It is both a truism and a provocation to observe that modern anti-Semitism has a long history. It seems self-evident that the irrational and murderous hatred that is 20th-century anti-Semitism has deep roots in a millennium and more of hostility to ‘Christ killers’. Some scholars, however, have wanted to insist that the religiously motivated anti-Judaism of the medieval and early modern eras was fundamentally different from the racialised, pseudo-scientific anti-Semitism dreamt up in the 19th century. Martin Luther, icon of the Protestant Reformation, exemplifies the problem. The Nazis enthusiastically reprinted Luther’s anti-Jewish writings, and the party’s most odious anti-Semitic propagandist, Julius Streicher, notoriously remarked that Luther deserved a place (of honour) alongside him in the dock at Nuremberg. But perhaps Luther’s attitudes were no more than the conventional prejudices of his day, there being no justification for labelling (or libelling) him as the ‘father of the Holocaust’.
Kenneth Austin, in this deft and judicious treatment of a difficult subject, is no apologist for Luther’s outbursts about the Jews, which were, even in an intolerant age, unusually violent and extreme. But he does think ‘we must detach Reformation-era