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What does Martin Luther, the medieval founder of Protestantism, have to do with 20th-century Nazism, mass communication, Donald Trump and “blood libel,” the ageless if endlessly debunked superstition that Jews “ritually sacrifice Christian children at Passover to obtain blood for unleavened bread”?
What does any of this have to do with communications technology, anyway, you may ask? Two words: Johannes Gutenberg.
But for starters, recall that Luther, whose famous 95 Theses he tacked to a German church-house door ignited the 16th-century Christian revolution known as the Protestant Reformation against the Catholic Church, was a virulent anti-Semite.
In other words, Luther hated Jews with a vengeance.
However, anti-semitism apparently wasn’t a particularly historical thing up to early medieval times in Europe, even if it was when Luther’s loathing of the wealthy, extravagant and hypocritical ecclesiastical hierarchy, in particular the Pope, erupted in the public square and transformed Christianity.
“Until about the 11th century, manifestations of anti-Semitism were relatively infrequent. In fact, in the early medieval period there were frequent contacts between Christians and Jews, who intermarried and shared language and culture,” the Encyclopaedia Britannica notes in an article in its online edition.
“The situation became complicated after about the year 1000, as Christian society began a process of reorganization that contributed to the marginalization of Jews as well as of other groups. In 1096 knights of the First Crusade unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic violence in France and the Holy Roman Empire, including massacres in Worms, Trier (both now in Germany), and Metz (now in France). Unfounded accusations against Jews of such gruesome actions as ritual murder and host desecration began to spread.”
But around the time of the first of many Christian Crusades against Islam (1096-1099 A.D.), anti-Jewish prejudice had started to surge in Europe — a phenomenon arising in the half-millennia following Christian ascendency after the Roman Empire’s abrupt collapse in roughly 476 A.D.
There was also the distorted historical bias that Jews were responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus.
This is where the nexus of anti-Semitism and mass-communications technology meets. When Johannes Gutenberg, a German, in about 1439 introduced his groundbreaking moveable-type printing press, based on a wine press principle, not only did it provide a technology that would eventually allow Luther to mass-disseminate his Protestant doctrines to previously unimagined millions but also his raging anti-Semitism. Luther’s treatise On the Jews and their Lies, which “lent even further credence to the blood libel charge by accepting the Jewish use of Christian blood as fact,” was published in 1543, according to the U.S. Holocaust Museum website.
The printing press also for the first time accommodated mass printing of Bibles, which quickly became (as they still are) the most popular if most common literature of the day. Previously, necessarily exorbitantly expensive Bibles, as well as other books, were laboriously hand-written. Gutenberg’s press also spurred a demand for literacy and eyeglasses because more and more people wanted to be able to read the new widely available books.
Thereafter, even into the 19th century, the superstitious lie about so-called “blood libel” still found traction in various societies, often culminating in the officially-condoned vigilante murder of groups of Jews after mysterious murders of children.
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler co-opted “blood libel” superstition into Nazi propaganda, which preached the master-race superiority of Aryan Christian Germans, an ethos of fascism and anti-democratic politics, and world domination. Hitler’s anti-Semitic hatred was so visceral that it resulted in the Holocaust, the so-called “Final Solution” of what the Fuhrer referred to as Germany’s “Jewish problem.” Historians agree that some 6 million Jews and others considered undesirable by the Nazis were mass-murdered in the officially sanctioned slaughter before and during the course of World War II.
As the printing press super-charged Luther’s ability to spread his message of anti-Catholic Protestantism and anti-Semitism, it also greatly aided Hitler’s and his propaganda chiefs’ very successful ability to spread his toxic message of racial hate and anti-Jewish bile to millions of his countrymen and others globally. Nazi propaganda also had the added treasure of brand new 20th century mass-communication technologies: radio and film.
A recent edition of The Nation, a progressive magazine, reviews the book Blood Libel: On the Trail of the Anti-Semitic Myth (2020), by Magda Teter, a Fordham University Jewish studies scholar.
In the review, Nation writer David Nirenberg writes:
“While [Teter’s] claims are specific and circumspect, her book can be read as an allegory for our age, a story about how technological change, religious beliefs, struggles for power, and a politics of demonization can produce memes capable of transmitting the potential for violence across vast amounts of time and space.”
Think of lame duck U.S. President Donald Trump and his apparently pathological lust for power, blood-libelesque mendacity, rampaging Twitter feed, endless demonization of all “disloyal” enemies, and the grasping talons of the Christian Right that now grip the throat of the federal government’s inner sanctum. Trump’s “Jews” are non-white immigrants and the intellectual elite, the latter also the target of the Chinese and Cambodian Communist egalitarian cultural revolutions in the 1970s.
So key elements conjoining Martin Luther, Naziism, mass-communication technology and sectarian violence through history has of late been visiting us here in America.
At least Trump will be gone from government in any event, on January 21, after 46th President Joe Biden is inaugurated, and “The Donald” will be just another loser.
But Fox News and its toxic, fact-corrupting ilk, certainly with Trump’s encouragement, will remain to continue mass-disseminating their viral messages of infectious racism, white supremacy, neo-fascism and hate.
At least we’re no longer talking about “blood libel” much.