Luther and the Jews II: The Context

In my last post, I tried to summarise what we might call `the Shirer thesis' which posits tight connection between Luther and the Holocaust.  In this post, i want to start to offer an avenue of critique.

The first thing any historian needs to do when looking at a text is ask: `Is this text typical of the time or unusual?'  The typical never really needs any explanation, after all -- it's exactly what one expects, what everyone was doing at the time etc.  Rather, it is the unusual, `the dog that did not bark,' as Sherlock Holmes once said, that peaks the interest.  So, is Luther's treatise typical or atypical of the time in which it was written?

In fact, sad though it is to acknowledge, the 1543 tirade against the Jews is pretty typical of medieval and Renaissance rants against Judaism.  Of course, nasty comments about Jews are the stock in trade of Christian writers right back to the Apostolic Fathers of the late first and early second centuries (e.g., The Didache; the Martyrdom of Polycarp); but by the late Middle Ages anti-Jewish diatribes were something of an established form, with their own themes and idioms.

Looked at in this way, Luther is not actually doing anything unusual.  In fact, he even uses typical elements of late medieval anti-Jewish literature: for example, he talks about the `Blood Libel,' a claim that Jews kidnapped Christian children and used them for ritual sacrifices.  It was nonsense, of course, and most unpleasant of Luther to use it; but in so using it, he nonetheless indicated that his work was not unique but part of an ongoing tradition.

The second thing a historian needs to ask is: are the categories of the sixteenth century the same as today?  Put more simply: we think of the hatred of Jews as an example of racism, and racism is the bogus idea that someone if inferior based on the biological category of race.  Is this the case with Luther?  Did he write against Jews because he was racist in the modern sense?

The answer is no.  Race as we think of it today is really a concept of relatively modern provenance, something that arguably emerges in the nineteenth century as interest grew in biology, evolution etc.  The ideology of the Holocaust was undoubtedly racist in this sense: the Nuremberg laws of 1935, which effectively paved the way in judicial terms for what became the Final Solution, made it clear that conversion to Christianity did not exempt someone: for the Nazis the matter was one of blood (albeit built on completely fallacious science) not of religion.  For Luther, however, Judaism was a religious category.  he had no real grasp of racial identity and no concern for the kind of racial issues which dominated Nazi ideology.  And this points some of the way towards a resolution of our consideration of the Shirer thesis which we shall state in Part III.


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