Most that have familiarity with Luther realize his writings against the Jews were the worst sinful diatribes he ever produced. You don't have to look too hard to find some fairly virulent rhetoric and slander in his treatise, On The Jews And Their Lies. Luther's attitude toward the Jews was not only morally wrong against other human beings, but should be classified as sinfully wrong- that is, his comments were a direct sinful action against a holy God. What always amazes me though are those who have to make Luther even worse than he was, as if what he clearly said wasn't bad enough. Over on the Catholic Answers forums they're having a Luther love-fest, Roman Catholic style. Here was the statement that caught my eye:
Some of what you missed concerning Luther and anti-semitism: There was, according to Luther, no good or human quality about the Jews. “What is good in us Christians, they ignore; what is wrong in us Christians the Jews take advantage of.” “The breath of the Jews reeks.” “Their rabbis teach them that theft and robbery is no sin” (W53, 489).
Luther was so awful he did not like Jewish breath, according to the above quote, at least that's the sentiment that jumps out at me. The other quotes are indeed bad, but the "breath" quote truly is inflammatory. This information was a cut-and-paste from Peter F. Wiener's Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor. Of course, the Catholic posting it didn't mention that. The statements were put forth as if it was her work. Notice what Wiener states,
There was, according to Luther, no good or human quality about the Jews. 'What is good in us Christians, they ignore; what is wrong in us Christians the Jews take advantage of.' 'The breath of the Jews reeks.' 'Their rabbis teach them that theft and robbery is no sin' (W53, 489).Martin Luther: Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor isn't something new, it first appeared back in 1945. It has been on-line for quite some time as well. I've had it quoted to me by multiple different groups with quite divergent theologies. I've found Roman Catholics citing it as well as independent Baptist groups. In fact, the book (or rather, the extended pamphlet) is still being published by none other than American Atheist Press. Here is a copy published by Marian House, which I'm fairly certain was (or is) a Roman Catholic-run publisher.
In the quotes above, Wiener appears to be using the Weimar edition of Luther's Works (Martin Luthers Werke, Kritische Gesamtausgabe). Von den Jüden und jren Lügen is found in WA 53, 412–552, so can one assume all the citations Wiener used above were from On The Jews And Their Lies? With Wiener, one cannot. For instance, the quotes Wiener used are not all found on the page, W53, 489. The English translation of this page is found in LW 47:225. Possibly the only quote used by Wiener in the above statement that actually refers to W53, 489 is the last, "Their rabbis teach them that theft and robbery is no sin."
Here is a breakdown of the quotes used by Wiener.
So far, I have not located this first citation: "What is good in us Christians, they ignore; what is wrong in us Christians the Jews take advantage of." I'm very tempted to say this quote is from a different treatise than Von den Jüden und jren Lügen, or is perhaps a summary statement put together by Wiener. I've skimmed through the treatise a few times and have yet to find anything resembling this quote. It's hard to know exactly what Luther means by this statement without a context. Based on the treatise itself, Luther stated at one point, "...when a Christian kindles their fire for [the Jews] on a Sabbath, or cooks for them in an inn whatever they want, they curse and defame and revile us for it, supposing this to be something praiseworthy, and yet they live on our wealth, which they have stolen from us" (LW 47:275). Luther throughout complains of the Jews being involved in usury. The editors of Luther's Works explain,
The practice of usury, in the simple sense of the taking of interest on loans (without any connotation of exorbitant rates), is prohibited in such texts as Exod. 22:25, Lev. 25:35 ff., and Deut. 23:19 f., but only with respect to fellow Israelites. The Deuteronomy text is the most explicit with regard to dealings with others: “To a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not lend upon interest” (23:20). The practice of usury was strictly forbidden to Christians by the medieval church, but permitted to Jews. They prohibition began to break down during the Reformation period; Luther himself, however, steadfastly maintained the medieval position. See his Trade and Usury (LW 45, 245–310), wherein, however, in contrast to his argument in the present treatise, he makes no mention of the Jews as special offenders in this respect. His polemic is directed chiefly against the Fuggers and other (Christian) bankers and entrepreneurs. (LW 47: 168. footnote 31)So perhaps this is the contrast Wiener means when he quotes Luther stating, "What is good in us Christians, they ignore; what is wrong in us Christians the Jews take advantage of." The "wrong" would be a need for funds. This is only speculation, but it does demonstrate that the citations offered by Peter Wiener cannot be trusted.
This quote is not found in W53, on page 489. Rather, it's from WA 53: 477-478. Luther is in the middle of addressing Haggai 2. Luther is enraged against the practice of usury. In Haggai 2:6-9, the phrase “consolation of the gentiles” Luther applies prophetically to the coming Messiah. He says the Jews apply it to the desires of the gentiles for gold, silver, and gems. While what Luther says is inflammatory and polemical, he isn't describing the act of physically breathing. Notice:
You may ask why the Jews make this kind of gloss here. I will tell you. Their breath stinks with lust for the Gentiles’ gold and silver; for no nation under the sun is greedier than they were, still are, and always will be, as is evident from their accursed usury. So they comfort themselves that when the Messiah comes he will take the gold and silver of the whole world and divide it among them. Therefore, wherever they can quote Scripture to satisfy their insatiable greed, they do so outrageously. One is led to believe that God and his prophets knew of nothing else to prophesy than of ways and means to satisfy the bottomless greed of the accursed Jews with the Gentiles’ gold and silver [LW 47:211].
This is the only quote which may be from W53, on page 489. There Luther states,
Second, the Jews themselves also desecrated this temple more viciously than the other one ever was desecrated: namely, with spiritual idolatries. Lyra writes, and others too, in many passages, that the Jews, after their return from the Babylonian captivity, did not commit idolatry or sin by killing prophets as gravely as before. Thereby he wants to prove that their present exile must be due to a more heinous sin than idolatry, the murder of the prophets, etc.—namely, the crucifixion of the Messiah. This argument is good, valid, and cogent. That they no longer killed the prophets is not to be attributed to a lack of evil intentions, but to the fact that they no longer had any prophets who reproved their idolatry, greed, and other vices. That is why they could no longer kill prophets. To be sure, the last prophet, Malachi, who began to rebuke the priests, barely escaped (if indeed he did escape). [LW 47:225]
Why, their Talmud and their rabbis record that it is no sin for a Jew to kill a Gentile, but it is only a sin for him to kill a brother Israelite. Nor is it a sin for a Jew to break his oath to a Gentile. Likewise, they say that it is rendering God a service to steal or rob from a Goy, as they in fact do through their usury. For since they believe that they are the noble blood and the circumcised saints and we the accursed Goyim, they cannot treat us too harshly or commit sin against us, for they are the lords of the world and we are their servants, yes, their cattle. [LW 47:226]
By exploring these quotes, I'm in no way agreeing with Luther's views, or giving any sort of credence to his statements. But, I would say that stringing quotes together without contexts with references that are bogus is not the way to address Luther's Antisemitism in a meaningful or helpful way.
I'm inclined to agree with the assessment by Uwe Siemon-Netto in his book, The Fabricated Luther: Refuting Nazi Connections and Modern Myths when he describes Wiener's flawed approach to understanding Luther:
Peter F. Wiener... triggered a wave of English polemics against Luther. In a pamphlet entitled Martin Luther, Hitler's Spiritual Ancestor, this emigre schoolmaster from Prussia claimed that Luther had said,"I am Christ." Wiener referred to himself as a "true Christian." And for "true Christians," he lectured his readers, "Christianity ... is not a dogma . . . but a moral code which we ought to apply to all our actions and thoughts." Clearly, Luther did not measure up to those lofty standards, as far as Wiener was concerned. Wiener averred: "[Luther] disliked and abhorred reason; he praised and advocated war; he encouraged absolutism,and gave the rulers a power they had never enjoyed before; he insisted on a brutal oppression of the common man, ... he produced a slave-mentality among his followers which even the Roman Catholic church had never forced upon its members; he preached and practiced a violent anti-Semitism and extermination of the Jews which would remain unsurpassed even by Hitler; he was the founder of modern nationalism in its most evil form." Wiener, who also labeled Luther "a supreme upholder of complete dictatorship," belonged to Lord Vansittart's circle of Germanophobes... Vansittart inferred from Luther's alleged abhorrence of reason that being unreasonable must be a quintessential German trait.
Wiener's book was written during the Second World War. He was among a group of writers saw Luther as advocating state control over church and state, and ultimately Hitler was just following in the path Luther created. Hitler was just following in the nationalism Luther advocated. Uwe Siemon-Netto addressed Wiener's perspective:
I must briefly address two charges each of which warrant separate studies: 1. that Luther was "furiously nationalistic" (Mann), indeed, that he was "the founder of modern nationalism in its most evil form (Wiener); 2. that Luther was a "passionate anti-Semite."
Both claims are blatant cliches in Anton Zijderveld's sense of the word; they exclude vital relativizations:
1. The nationalism cliche. The necessary relativization is this: Nationalism is a concept that did not exist until 250 years after Luther. 'The moment of birth of modern nationalism," Dietrich Bonhoeffer stressed, came much later; it came with the French Revolution. "Whatever national consciousness existed earlier was essentially dynastic in nature. " Gordon Rupp commented, "We do not wish to deny that Luther was a patriot, and that he was not ashamed to love his country. But to pretend that he made a religion out of nationalism in any way comparable with that of Nazism could be refuted by a hundred facts: if this were even the main truth about his teaching, it could never have converted Finland, or Norway, or penetrated America. "
2. The anti-Semitism cliche. Relativizations that must be considered are the following:
a. The very term, anti-Semitism, implies a racial bias that was foreign to the 16th century. In his criticism of the Catholic prohibition against a Christian marrying a Jew, Luther made clear that he was not in the least bothered with what centuries later would be called "miscegenation" in the United States: "As I am allowed to eat, drink, sleep, go out, ride, speak and do business with a heathen, Jew, Turk or heretic, so I may also marry and remain in that state, and do not worry about the stupid laws that forbid such things. You will find plenty of Christians . . . who in their secret unbelief are worse than any Jew, heathen, Turk or heretic. A heathen is just as much God's good creation as St. Peter, St. Paul, and St. Lucy, not to speak of a slack and spurious Christian. "Nazi anti-Semitism, on the other hand, was a racist prejudice directed at practicing Jews as much as against Christians or agnostics of Jewish descent.
b. Luther was theologically anti-Jewish; toward the end of his life he expressed this sentiment in the most objectionable language. But, writes Gordon Rupp, "Luther was a small chapter in the large volume of Christian inhumanities toward the Jewish people. In the beginning Luther hoped great things from preaching the Gospel to them, since he held that there was some excuse for their being repelled by official Catholicism. But when it became clear that there was no hope of this converting them, he turned to polemic."The cliche labelling Luther an anti-Semite ignores his treatise of 1523, That Jesus Christ was Born a Jew, where he admonishes his fellow Christians: "If the apostles, who were also Jews, had dealt with us Gentiles as we Gentiles deal with the Jews, there would never have been a Christian among the Gentiles. Since they dealt with us Gentiles in such brotherly fashion, we in turn ought to treat the Jews in a brotherly manner in order that we might convert some of them. . . . We should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are in the lineage of Christ."Elsewhere in this little volume he writes, "If I had been a Jew and had seen such dolts and blockheads govern and teach the Christian faith, I would sooner have become a hog than a Christian."
It is, alas, true that in 1543, shortly before his death, he published his venomous book. On the Jews and Their Lies, a work that was to cause great embarrassment to Lutheran church leaders down the centuries. In it he gave the "sincere advice" to burn down the synagogues, destroy the Jews' homes, take away their prayer books, . . . forbid rabbinic teaching, abolish safe-conduct for Jewish travel, prohibit usury, and force Jews into manual labor. Here I agree with Gordon Rupp: "I confess I am ashamed as I am ashamed of some letters of St. Jerome, some paragraphs in Sir Thomas More, and some chapters in the Book of Revelation, and must say that their authors had not so learned Christ, and that, thank God, this is not the major part of what they had to say."