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Martin Luther

Martin Luther (1483–1546) was a German theologian who is well-known as the guy who really kicked off the Reformation, as well as for his virulently anti-Semitic views.

Luther was ordained to the priesthood in 1507, but within a decade he was speaking out critically against various practices of the Catholic Church, particularly indulgences (where they would ask people to pay them money and in return say that the weight of that person’s sins were reduced). He was excommunicated by the Pope in 1520 after refusing to renounce the criticisms he had made. He remained influential, however, preaching a version of Christianity with some marked differences from Catholicism, such as that the Bible is the only source of divine knowledge (not the church’s interpretations of such), that salvation can only be attained through faith in Jesus Christ and not by doing good deeds, and that priests should be allowed to marry. His translation of the Bible into an early form of standardised Ger­man was deeply influential in the standardisation of that language, too. Today followers of the school of thought he founded are known as Luth­er­ans, although of course his ideas laid the basis for all the other Protestant denominations too.

As mentioned at the beginning, though, Luther was also extremely anti-Semitic and wrote multiple polemics about how awful he thought Jews were. Europe in general was a very anti-Semitic place, but the popularity of Luther’s writings sort of threw fuel on the fire, especially in Germany. Luther was not always quite so hateful towards them – in 1523 he wrote a pamphlet called That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew in which he recommended kindness towards Jews, and argued they were the “blood brothers” of Christ while Christians were not. However, the reason he wrote this pamphlet was that he was hopeful he could convince them to abandon Judaism and welcome Christ as their saviour, now they didn’t have to reckon with the corruption of the Catholic Church to do so. When this did not happen, he turned sharply against them, writing vile screeds about how their synagogues and schools should be burnt, their houses destroyed, their religious texts and any valuables they might own stolen, their rabbis physically attacked, and also that they should be put to hard labour and expelled from the country.

There is a view (called “Sonderweg”) among some who write about history that Luther’s anti-Semitic writings were so influential that they made the Holocaust inevitable centuries later. As you might imagine, there are many others who doubt you can call something like that “inevitable” in such a way, as if the Nazis themselves weren’t really culpable but slaves to the weight of history. What is true is that the Nazis seized on Martin Luther’s anti-Semitic writings and used it to justify their own genocide, the argument is that they dug them up because they were already anti-Semites, not that Lutheranism led them to anti-Semitism.

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