose is assumed." In the words of an anonymous Jewish chronicler of the First Christian crusade in 1096, "The fault is ours! ... Our sins permitted the enemy to triumph; the hand of the Lord weighed heavily upon his people." That is why some modern Jewish thinkers favor exile, not life in a Promised Land; Jews should not become like other nations, corrupted by power. As Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish writer and Nobel Prize winner in literature in 1978, put it: "It became clear to me that only in exile did Jews grow up spiritually."


Excerpted from Martin Luther's Anti-Semitism by Eric W. Gritsch Copyright © 2012 by Eric W. Gritsch. Excerpted by permission of William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Abbreviations xiv

1 The Riddle of Anti-Semitism 1

An Etymological Plethora 1

The Racist Factor 4

Scapegoat Mentality 9

Christian Manifestations 14

Working Definition 28

2 The Luther Evidence 33

A "Christian" Old Testament and Judaism 33

Traditional Polemics (1513-21) 47

An Interlude of Pastoral Evangelism (1521-37) 59

A Tragic Conclusion (1538) 70

Demonizing Attacks (1539-46) 77

3 After-Effects 97

Incentive for Mission 97

Embodiment of German Nationalism 111

Stimulus for Critical Hindsight 120

Unbounded Hermeneutics 128

Conclusion 138

Bibliography 143

Index 151

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