Late in his life, Martin Luther said some truly appalling things about Jews, and suggested that appalling things be done to them. This was certainly Luther at his worst, demonizing those who disagreed with him, much as he had done with followers of the pope, Anabaptists, and others. Even taking into consideration his old age, illness, and horror at how the world around him was exploding left and right, he is without excuse for what he said.
Unfortunately, Luther’s attitude toward the Jews was entirely typical of his era; he just happened to be more gifted rhetorically than many and had an automatic audience for anything he wrote. Christians have treated Jews badly almost since the beginning; it took the Holocaust for them to reassess their position and repent of their evildoing. Christian anti-Judaism (a religious position) made it easy for secular ideologies like Nazism to gain ground with anti-Semitism (a racial position).
The tragic thing about it in Luther’s case is that, earlier in his career, he did actually know better. In 1523 he wrote a treatise called “That Jesus Christ Was Born a Jew.” He makes extended arguments about why Jews should believe that Jesus was the promised Messiah, but he also enjoins Christians to humility: “When we are inclined to boast of our position we should remember that we are but Gentiles, while the Jews are of the lineage of Christ. We are aliens and in-laws; they are blood relatives, cousins, and brothers of our Lord” (LW 45:201).
Further, Luther laments how “we are trying only to drive them by force, slandering them, accusing them of having Christian blood if they don’t stink, and I know not what other foolishness. So long as we thus treat them like dogs, how can we expect to work any good among them? Again, when we forbid them to labor and do business and have any human fellowship with us, thereby forcing them into usury, how is that supposed to do them any good?”
He suggests instead that “We must receive them cordially, and permit them to trade and work with us, that they may have occasion and opportunity to associate with us, hear our Christian teaching, and witness our Christian life. If some of them should prove stiff-necked, what of it? After all, we ourselves are not all good Christians either” (LW 45:229).
It’s a terrible thing that Luther failed to be a good Christian himself in his later dealings with the Jews. This part of Luther’s heritage—and its corresponding parts elsewhere in the whole Christian heritage—are to be firmly and permanently rejected by all who call themselves disciples of Jesus.
For more on this subject, take a look at these excellent studies: Heiko Oberman’s The Roots of Anti-Semitism: In the Age of Renaissance and Reformation and Uwe Siemon-Netto’s The Fabricated Luther: Refuting Nazi Connections and Other Modern Myths.