On the Jews and Their Lies
In 1543 Luther published On the Jews and Their Lies in which he says that the Jews are a "base, whoring people, that is, no people of God, and their boast of lineage, circumcision, and law must be accounted as filth." They are full of the "devil's feces ... which they wallow in like swine." The synagogue was a "defiled bride, yes, an incorrigible whore and an evil slut ..." He argues that their synagogues and schools be set on fire, their prayer books destroyed, rabbis forbidden to preach, homes razed, and property and money confiscated. They should be shown no mercy or kindness, afforded no legal protection, and these "poisonous envenomed worms" should be drafted into forced labor or expelled for all time. He also seems to advocate their murder, writing "[w]e are at fault in not slaying them". Luther claims that Jewish history was "assailed by much heresy", and that Christ swept away the Jewish heresy and goes on to do so, "as it still does daily before our eyes." He stigmatizes Jewish Prayer as being "blasphemous" (sic) and a lie, and vilifies Jews in general as being spiritually "blind" and "surely possessed by all devils." Luther has a special spiritual problem with Jewish circumcision. The full context in which Martin Luther advocated that Jews be slain in On the Jews and Their Lies is as follows in Luther's own words:
There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses - namely, that God has struck [the Jews] with 'madness and blindness and confusion of mind' [Deuteronomy 28:28]. So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them.Notice "We are at fault in not slaying them" is quoted twice in this excerpt. In the first occurrence, Wikipedia states Luther "seems" to advocate murdering the Jews. In the second occurrence, Wikipedia prefaces the quote stating, "Martin Luther advocated that Jews be slain." The first occurrence dates back to the original 2008 Wikipedia entry where the quote appears at the beginning of their synopsis, stating, "He also seemed to sanction their murder, writing 'We are at fault in not slaying them.'" Over time the article was expanded. This comment and quote changed to, "He also seems to advocate their murder, writing '[w]e are at fault in not slaying them.'" This was later moved into a new subsection covering Luther's book, On The Jews and Their Lies. The second occurrence was added in September 2016 in the same subsection. It appears someone was attempting to provide "the full context" of the quote "in which Martin Luther advocated that Jews be slain."
There were too many hands in the Wikipedia cookie jar: note the incoherence which happens when multiple people edit an entry. Did Luther "seem" to sanction exterminating Jewish people or did he actually actively "advocate" the Jews be slain? Whoever added the alleged "full context" does not appear to have proofed the entry for internal consistency.
While Luther's comment is atrocious and can be classified as antisemitic, I will argue this comment, placed in context, is not actively advocating the murder of Jews. Lest there be any misunderstanding: I am not arguing that Luther's comment, "we are at fault in not slaying them" is not blatantly antisemitic or that Luther should be excused for the comment. Rather, what I think is happening with the quote is that it's being used to make Luther worse than he was: yes, he's guilty of harsh rhetoric against the Jews, yes he's guilty of advocating societal cruelty on the Jews, but he is not guilty of calling for their extermination in this quote.
For the first use of the quote, Wikipedia cites, "Luther, Martin. On the Jews and Their Lies, cited in Michael, Robert. 'Luther, Luther Scholars, and the Jews,' Encounter 46 (Autumn 1985) No. 4:343–344." The first part of the reference refers to Luther's treatise, though no page location is given. The second part of the reference is to an article by historian Robert Michael, who specialized in the study of antisemitism. Michael states,
For his Luther quotes, Michael provides a footnote referring to LW 47, 242, 265, 167. Page 242 refers to "archthieves. . . who should rightly be hanged on the gallows seven times higher than other thieves." Page 265 refers to the bulk of the quote provided, save the last line, "We are at fault for not slaying them," which is supposed to be on page 167; Michael though made error, the quote is found on page 267.
The second reference provided by Wikipedia is "Luther, Martin. On the Jews and Their Lies, translated by Martin H. Bertram, in Luther's Works (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971), 47:267." The reference is accurate. There are two minor additions to the quote as presented by Wikipedia: "them" has been replaced with [the Jews], and the reference, "[Deuteronomy 28:28]" is not found on page 267 at this location in this English text.
Now behold what a fine, thick, fat lie they pronounce when they say that they are held captive by us. Jerusalem was destroyed over fourteen hundred years ago, and at that time we Christians were harassed and persecuted by the Jews throughout the world for about three hundred years, as we said earlier. We might well complain that during that time they held us Christians captive and killed us, which is the plain truth. Furthermore, we do not know to the present day which devil brought them into our country. We surely did not bring them from Jerusalem.
In addition, no one is holding them here now. The country and the roads are open for them to proceed to their land whenever they wish. If they did so, we would be glad to present gifts to them on the occasion; it would be good riddance. For they are a heavy burden, a plague, a pestilence, a sheer misfortune for our country. Proof for this is found in the fact that they have often been expelled forcibly from a country, far from being held captive in it. Thus they were banished from France (which they call Tsorfath, from Obadiah), which was an especially fine nest. Very recently they were banished by our dear Emperor Charles from Spain, the very best nest of all (which they called Sefarad, also on the basis of Obadiah). This year they were expelled from the entire Bohemian crownland, where they had one of the best nests, in Prague. Likewise, during my lifetime they have been driven from Regensburg, Magdeburg, and other places.
If you cannot tolerate a person in a country or home, does that constitute holding him in captivity? In fact, they hold us Christians captive in our own country. They let us work in the sweat of our brow to earn money and property while they sit behind the stove, idle away the time, fart, and roast pears. They stuff themselves, guzzle, and live in luxury and ease from our hard-earned goods. With their accursed usury they hold us and our property captive. Moreover, they mock and deride us because we work and let them play the role of lazy squires at our expense and in our land. Thus they are our masters and we are their servants, with our property, our sweat, and our labor. And by way of reward and thanks they curse our Lord and us! Should the devil not laugh and dance if he can enjoy such a fine paradise at the expense of us Christians? He devours what is ours through his saints, the Jews, and repays us by insulting us, in addition to mocking and cursing both God and man.
They could not have enjoyed such good times in Jerusalem under David and Solomon with their own possessions as they now do with ours, which they daily steal and rob. And yet they wail that we have taken them captive. Indeed, we have captured them and hold them in captivity just as I hold captive my gallstone, my bloody tumor, and all the other ailments and misfortunes which I have to nurse and take care of with money and goods and all that I have. Alas, I wish that they were in Jerusalem with the Jews and whomever else they would like to have there.
Since it has now been established that we do not hold them captive, how does it happen that we deserve the enmity of such noble and great saints? We do not call their women whores as they do Mary, Jesus’ mother. We do not call them children of whores as they do our Lord Jesus. We do not say that they were conceived at the time of cleansing and were thus born as idiots, as they say of our Lord. We do not say that their women are haria, as they do with regard to our dear Mary. We do not curse them but wish them well, physically and spiritually. We lodge them, we let them eat and drink with us. We do not kidnap their children and pierce them through; we do not poison their wells; we do not thirst for their blood. How, then, do we incur such terrible anger, envy, and hatred on the part of such great and holy children of God?
There is no other explanation for this than the one cited earlier from Moses—namely, that God has struck them with “madness and blindness and confusion of mind.” So we are even at fault in not avenging all this innocent blood of our Lord and of the Christians which they shed for three hundred years after the destruction of Jerusalem, and the blood of the children they have shed since then (which still shines forth from their eyes and their skin). We are at fault in not slaying them. Rather we allow them to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to finally overcoming us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property (as they daily pray and hope). Now tell me whether they do not have every reason to be the enemies of us accursed Goyim, to curse us and to strive for our final, complete, and eternal ruin! (LW 265-267)
Luther in context is bombastically arguing against the oppression of the Jews, saying rather that the Jews are oppressing the Germans! He presents the ludicrous argument that it is they that are benefiting off German land, at the expense of the Germans. He further takes as true the the rumors that the Jews were killing German children and poisoning wells. "We are at fault in not slaying them" is part of a ridiculous rhetorical argument in which Luther accepts the negative Jewish stereotypes of his day, then he attempts to present the case that despite these Jewish crimes, the Germans were gracious and kind to the Jews. The argument is absurd.
Recall Wikipedia claimed to be giving, "the full context."Notice that the quote continues after the point where Wikipedia stops. Luther is not saying that the Germans should go out and kill the Jews. He's saying that if all the negative things are true about the Jews are true (as he previously stated, like killing children, poisoning wells, etc.), the Germans were at moral fault for allowing them to live. Rather, Germany has allowed them "to live freely in our midst despite all their murdering, cursing, blaspheming, lying, and defaming; we protect and shield their synagogues, houses, life, and property. In this way we make them lazy and secure and encourage them to fleece us boldly of our money and goods, as well as to mock and deride us, with a view to finally overcoming us, killing us all for such a great sin, and robbing us of all our property..." This is a rhetorical descriptive argument. It is not a prescription to go out and kill Jews.
Luther goes on to say a few pages later... not to "harm their persons":
And you, my dear gentlemen and friends who are pastors and preachers, I wish to remind very faithfully of your official duty, so that you too may warn your parishioners concerning their eternal harm, as you know how to do—namely, that they be on their guard against the Jews and avoid them so far as possible. They should not curse them or harm their persons, however. For the Jews have cursed and harmed themselves more than enough by cursing the Man Jesus of Nazareth, Mary’s son, which they unfortunately have been doing for over fourteen hundred years. Let the government deal with them in this respect, as I have suggested. But whether the government acts or not, let everyone at least be guided by his own conscience and form for himself a definition or image of a Jew. (LW 47:274)While Luther may be acquitted here from advocating murder, he is not vindicated for his antisemitism by the context of The Jews and Their Lies. He did make sinful comments against the Jews, some of which did advocate violence and oppression. For instance, he was so against Judaism by this point that he advocated that "they be forbidden on pain of death to praise God, to give thanks, to pray, and to teach publicly among us and in our country" (LW 47:286). Some scholars have argued there were theological reasons why he made such harsh comments against the Jews, but I've found none of them to be so compelling as to exonerate him from the charge of antisemitism. Advocating cruelty to human beings, particularly basing it on unfounded rumors, is truly a dark spot on Luther's career. On the other hand, making Luther worse than he was by saying in the quote explored above that he wanted the Jews slain... this is presenting a contextual error. What the quote shows in its "full context" is that Luther presented an argument based on accepting unsubstantiated and slanderous rumors about the Jews.