Reformation Day will be celebrated next week as a special national holiday throughout Germany. While Catholic and Protestant areas of Germany often do not share religious holidays, and only roughly 25 percent of the population declare themselves as Protestants, the whole nation is united this year in planning to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation on October 31. In 1517, the Augustinian monk Martin Luther is said to have posted his 95 theses on the doors of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, thus setting off a movement that led to the schism of the Catholic and Protestant Churches.
Germany has plunged into a commemoration frenzy replete with daily radio programs devoted to Luther with pastors, priests, rabbis, bishops, psychiatrists and other prominent individuals. A 95-day morning radio series devoted to Luther starts the day with the song “I hammer in the morning.“ Larger churches are offering commemorative services advertised with portraits of Luther. One local evening school boasts an event entitled “Germany’s Doom: Luther and Beer,“ while a church sponsored a culinary event highlighting meals from the life and times of the reformer.
Yet a shocking part of Luther’s legacy seems to have slipped though the cracks of the collective memory along the way: his vicious Anti-Semitism and its horrific consequences for the Jews and for Germany itself. At first, Luther was convinced that the Jews would accept the truth of Christianity and convert. Since they did not, he later followed in his treatise, On the Jews and Their Lies (1543), that “their synagogues or schools“ should be “set fire to … in honor of our Lord and of Christendom, so that God might see that we are Christian.“ He advised that the houses of Jews be “razed and destroyed,“ their “prayer books and Talmudic writings“ and “all cash and treasure of silver and gold“ be taken from them. They should receive “no mercy or kindness,“ given “no legal protection,“ and “drafted into forced labor or expelled.“ He also claimed that Christians who “did not slay them were at fault.“ Luther thus laid part of the basic anti-Semitic groundwork for his Nazi descendants to carry out the Shoah. Indeed, Julius Streicher, editor of the anti-Semitic Nazi magazine “Der Stürmer,“ commented during the Nürnberg tribunal that Martin Luther could have been tried in his place.
All the more stunning that Germany should proclaim a special national holiday in the name of the anti-Semitic Martin Luther only 70 years after the Shoah. Although the general public may mostly be unaware of Luther’s views, the responsible clergy certainly is aware and has still chosen to declare a nationwide holiday.
It is no doubt laudable that the Synod of the Lutheran Church in Germany (EKD) distanced itself from Luther’s anti-Semitic statements in November 2011, and several other church representatives have done the same, yet how do they have no compunctions about declaring a major commemorative event to honor Luther, as if his sinister and hateful views and writings on the Jews are insignificant and trivial?
Some clerics may well say they distinguish between the founder of the Reformation and the Reformation itself, but this means that they are closing their eyes to the reality that the two are inextricably interwoven and that the reformer and the reformation are in fact being glorified in unison by churches and organizations throughout the country.
Looking at the Lutheran legacy in the greater historical context, the Shoah took place in a Christian environment, yet the churches did next to nothing to prevent it, despite their deeply-rooted influence in society. Church institutions have at best shown only lukewarm empathy or public support for the most prominent Jewish community of our times, the State of Israel. They have not shown any inclination to stand up for the political security of Israel, not endeavored to protect its historical religious sites from attacks by the UN, and not opposed BDS campaigns designed to delegitimize Israel and harm it ideologically and economically.
Perhaps the special national holiday on October 31, 2017, should not come as a surprise at all.