Martin Luther is routinely praised by historians, liberal or conservative, American or European, as creating a positive spiritual revolution which re-vitalized European intellectual life. His Reformation sparked a fresh wave of creativity in music, painting, poetry, and architecture. Although focused on people's spiritual well-being, his work had ripple effects in politics, economics, and sociology.
But some have accused this inventive thinker of being anti-Semitic. Is Luther guilty of hating the Jews?
The question, and its answer, are not as simple as we might hope. In the 1500's, many people used the word "Jew" as a racial or ethnic category; Luther, however, saw it primarily as a theological category. So, when he spoke of "Jews", he wasn't talking about who they were, he was talking about what they believed.
A second complicating factor lies in the nature of Luther's writings. Luther wrote over one hundred short books in his life, over a time span of nearly fifty years. Over the course of those decades, his opinions changed from time to time, and so we don't always find a consistent theoretical system expressed in these texts (which is why even the Lutheran Church doesn't take Luther's writings as a definitive statement of Lutheran theory). Luther often wrote in a polemic tone, doing his best to deliberately irritate certain segments of the reading public; so often he goes out of his way to use harsh language: this can lead to misunderstandings.
So what did Luther write? In 1520, he wrote: "Damnable is the rage of some Christians (if indeed one can call them Christians) who believe they are doing God a favor by persecuting Jews in the most hateful manner, entertain wicked thoughts about them, and mock their misfortune with pride and contempt." Read that sentence again carefully.
Luther was friends with Josel von Rosheim, the chief Rabbi of Germany; Luther intervened when anti-Semites in certain provinces threatened to confiscate all Jewish books: Luther's influence allowed the Jews to keep their books.
In 1523, Luther reminded the Germans "that Jesus Christ was born a Jew," and that "we in turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner."
Why then have some accused Luther of antisemitism? In 1543, Luther wrote some rather angry things about the Jews, very different in tone than the words quoted above. In contradiction to his peaceful comments, Luther did, in that year, make some statements that could well be interpreted as anti-Semitic.
What then will we say of Luther? Perhaps that he was inconsistent.
It may help to place the matter into perspective by reading how he wrote about his own people: he wrote that the Germans were "brutal, furious savages," and that they were spiritually "deaf, blind, and obdurate of heart." If Luther describes his own nation - and therefore himself - this way, it is hardly surprising when he directs similar language at Italians, French, Poles, or Jews.