Brittany DavisDecember 2017THL300Research PaperConcerningLuther’s Influence on Hitler and the HolocaustOnNovember 10, 1483, in present-day Germany, a strong-willed and passionate manwas born who would later turn the Christian religion as it was known upsidedown. This man was Martin Luther.
As a monk belonging to the Augustinian orderin Erfurt, at the age of 27, Martin was given the opportunity to serve as arepresentative for his order at a conference of the Catholic church in Rome. Itwas here that he first saw the corruption and immorality of the Catholic churchand priests (Kittelson, 17-24). After returning to Germany and obtaining hisdoctorate of theology, Luther began giving lectures on the scriptures as wellas deeply studying them. It was from these studies that he gained his religiousenlightenment. He realized that the key to salvation was found not inconducting good works, but in faith in Christ alone (Kittelson, 96-97).
Thisvery thought set forth the beginning of the Reformation.Afterthe period of major change and religious enlightenment in Luther’s life, heposted his 95 Thesis in October of1517. Each thesis was a scholarly claim that challenged the validity andeffectiveness of indulgences (Kittelson, 66). Not long after, Luther became increasinglyangered, publicly declaring that the Pope did not have the authority to interpretthe scripture and the will of God. Threatened with excommunication in 1521,Luther refused to recant his statements, and was banned from the Catholicchurch. As a wanted man, allies of Luther hid him in the Wartburg Castle. Thisis where, in a time of lonely seclusion, he would translate the entire NewTestament into the German language, allowing ordinary people to read thescriptures. Although still considered an outlaw, Luther returned to Wittenbergin 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 inthe world. During his later years until the time of his death, Luther sufferedfrom many illnesses, physical pain, and emotional stressors that may have been greatlyreflected in some of his later writings. Although one of the most well-knownand most admired men to have ever lived, his use of offensive and cruellanguage also made him one of the most controversial. One of the mostcontroversial works written by Luther is TheJews and Their Lies, an anti-Semitic treatise that discussed Luther’sattitude toward Jews, which took on many different forms during his lifetime,but became increasingly intolerant as time went on (Kittelson, 227-232).Fourcenturies later, in 1889, another strong-willed and passionate man was bornnear 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 aninterest in the fine arts.
He applied twice to the Academy of Fine Arts inVienna twice, being rejected both times (Hitler, 58). After facing thisrejection, much of his time was spent reading periodicals and newspapers,learning about current events and history, as well as better understanding thepolitical and social context of Germany at the time (Hitler, 81). During thisperiod, he became aware of and tried to understand the basis behind the Jewishquestion; a debate that pertained to the status and treatment of Jews insociety. After much consideration, Hitler “recognized the Jew as the leader ofthe Social Democracy, the Marxists, and that is when the blinders fell from myeyes (Hitler, 88).” Lacking money, he relocated to Munich in 1913 and developeda strong sense of German nationalism. He joined and served in the German armyfollowing the outbreak of World War I. When Germany surrendered at the end ofthe war in 1918, Hitler become angry and was even more-so enraged afterlearning of the limitations against Germany that came with the Treaty ofVersailles. This treaty only increased the distress of the country, which wasnow in turmoil.
Withtheir country in shambles, Germans found a leader within Hitler, who wanted toraise the nation out of its ruins and bring it to greatness once again. As theleader of the National Socialist Party, he was in the perfect position toconfront the Jewish problem. Even as a young boy living in Austria, he showed astrong attachment to Germany, and believed Austria must return to the “greatGerman mother country, not for economic reasons, but because common bloodbelongs in one common realm (Hitler, 47).
” It was this intense nationalism andhatred for non-Aryan people that ignited his extreme methods for making hisdream of a united and superior German nation come true. He vowed to bring thecountry out of the rubble and lead it to being the superpower it was destinedto be. This is just what the country’s citizens wanted to hear and it gainedhim the support he needed. There were many steps involved in handling the”Jewish problem.” The Nazis began by enacting laws that denounced the Germancitizenship of the Jews and prohibiting them from working certain professions. Thisthen escalated to the burning of synagogues, forced sterilization, andeventually, extermination camps.
Althoughthese two men seem to be very different in character and the ways in which theyconducted their life, Luther and Hitler do share a few similarities. With bothof them being very influential men of their time, the most obvious similaritythey shared was their unwavering anti-Semitism. Antisemitism, or the prejudiceand discrimination against Jews, is unfortunately not uncommon, and originatesbefore Christianity even began.
However, the root of antisemitism inChristianity comes from the idea that the Jews are the ones who killed Christ. Christiansbelieved that Jesus was the messiah that the Jews had been waiting for, butmost of those belonging to the Jewish faith refused this belief. This major clashin position led to many centuries of violence and oppression. Having beenraised in the Christian faith, Luther grew up in a period of time that was verydeeply rooted in anti-Semitism. Even after his separation from the Catholicchurch, one view of Luther’s remained in alignment with theirs. The view thatJews were the enemy and not to be associated with.Earlyon in his religious career, Luther attempted to convert the Jews toChristianity, so they could be saved by Christ. At this time, Luther seemed tobe fairly tolerant of the Jewish faith, and in a 1519 speech, he even attackedChristians who were persecuting Jews.
In a work written in 1523, Luther urgedChristians to treat the Jews in a kind manner, as they would be more likely tobecome genuine Christians (Kittelson, 230). As he aged and his health began todeteriorate, so it seems, did his tolerance. When the conversion of the Jewsfailed, Luther took their refusal personally and his frustrations continued tofester. This rage inspired many anti-Semitic works, with the most well-knownand most extreme of these texts being TheJews and Their Lies, written in 1543.
Luther suggested that other preachersfollow his example against the Jews and he included a list of things thatshould be done to those of the Jewish faith. He advised that these actionsshould include avoiding their synagogues and schools, refusing them to ownhouses among Christians, taking away their prayer books, prohibiting theirrabbis to teach, banning their right to travel, prohibiting their usury, andforcing their young to work (Luther, 39-45). Aftercomparing these two men and the similarities in their hatred of Jews, it wouldbe appropriate to raise the question, “did Luther and his anti-Semitic writingsinfluence the actions of Hitler and the Holocaust centuries later?” While many people, if not most, would argue that Lutherdid in fact influence the ideology of Hitler, it is strongly unlikely that Lutheris directly responsible for the actions of Hitler and Nazi Germany during theHolocaust.
While Hitler and the Nazis often used Luther’s writings andtheology to justify their actions, their anti-Semitic way of thinking did notstem straight from Luther’s teachings. Hitler did not always possess a hatredfor Jews. This logic didn’t begin until later in life, when he began keeping upwith current events and learned of the Jewish problem. In his mind, he believedthat the Jews were responsible for all of the turmoil that was occurring in hisbeloved Germany at the time. His reasoning behind his hatred had little to dowith religion, but all to do with politics and economics. With this logic, he beganto praise and quote Luther’s works, often using excerpts from The Jews and Their Lies. Luther’stheology became a method for Hitler and the Nazis to justify their actions andthe extermination of the Jews.
RichardSteigmann-Gall, in his work ‘FurorProtestanticus’: Nazi Conceptions of Luther 1919-1933, analyzed manywell-known members of the Nazi Party and their thoughts toward Luther and histheology. The Nazi Party was in favor of religious freedom, but morespecifically, religious freedom that did not oppose the customs and morals ofthe Germanic race. However, they were also strong supporters of “positiveChristianity,” or the removal of Jewish content from the Bible.
Luther hadalways been regarded by many Nazis as precursor to Nazism and many thought ofhim as the first German, also implying, the first Nazi. Just as he was lookedat as a religious hero in the Protestant Reformation, Nazis also perceived himto be a great religious reformer. Many of the party members, including HansSchemm and Walter Buch, highly respected Luther and his theology. Schemm wasknown for his slogan, “our religion is Christ, our politics Fatherland!” He wasknown to speak like a pastor and often ended his speeches with Luther’s hymn, A Mighty Fortress is Our God. ForSchemm, Christianity and Nazism went hand-in-hand (Steigmann-Gall, 276). However,Schemm not only praised Luther for his theology, but also for his translationof the New Testament into German. As he said, “when Luther made the Bibleaccessible to Germans in the glorious German language, it was as if we had castoff the iron glove and with the flesh and blood of our German hand were able atlast truly to grasp our unique character,” it was clear that Schemm regardedLuther’s translation as a major nationalist achievement (Schemm, 277).
AnotherNazi, Walter Bucher, was an avid Lutheran and a member of the “League for aGerman Church.” Bucher often made comparisons between Luther and Hitler,stating, “many people confess their amazement that Hitler preaches ideas whichthey have always held. From the Middle Ages we can look to the same example inMartin Luther. What stirred in the soul and spirit of the German people of thattime, finally found expression in his person, in his words and deeds (Bucher,278).” Unlike Bucher, Alfred Rosenberg was regarded as one of the party’sleading anti-Christians and although he was also against Luther’s Protestantviews, he did appreciate Luther’s work and especially praised his attack onRome (Steigmann-Gall, 278).Althoughit 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. DietrichEckart and Joseph Goebbels, although strong supporters of the Nazi party,strongly opposed Luther.
So far, positive or negative assessments of Lutherseemed to follow confessional affiliation (Steigmann-Gall, 281). This alone supportsthe 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 theirviews regarding Jews were not necessarily Protestant. Popes have beenlong-known to use strong language against them and ghettos and Jewishsegregation originated in Rome by papal edict (Luther, 5). In her work Catholics, Protestants, and ChristianAntisemitism in Nazi Germany, Doris Bergen explains the evolution ofantisemitism in regard to the Christian religion and how it led to many of theNazi’s views in World War II. The traditional Christian view, even beforeLuther’s time, sees the Jewish people as “blind, stubborn, carnal, andperverse,” which was an integral part in Hitler’s choice of the Jews as thescapegoat (Bergen, 330).
Throughout the nineteenth century, 95% of Germans werebaptized members of the Christian church, with roughly one-third them Catholicsand the remainder Protestants. Hostility toward Judaism linked thisconfessional divide, not only in the context of National Socialist Germany, butacross centuries of church history. However, this tradition of hostility towardJews did not alone bring Catholics and Protestants closer together, and manyanti-Jewish images dated back to the sixteenth century, when the establishedchurch denounced Luther and his followers as “Jews.
” Luther developed his ownblend of anti-Jewish and anti-Catholic views (Bergen, 330-332).Inconclusion, although Luther’s works were often used as a method ofjustification for the actions of Hitler and the Nazis, he himself was notdirectly responsible for the occurrence of the Holocaust. Luther and Hitlerdisplayed many similarities in their hatred toward the Jewish faith. They bothstruggled in their personal lives; Luther with the devil and religious battlesthat sent him into a life dedicated to his own beliefs, Hitler with thestruggle to fit in and the rejection that led him to politics and the desirefor power.
Both men took their views of antisemitism to the extreme, but theywere passionate about this view in very different ways. Hitler’s motive wasinitially rooted in social and political motives, whereas Luther’s views were strictlydue to religious frustrations in the Jews not converting to the Christianfaith, in which they would be saved by Christ. Many have noted the similaritiesbetween Luther’s suggestions of what to do with the Jews in his work, The Jews and Their Lies, and the actionsthat Hitler took during the Holocaust, claiming that they are more thancoincidentally similar. Hitler once claimed that Luther saw clearly that theJews needed to be destroyed. However, in Luther’s list of suggestions, he neveradvocated for their eradication; his objection was entirely to the Jews’religious beliefs and practices.
This contrasted greatly to Hitler, whobelieved Jews existed solely to disrupt the social and economic success ofGermany and to eliminate the pure Germanic race. He not only prohibited themfrom working certain professions, but forced upon them sterility as a measureto bring the German race to “purity” once again before deciding it was best tocompletely eradicate them altogether. AlthoughLuther’s views on the Jews may not have been necessarily “just” or “right,” itwas a view that the church had held long before his birth. He was raisedsurrounded with this logic, and his religious struggles and passions only leadhim 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’scareer, he urged Christians to present a kind attitude to the Jews, as thismight aid in their willingness to convert. His tolerance seemed to declinealong with his health, showing that his illnesses and chronic pain may havebeen a contributing factor in his patience with the Jews. As Doris Bergenstated, “It would be inaccurate to say that the Christians’ legacy towardJudaism was a sufficient cause for Nazi genocide, however, Christianity didplay a critical role, not in motivating the top decision makers, but in makingtheir commands comprehensible and tolerable to the people who carried out thesemeasures and to those who passively condoned them. The old antisemitism createda climate in which the new antisemitism was, at the very least, acceptable to millionsof Germans (Bergen, 329).
Works Cited-Bergen, Doris L.”Catholics, Protestants, and Christian Antisemitism in Nazi Germany.” CentralEuropean History, vol. 27, no. 3, 1994, pp.
329–348.-Hitler, Adolf, andThomas Dalton. Mein Kampf (English translation, vol 1). Vol. 1,CreateSpace Publishing, 2017.-Kittelson, James M., andHans H.
Wiersma. Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career.2nd ed., Fortress Press, 2016.-Luther, Martin.
TheJews and Their Lies. Christian Nationalist Crusade, 1948.-Steigmann-Gall, Richard.”‘Furor Protestanticus’: Nazi Conceptions of Luther, 1919-1933.
” KirchlicheZeitgeschichte, vol. 12, no. 1, 1999, pp. 274–286.