03 June 2021, The Tablet

A character, not a saint


Living I Was Your Plague: Martin Luther’s World and Legacy
Tablet bookshop price £22.50 • tel 020 7799 4064

How did the all-time best-selling product of the German toy manufacturer Playmobil become ensnared in a row about anti-Semitism? The unexpected question animates Lyndal Roper’s unsparingly brilliant account of the cultural legacy of Martin Luther, and of how Luther’s image has been constructed, and manipulated, from his lifetime through to the present.

Roper is the author of an acclaimed Luther biography (2016), and a string of subsequent lecture invitations provided the impetus for the current book. Less intellectually adventurous scholars might have been tempted to patch something together from offcuts, but Roper has seized the opportunity to reassess her view of a figure she intermittently admires but cannot laud as a hero or role-model. In particular, she confesses to underestimating the depth and significance of Luther’s anti-Semitism, here acknowledging the important recent discussion of the theme by the leading German historian Thomas Kaufmann. Luther’s hostility to Jews cannot be dismissed as merely incidental to his theology, a conventional product of his time, or as an intellectual “anti-Judaism” somehow less reprehensible than modern racial prejudice.

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