The tremendous success of the “Holocaust” series on American television and the approach of the 1980 passion play at Oberammergau have again raised the spectre of Christian contributions to anti-Semitism (see August 18 issue, page 16). Remarkably, no one seems to remember that the major influences in the creation of modern anti-Semitism were the deistic Age of Reason (see Arthur Hertzberg’s French Enlightment and the Jews ) and the dialectical materialism of Karl Marx (see E. Litvinoff, ed., Soviet Anti-Semitism: The Paris Trial ). Rather, efforts are made, along the lines of William L. Shirer’s Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, to pin twentieth-century anti-Semitism on such Christian notables as Martin Luther.
Shirer’s claim that Luther was a “savage anti-Semite” is based largely upon the Reformer’s tract, Von den Juden and ihren Lügen (1542; W.A., 53), written four years before his death. Indeed a violent pamphlet, reflecting the irritability that age and disease had brought upon Luther, its intent and message nonetheless have generally been misunderstood. From The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich one would conclude that Luther passionately hated the Jewish race and believed that physical persecution was the proper means of dealing with it. However, as Roland Bainton correctly emphasizes, Luther’s position, unlike that of Nazi Germany, “was entirely religious and in no respect racial.”
Luther—and here his naiveté is certainly in evidence—could not understand why the Jews did not return to Christ after the errors of the papacy had been revealed and the Gospel purified; and, along with virtually all Christians of his time, Catholic as well as Protestant, he regarded all unbelievers as a positive social menace. ...1
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