- Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany by Christopher J. Probst
Christopher Probst begins his examination of the Nazi-era reception of Martin Luther’s anti-Jewish writings with the story of Heinrich Fausel, a Protestant pastor from Württemberg whose statements in the 1930s supported many of Luther’s criticisms of the Jews. But in 1943, he was involved in Protestant efforts to hide and protect Jews. For Probst, the potentially contradictory nature of Fausel’s actions opens a window onto the broader complexities and ambiguities of Protestant attitudes toward the Jews during the Third Reich. In exploring these complexities Probst strives to avoid overly simplistic linkages between Luther’s anti-Jewish thought and Nazi racial antisemitism, while at the same time arguing forcefully for the existence of ideational affinities and continuities that stretched across the centuries. One of the central goals of Probst’s study is thus to elide, or at least problematize, the conceptual distinction between what scholars have typically viewed as the traditional Christian anti-Judaism of Luther’s era and the modern pseudoscientific racial antisemitism of the Nazis.
Probst’s theoretical framework is built largely on the work of Gavin Langmuir, the [End Page 221] late Stanford medievalist whose historical approach to antisemitism differentiated between “nonrational” and “irrational” forms of antipathy toward the Jews. For Langmuir, nonrational thinking lies at the heart of most religious interpretations of the world and does not necessarily conflict with rational thought: it is thus possible to think nonrationally on a symbolic or theological level while otherwise thinking and acting rationally on a practical level. Irrational thinking, in contrast, involves a direct and inescapable contradiction with empirical reality. Within this schema, traditional Christian anti-Judaism amounts to an essentially nonrational (theological or metaphorical) antipathy against the Jews, whereas the defining characteristic of antisemitism is its fundamental irrationality. Probst emphasizes the extent to which both nonrational and irrational elements were present in Luther’s writings on the Jews, which drew not only on theological interpretations but also replicated conspiratorial fantasies that were demonstrably false on an empirical level. Ultimately, as Probst demonstrates, both ideational trajectories were also present centuries later in the reception of Luther’s ideas, helping to build bridges between latent anti-Jewish attitudes already prevalent among German Protestants and in Nazi antisemitism.
Probst sets up his study by dividing German Protestantism into three commonly recognized groupings: the German Christians, who in their energetic embrace of Nazi rule advocated the “dejudaization” of the Bible; the Confessing Church, which opposed the Nazi regime’s intrusions into church affairs but which offered little resistance against the Nazi persecution of the Jews; and the larger Protestant “middle,” which was not officially aligned with either of the first two groups. Not surprisingly, a fair amount of fluidity existed among the ideas and figures associated with each of these categories. Rather than focusing primarily on the works of highly visible Protestant academics and theologians, Probst places most of his emphasis on the writings of lesser-known figures who reflected more of the unspoken conventional wisdom of the time. After an initial overview of Protestantism in Nazi Germany, which gives special attention to Paul Althaus’s theology of the “orders of creation,” Probst devotes a chapter to examining Luther’s Judenschriften within their initial sixteenth-century context. He then goes on to analyze the Luther-based writings of academic theologians during the Nazi era. This includes Wolf Meyer-Erlach and Erich Vogelsang, who both supported the German Christian movement and energetically embraced the “irrational” elements of Luther’s anti-Jewish thought; and Gerhard Schmidt, who was a member of the Confessing Church and whose interpretation of Luther’s ideas demonstrated greater restraint. In the chapters that follow Probst focuses on the respective writings and statements of clergy within each of the three major groupings: Confessing Church pastors such as Heinrich Fausel, Walter Gabriel, and Hansgeorg Schroth (chapter 4); German Christian clergy such as Bishop Martin Sasse and pastors...