Brittany Davis
December 2017
THL300
Research Paper

Concerning
Luther’s Influence on Hitler and the Holocaust

On
November 10, 1483, in present-day Germany, a strong-willed and passionate man
was born who would later turn the Christian religion as it was known upside
down. This man was Martin Luther. As a monk belonging to the Augustinian order
in Erfurt, at the age of 27, Martin was given the opportunity to serve as a
representative for his order at a conference of the Catholic church in Rome. It
was here that he first saw the corruption and immorality of the Catholic church
and priests (Kittelson, 17-24). After returning to Germany and obtaining his
doctorate of theology, Luther began giving lectures on the scriptures as well
as deeply studying them. It was from these studies that he gained his religious
enlightenment. He realized that the key to salvation was found not in
conducting good works, but in faith in Christ alone (Kittelson, 96-97). This
very thought set forth the beginning of the Reformation.

After
the period of major change and religious enlightenment in Luther’s life, he
posted his 95 Thesis in October of
1517. Each thesis was a scholarly claim that challenged the validity and
effectiveness of indulgences (Kittelson, 66). Not long after, Luther became increasingly
angered, publicly declaring that the Pope did not have the authority to interpret
the scripture and the will of God. Threatened with excommunication in 1521,
Luther refused to recant his statements, and was banned from the Catholic
church. As a wanted man, allies of Luther hid him in the Wartburg Castle. This
is where, in a time of lonely seclusion, he would translate the entire New
Testament into the German language, allowing ordinary people to read the
scriptures. Although still considered an outlaw, Luther returned to Wittenberg
in 1522 and began the steps of creating the Lutheran church. (Kittelson,
123-146). Over the years, the church grew and is today one of the biggest in
the world. During his later years until the time of his death, Luther suffered
from many illnesses, physical pain, and emotional stressors that may have been greatly
reflected in some of his later writings. Although one of the most well-known
and most admired men to have ever lived, his use of offensive and cruel
language also made him one of the most controversial. One of the most
controversial works written by Luther is The
Jews and Their Lies, an anti-Semitic treatise that discussed Luther’s
attitude toward Jews, which took on many different forms during his lifetime,
but became increasingly intolerant as time went on (Kittelson, 227-232).

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Four
centuries later, in 1889, another strong-willed and passionate man was born
near Germany in the neighboring country of Austria. Just as Martin Luther,
although in a much different way, he would also turn the world upside down.
This man was Adolf Hitler. Early on, Hitler lived an introverted life with an
interest in the fine arts. He applied twice to the Academy of Fine Arts in
Vienna twice, being rejected both times (Hitler, 58). After facing this
rejection, much of his time was spent reading periodicals and newspapers,
learning about current events and history, as well as better understanding the
political and social context of Germany at the time (Hitler, 81). During this
period, he became aware of and tried to understand the basis behind the Jewish
question; a debate that pertained to the status and treatment of Jews in
society. After much consideration, Hitler “recognized the Jew as the leader of
the Social Democracy, the Marxists, and that is when the blinders fell from my
eyes (Hitler, 88).” Lacking money, he relocated to Munich in 1913 and developed
a strong sense of German nationalism. He joined and served in the German army
following the outbreak of World War I. When Germany surrendered at the end of
the war in 1918, Hitler become angry and was even more-so enraged after
learning of the limitations against Germany that came with the Treaty of
Versailles. This treaty only increased the distress of the country, which was
now in turmoil.

With
their country in shambles, Germans found a leader within Hitler, who wanted to
raise the nation out of its ruins and bring it to greatness once again. As the
leader of the National Socialist Party, he was in the perfect position to
confront the Jewish problem. Even as a young boy living in Austria, he showed a
strong attachment to Germany, and believed Austria must return to the “great
German mother country, not for economic reasons, but because common blood
belongs in one common realm (Hitler, 47).” It was this intense nationalism and
hatred for non-Aryan people that ignited his extreme methods for making his
dream of a united and superior German nation come true. He vowed to bring the
country out of the rubble and lead it to being the superpower it was destined
to be. This is just what the country’s citizens wanted to hear and it gained
him the support he needed. There were many steps involved in handling the
“Jewish problem.” The Nazis began by enacting laws that denounced the German
citizenship of the Jews and prohibiting them from working certain professions. This
then escalated to the burning of synagogues, forced sterilization, and
eventually, extermination camps.

Although
these two men seem to be very different in character and the ways in which they
conducted their life, Luther and Hitler do share a few similarities. With both
of them being very influential men of their time, the most obvious similarity
they shared was their unwavering anti-Semitism. Antisemitism, or the prejudice
and discrimination against Jews, is unfortunately not uncommon, and originates
before Christianity even began. However, the root of antisemitism in
Christianity comes from the idea that the Jews are the ones who killed Christ. Christians
believed that Jesus was the messiah that the Jews had been waiting for, but
most of those belonging to the Jewish faith refused this belief. This major clash
in position led to many centuries of violence and oppression. Having been
raised in the Christian faith, Luther grew up in a period of time that was very
deeply rooted in anti-Semitism. Even after his separation from the Catholic
church, one view of Luther’s remained in alignment with theirs. The view that
Jews were the enemy and not to be associated with.

Early
on in his religious career, Luther attempted to convert the Jews to
Christianity, so they could be saved by Christ. At this time, Luther seemed to
be fairly tolerant of the Jewish faith, and in a 1519 speech, he even attacked
Christians who were persecuting Jews. In a work written in 1523, Luther urged
Christians to treat the Jews in a kind manner, as they would be more likely to
become genuine Christians (Kittelson, 230). As he aged and his health began to
deteriorate, so it seems, did his tolerance. When the conversion of the Jews
failed, Luther took their refusal personally and his frustrations continued to
fester. This rage inspired many anti-Semitic works, with the most well-known
and most extreme of these texts being The
Jews and Their Lies, written in 1543. Luther suggested that other preachers
follow his example against the Jews and he included a list of things that
should be done to those of the Jewish faith. He advised that these actions
should include avoiding their synagogues and schools, refusing them to own
houses among Christians, taking away their prayer books, prohibiting their
rabbis to teach, banning their right to travel, prohibiting their usury, and
forcing their young to work (Luther, 39-45).

After
comparing these two men and the similarities in their hatred of Jews, it would
be appropriate to raise the question, “did Luther and his anti-Semitic writings
influence the actions of Hitler and the Holocaust centuries later?” While many people, if not most, would argue that Luther
did in fact influence the ideology of Hitler, it is strongly unlikely that Luther
is directly responsible for the actions of Hitler and Nazi Germany during the
Holocaust. While Hitler and the Nazis often used Luther’s writings and
theology to justify their actions, their anti-Semitic way of thinking did not
stem straight from Luther’s teachings. Hitler did not always possess a hatred
for Jews. This logic didn’t begin until later in life, when he began keeping up
with current events and learned of the Jewish problem. In his mind, he believed
that the Jews were responsible for all of the turmoil that was occurring in his
beloved Germany at the time. His reasoning behind his hatred had little to do
with religion, but all to do with politics and economics. With this logic, he began
to praise and quote Luther’s works, often using excerpts from The Jews and Their Lies. Luther’s
theology became a method for Hitler and the Nazis to justify their actions and
the extermination of the Jews.

Richard
Steigmann-Gall, in his work ‘Furor
Protestanticus’: Nazi Conceptions of Luther 1919-1933, analyzed many
well-known members of the Nazi Party and their thoughts toward Luther and his
theology. The Nazi Party was in favor of religious freedom, but more
specifically, religious freedom that did not oppose the customs and morals of
the Germanic race. However, they were also strong supporters of “positive
Christianity,” or the removal of Jewish content from the Bible. Luther had
always been regarded by many Nazis as precursor to Nazism and many thought of
him as the first German, also implying, the first Nazi. Just as he was looked
at as a religious hero in the Protestant Reformation, Nazis also perceived him
to be a great religious reformer. Many of the party members, including Hans
Schemm and Walter Buch, highly respected Luther and his theology. Schemm was
known for his slogan, “our religion is Christ, our politics Fatherland!” He was
known to speak like a pastor and often ended his speeches with Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. For
Schemm, Christianity and Nazism went hand-in-hand (Steigmann-Gall, 276). However,
Schemm not only praised Luther for his theology, but also for his translation
of the New Testament into German. As he said, “when Luther made the Bible
accessible to Germans in the glorious German language, it was as if we had cast
off the iron glove and with the flesh and blood of our German hand were able at
last truly to grasp our unique character,” it was clear that Schemm regarded
Luther’s translation as a major nationalist achievement (Schemm, 277). Another
Nazi, Walter Bucher, was an avid Lutheran and a member of the “League for a
German Church.” Bucher often made comparisons between Luther and Hitler,
stating, “many people confess their amazement that Hitler preaches ideas which
they have always held. From the Middle Ages we can look to the same example in
Martin Luther. What stirred in the soul and spirit of the German people of that
time, finally found expression in his person, in his words and deeds (Bucher,
278).” Unlike Bucher, Alfred Rosenberg was regarded as one of the party’s
leading anti-Christians and although he was also against Luther’s Protestant
views, he did appreciate Luther’s work and especially praised his attack on
Rome (Steigmann-Gall, 278).

Although
it is clear that many members of the Nazi party held Luther in high regard,
many other members took a negative stance on Luther and his religion. Dietrich
Eckart and Joseph Goebbels, although strong supporters of the Nazi party,
strongly opposed Luther. So far, positive or negative assessments of Luther
seemed to follow confessional affiliation (Steigmann-Gall, 281). This alone supports
the notion that Luther alone did not influence the actions of the Nazi Party.
Luther and Hitler were not the first to face the Jewish problem and, and their
views regarding Jews were not necessarily Protestant. Popes have been
long-known to use strong language against them and ghettos and Jewish
segregation originated in Rome by papal edict (Luther, 5). In her work Catholics, Protestants, and Christian
Antisemitism in Nazi Germany, Doris Bergen explains the evolution of
antisemitism in regard to the Christian religion and how it led to many of the
Nazi’s views in World War II. The traditional Christian view, even before
Luther’s time, sees the Jewish people as “blind, stubborn, carnal, and
perverse,” which was an integral part in Hitler’s choice of the Jews as the
scapegoat (Bergen, 330). Throughout the nineteenth century, 95% of Germans were
baptized members of the Christian church, with roughly one-third them Catholics
and the remainder Protestants. Hostility toward Judaism linked this
confessional divide, not only in the context of National Socialist Germany, but
across centuries of church history. However, this tradition of hostility toward
Jews did not alone bring Catholics and Protestants closer together, and many
anti-Jewish images dated back to the sixteenth century, when the established
church denounced Luther and his followers as “Jews.” Luther developed his own
blend of anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic views (Bergen, 330-332).

In
conclusion, although Luther’s works were often used as a method of
justification for the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, he himself was not
directly responsible for the occurrence of the Holocaust. Luther and Hitler
displayed many similarities in their hatred toward the Jewish faith. They both
struggled in their personal lives; Luther with the devil and religious battles
that sent him into a life dedicated to his own beliefs, Hitler with the
struggle to fit in and the rejection that led him to politics and the desire
for power. Both men took their views of antisemitism to the extreme, but they
were passionate about this view in very different ways. Hitler’s motive was
initially rooted in social and political motives, whereas Luther’s views were strictly
due to religious frustrations in the Jews not converting to the Christian
faith, in which they would be saved by Christ. Many have noted the similarities
between Luther’s suggestions of what to do with the Jews in his work, The Jews and Their Lies, and the actions
that Hitler took during the Holocaust, claiming that they are more than
coincidentally similar. Hitler once claimed that Luther saw clearly that the
Jews needed to be destroyed. However, in Luther’s list of suggestions, he never
advocated for their eradication; his objection was entirely to the Jews’
religious beliefs and practices. This contrasted greatly to Hitler, who
believed Jews existed solely to disrupt the social and economic success of
Germany and to eliminate the pure Germanic race. He not only prohibited them
from working certain professions, but forced upon them sterility as a measure
to bring the German race to “purity” once again before deciding it was best to
completely eradicate them altogether.

Although
Luther’s views on the Jews may not have been necessarily “just” or “right,” it
was a view that the church had held long before his birth. He was raised
surrounded with this logic, and his religious struggles and passions only lead
him to further believe that the Jews needed to recognize Christ as their messiah,
so that they may find salvation. As previously mentioned, early on in Luther’s
career, he urged Christians to present a kind attitude to the Jews, as this
might aid in their willingness to convert. His tolerance seemed to decline
along with his health, showing that his illnesses and chronic pain may have
been a contributing factor in his patience with the Jews. As Doris Bergen
stated, “It would be inaccurate to say that the Christians’ legacy toward
Judaism was a sufficient cause for Nazi genocide, however, Christianity did
play a critical role, not in motivating the top decision makers, but in making
their commands comprehensible and tolerable to the people who carried out these
measures and to those who passively condoned them. The old antisemitism created
a climate in which the new antisemitism was, at the very least, acceptable to millions
of Germans (Bergen, 329).

 

 

 

Works Cited

-Bergen, Doris L.
“Catholics, Protestants, and Christian Antisemitism in Nazi Germany.” Central
European History, vol. 27, no. 3, 1994, pp. 329–348.

-Hitler, Adolf, and
Thomas Dalton. Mein Kampf (English translation, vol 1). Vol. 1,
CreateSpace Publishing, 2017.

-Kittelson, James M., and
Hans H. Wiersma. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career.
2nd ed., Fortress Press, 2016.

-Luther, Martin. The
Jews and Their Lies. Christian Nationalist Crusade, 1948.

-Steigmann-Gall, Richard.
“‘Furor Protestanticus’: Nazi Conceptions of Luther, 1919-1933.” Kirchliche
Zeitgeschichte, vol. 12, no. 1, 1999, pp. 274–286.

 

 

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