Is it possible to speak about Hitler without mentioning the Jews? Is it possible to speak about Jefferson Davis without mentioning slavery? Is it possible to speak about Babe Ruth without mentioning baseball?
Yet, it seems possible to speak about Martin Luther without mentioning anti-Semitism. Eighty-seven straight minutes of speaking, in fact.
Martin Luther — he who said that Jews wallow in devil’s feces like swine. He who said that synagogues should be set on fire, that Jewish prayer books should be destroyed, that Judaism is heresy, that Jews kill children en masse, and “We are at fault for not slaying them.”
Luther’s hatred of Jews and Judaism goes on and on. He equates the Talmud with the genitals of a pig. Yet, it was possible in Denver for learned and no doubt perfectly decent scholars of Luther to speak of him for an hour-and-a-half with nary a syllable devoted to Luther’s anti-Semitism.
I refer to five speakers from universities and theological seminaries on a panel presented by the American Society of Church History, “In the Footsteps of Bainton: Luther Biographies from 1983 to 2017: A Roundtable.”
I acknowledge that Luther can and does mean much spiritually to great swaths of humanity, and that they find meaning and truth in plumbing the teachings of this influential figure in the history of Protestant Christianity. I also note that Luther’s merits, whatever they may be, cannot be disengaged from his hatred and ugliness toward the Jews.
Not to mention, his influence cannot be separated from the segment of Western European thought that, in significant part, yielded teachings that justified the Holocaust.
And so, even as I was educated by listening to five learned historians of Luther analyze many aspects of the many biographies of Luther, I was also stunned that only some three minutes before the end of the session was the topic of Luther’s anti-Semitism mentioned — a 10-second mention, in a question from the audience, not by a member of the panel.
The panel on Luther that I attended was at the annual meeting of the American Historical Assn. in Denver, Jan. 5-8, 2017. For decades I have been a member of the AHA, chartered more than 225 years ago by no less than Congress. Not fully engaged in academic life since 1985, I could never afford the time or money to attend one of its annual meetings.
But as long as it was coming to Denver, I decided to indulge myself.
Indeed, it was a delight. I could stop virtually any attendee and learn about a specific research interest. It wasn’t the interests per se that moved me — a politically insurgent faith healer on the US-Mexican border, a Bolshevik Revolution that no one wants to own — it was that people still take ideas and past events with utter seriousness, something I don’t often see from my perch in the newspaper business. For me, attendance at the annual meeting of the AHA was like a resurrection, as I stepped back into a previous chapter in my personal history.
I attended the session on Luther Biographies not because I had a faith interest or even a historical interest in Luther, and surely not because I brought any preconception as to what would be said. Rather, I attended because I am interested in biography, specifically about how the same person can emerge so differently in the hands of different biographers. Methodologically, I was interested in how one subject, in this case Luther, emerged through the lenses of biographers of diverse interests, backgrounds and goals.
And so it was.
I learned that Luther, all else aside, was quite a self-promoter, a master exploiter of the new technology of the time — printing.
I learned why different biographies of Luther might appeal to undergraduate students, and why other biographies might appeal to more serious students.
I learned why, for literary power alone, an old biography of Luther was still the winning choice.
I learned why Luther, as opposed to other founders of the Reformation, attracted so many biographers — some 90 in all — while other theologians did not.
I learned how some Catholics tried to reconceptualize Luther as a faithful Catholic, and how others saw him as nothing short of revolutionary. Such is the inevitable effect of multiple biographies.
All well and good.
All the standard fare for an academic presentation on an influential historical figure.
A salient part of that influence, however, was totally overlooked. I know too much history to know that the attribution of an enormous and complex event like the Holocaust to a single cause is likely wrong. Martin Luther did not cause the Holocaust. I also know that some causes are far more influential and determinative than others, and that ideas in history count. The ideas of Martin Luther, in significant part, did cause the Holocaust. Writings by and about Luther published during the Third Reich amply bear this out.
At the American Historical Assn., however, this crucial aspect of Luther’s life merited silence.
Keep in mind, I was at a session not on one or another aspect of Luther’s life or thought. “Specialization” did not characterize this session. It was on the totality — on biography, on Luther’s whole life. In that totality, five church historians did not, could not, would not — take your pick — mention his virulent anti-Semitism even once.
Even given the fact that different biographies will emphasize different aspects of a complex life, one cannot justify a session on the biographies of Luther — the state of the field — without mentioning his anti-Semitism.
It may be blasphemous to use the phrase “garden-variety anti-Semitism.” But even if it isn’t, Luther’s extreme hatred of Jews and Judaism was anything but garden-variety. Jews, he said, called Mary a whore, Jesus a bastard and if “they could kill us, they would gladly do it.” (Excuse me? In Western history, who killed whom?) Luther said, Jews “administer poison to someone from which he could die in an hour, a month, a year, ten or twenty years. They are able to practice this art.” The hatred oozes. The very title of one of Luther’s books is On The Jews and Their Lies.
I expected more of the premier historical association in the United States of America, whose publication, the American Historical Review, is a model of exactitude, comprehensiveness and fairness.
Hillel Goldberg can be reached at email@example.com
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