Monday, April 21, 2008

Was Luther Primarily Responsible For Hitler?

I was alerted to a discussion on Jimmy Akin's blog where my name was brought up in connection with this issue (complete with the obligatory anti-Catholic insult). Someone had mentioned (innocently) that I had cited Protestant historian William Shirer's 1960 book, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, making mention of Luther, in one of my papers (as it turned out, an older version, recently revised: just in the last few weeks). Here is the entire citation, dated 19 September 2004:
Mr. [Doe] mentions in passing my criticism of Luther's "pre-involvement with Nazi Germany" (whatever that could possibly mean). Of course, the casual reader has no idea what the context of this was, nor that it was not my own expressed opinion at all, but rather, that of Protestant William Shirer, in his 1600-page epic The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich (by all accounts one of the most well-known histories of that tragic time and place). Here is what Shirer stated:
It is difficult to understand the behavior of most German Protestants in the first Nazi years unless one is aware of two things: their history and the influence of Martin Luther. The great founder of Protestantism was both a passionate anti-Semite and a ferocious believer in absolute obedience to political authority. He wanted Germany rid of the Jews and . . . advised that . . .
they be put under a roof or stable, like the Gypsies. in misery and captivity . . .
-- advice that was literally followed four centuries later by Hitler, Goering and Himmler . . . In . . . the peasant uprising of 1525, Luther advised the princes to adopt the most ruthless measures against the 'mad dogs' . . . Here, as in his utterances about the Jews, Luther employed a coarseness and brutality of language unequalled in German history until the Nazi time. The influence of this towering figure extended down the generations in Germany, especially among the Protestants. Among other results was the ease with which German Protestantism became the instrument of royal and priestly absolutism . . . until the kings and princes were overthrown in 1918 .
. . . In no country, with the exception of Czarist Russia, did the clergy become by tradition so completely servile to the political authority of the state . . . Like Niemoeller, most of the pastors welcomed the advent of Adolf Hitler to the chancellorship in 1933 . . . Hitler . . . had always had a certain contempt for the Protestants: . . . .
You can do anything you want with them. They will submit . . . they are insignificant little people, submissive as dogs . . .
He was well aware that the resistance to the Nazification of the Protestant churches came from a minority of pastors and an even smaller minority of worshipers.
(New York: Fawcett Crest, 1960, pp. 326-329)
Now, if Mr. [Doe] doesn't like this opinion, let him argue with William Shirer about it.
In fairness to my critic, "Jeb Protestant," who wrote on that blog today: "I would be skeptical about anything Dave Armstrong or William Shirer says," it is true that I was more harsh on Luther in the post (as indicated by my use of this citation) than I am today. My views have softened considerably since my "new convert" period when I was quite disenchanted with Martin Luther, having discovered a lot of new things that I had never heard before.

Opinions (at least in a conscientious thinker) evolve and grow over time. Luther had been a huge hero of mine, and there is a certain disappointment that one goes through in learning about the fuller historical picture (one that is often hidden from view in too many -- not all, by any means -- Protestant treatments). With the passing of time, and many hundreds of pages more study, I think I am a lot more objective now in writing about Martin Luther than I was seventeen years ago.

I wrote in a very old paper of mine about Luther (from 1990 or 1991, right after I converted), introducing the same Shirer quote (just after having discussed some of his notorious remarks about the Jews),
May God have mercy on a man with an abominable mouth and pen like Luther's. For, without much reflection, one can imagine the implications of such venomous talk for the later history of Germany.
That's tough language, for sure, but as we shall see, it is little more than what many Protestant or otherwise non-Catholic historians have also stated. It also should be mentioned in fairness to me, that in the original paper I wrote criticizing Luther, dated 14 January 1991 (I had to dig the original paper manuscript out of piles of old papers of mine!), immediately after the Shirer quotation, I wrote:
Catholicism, on the other hand, while not totally unblemished with regard to Nazism . . .
So we see that I was not totally blaming Luther and Lutheranism for the Nazi tragedy, even in the period when I was most critical of Luther. With that background in mind, here is what I wrote on Jimmy Akin's blog, on this general issue and my own opinion:
Shirer is not the only one who has made the connection between Luther's political-ecclesiological thought and the Nazis. How about Alister McGrath: perhaps the foremost Protestant historian writing today?:
As the Peasants' Revolt loomed on the horizon, however, it seems that the deficiencies of his political thought became obvious . . . This understanding of the relation of church and state has been the object of intense criticism. Luther's social ethic has been described as 'defeatist' and 'quietist', encouraging the Christian to tolerate (or at least fail to oppose) unjust social structures. Luther preferred oppression to revolution . . . The Peasants' War seemed to show up the tensions within Luther's social ethic: the peasants were supposed to live in accordance with the private ethic of the Sermon on the Mount, turning the other cheek to their oppressors -- while the princes were justified in using violent coercive means to re-establish social order. And although Luther maintained that the magistrate had no authority in the church, except as a Christian believer, the technical distinction involved was so tenuous as to be unworkable. The way was opened to the eventual domination of the church by the state, which was to become a virtually universal feature of Lutheranism. The failure of the German church to oppose Hitler in the 1930s is widely seen as reflecting the inadequacies of Luther's political thought. Even Hitler, it appeared to some German Christians, was an instrument of God.
(Reformation Thought: An Introduction, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House, 2nd edition, 1993, 209-210)
A major Lutheran biographer of Luther, Heiko A. Oberman, makes similar comments:
The Third Reich and in its wake the whole Western world capitalized upon Luther, the fierce Jew-baiter. Any attempt to deal with the Reformer runs up against this obstacle. No description of Luther's campaign against the Jews, however objective and erudite it may be, escapes the horror: we live in the post-Holocaust era . . . Luther's late writings on the Jews are crucial to this agonizing but necessary task of remembering . . .
(Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart, New York: Doubleday Image, 1992, 292)
I haven't even staked out a definite position on this particular matter. I was simply citing non-Catholics who saw a relationship between the two. I just finished a new book on Luther on Thursday and I didn't say anything about either Nazi Germany or Luther's well-known negative comments about Jews, and in fact, a third of the book was devoted to praise of Luther when he held a view that is entirely or largely Catholic.
There are all kinds of myths about what I supposedly believe (especially regarding Martin Luther). Jeb Protestant is no accurate guide to my thinking, I can assure everyone here! I wouldn't classify him as a troll, but he doesn't engage me in what I would call dialogue, when he shows up on my site.
I recently revised some of my Luther papers, and the Shirer quote appears to not even be in my current papers anymore (I just did a search of my site to try to find it). That's how much I cared about its importance. The link given above was to an older version of one paper, from Internet Archive. But the above two citations remain. If Protestants want to gripe about these two very prominent historians and their opinions about Luther and later anti-Semitism, then that has nothing to do with me.
Just to set the record straight. Aren't facts and documentation wonderful things?
I should also add, to clarify my position, that there is plenty of detestable anti-Semitism in Catholic history as well (as the present pope and the previous one have both solemnly acknowledged), so that I would reject any attempt to pin the blame of ultimate or sole causation of Nazism on Lutheranism. I am one who believes that historical causation is an extremely complicated, multi-faceted thing: rarely able to be narrowed down to one cause. I don't think reality (and particularly the history and influence of ideas) works that way.
The past has enough scandal in this regard to shame all three major branches of Christianity. I would oppose anyone, however, who tried to deny any connection between Luther's anti-Semitism and political teaching, and Nazi Germany. There clearly is an influence to some degree there, that cannot be denied by anyone acquainted with the relevant facts.
The person who made the link (a Catholic who was simply offering further historical information) expressed a willingness to remove the link to an older paper if I didn't want it there, but I wrote:
No, that's fine. No problem. I don't repudiate the old article or have a problem with you citing it. I was just observing that since this citation is no longer even on my site, obviously I didn't consider it important enough to retain, and that this doesn't fit in with the impression (held mostly by anti-Catholics) that I wish to "bash" Luther by (among other things) linking him to Hitler.
My view is far more complex and nuanced than that. Whatever I hold in this regard is scarcely distinguishable from non-Catholic historians like McGrath and Oberman. In other words, it is not a "Catholic" apologetic thing; it is a factual, historical thing that can't be confined to mere apologetics or polemics. Such fine distinctions, however, are not exactly a notable trait of anti-Catholic Protestants, who find it hard to imagine that a Catholic apologist like myself actually admires Luther in many ways and does not consider him an "evil" or insincere man.
And this considerable admiration was, by the way, strongly reiterated in the Introduction to my recent book: Martin Luther: Catholic Critical Analysis and Praise.
Also, I discovered that McGrath, in the book cited above (p. 271, footnote 6), wrote:
See the famous letter of Karl Barth (1939), in which he asserted that 'The German people suffer . . . from the mistake of Martin Luther regarding the relation of Law and Gospel, of temporal and spiritual order and power': quoted by Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics (3 vols; Grand Rapids, Mich., 1979), vol. 1, p. 368.
This goes far beyond what I would ever assert. Barth seems (though it doesn't necessarily follow, logically) to assert Luther as the direct and/or primary cause of the Nazi tragedy. McGrath possibly tacitly assents to the same sentiment by citing it.

Ironically, the most notorious treatise on this topic is not by a Catholic (let alone a dreaded "apologist"), but from a Lutheran from Berlin: Peter F. Wiener. It's called Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor. He expressed trepidation that he "might be accused of having come under Roman Catholic influence and trying to convert my pupils."

Moreover, Wiener actually adopts an ultimately "moderate" position on the controversy not unlike the one I (and many others) have taken:
LET me sum up. First of all, I have to repeat my thesis: I do not believe myself, nor have I wanted to give the impression, that Luther and Lutheranism are the sole source of our present-day troubles. Economic, political, geographical, and many other causes have to be taken into account if we want to explain the destructive present-day mentality of the Germans, which is above all other causes to blame for the misery in which the modern world finds itself twice within a third of a century.
I did not mean for one minute either to deny that there are things that are good and laudable in Luther—that he pronounced and taught some very fine things which, if they had become the ethical standard of modern Europe, might have brought us peace and prosperity instead of war and misery. All I maintain is that Luther and his doctrines are one of the causes why Europe could follow such a fatal road—that Luther, the man and his teaching, had many disastrous sides, as well as good ones. This negative aspect of Lutheranism is not only generally ignored, but is just the very aspect which as influenced German ethics and standards.
Wikipedia provides an in-depth article on Luther and Anti-Semitism. Some excerpts:
Franklin Sherman, editor of volume 47 of the American Edition of Luther's Works in which On the Jews and Their Lies appears, responds to the claim that "Luther's antipathy towards the Jews was religious rather than racial in nature," Luther's writings against the Jews, he explains, are not "merely a set of cool, calm and collected theological judgments. His writings are full of rage, and indeed hatred, against an identifiable human group, not just against a religious point of view; it is against that group that his action proposals are directed." Sherman argues that Luther "cannot be distanced completely from modern antisemites." Regarding Luther's treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies, the German philosopher Karl Jaspers wrote: "There you already have the whole Nazi program"). . . .

Martin Brecht in his extensive three volume biography of Luther writes that "an evaluation of Luther's relationship with the Jews must be made." . . .

Brecht ends his evaluation:
Luther, however, was not involved with later racial anti-Semitism. There is a world of difference between his belief in salvation and a racial ideology. Nevertheless, his misguided agitation had the evil result that Luther fatefully became one of the "church fathers" of anti-Semitism and thus provided material for the modern hatred of the Jews, cloaking it with the authority of the Reformer.

[Martin Luther, 3 vols., Volume three: The Preservation of the Church 1532-1546, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), Vol. III:351] . . .
In 1983 The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod denounced Luther's "hostile attitude" toward the Jews.The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, in an essay on Lutheran-Jewish relations, observed that "Over the years, Luther’s anti-Jewish writings have continued to be reproduced in pamphlets and other works by neo-Nazi and antisemitic groups, such as the Ku Klux Klan." . . .

In 1994 the Church Council of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America publicly rejected Luther's antisemitic writings, saying "We who bear his name and heritage must acknowledge with pain the anti-Judaic diatribes contained in Luther's later writings. We reject this violent invective as did many of his companions in the sixteenth century, and we are moved to deep and abiding sorrow at its tragic effects on later generations of Jews."
In 1995 the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada made similar statements, as did the Austrian Evangelical Church in 1998. In the same year, the Land Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Bavaria, on the 60th anniversary of Kristallnacht, issued a declaration saying: "It is imperative for the Lutheran Church, which knows itself to be indebted to the work and tradition of Martin Luther, to take seriously also his anti-Jewish utterances, to acknowledge their theological function, and to reflect on their consequences. It has to distance itself from every [expression of] anti-Judaism in Lutheran theology."

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