Waxen death mask of Martin Luther with eyes directed to the lower edge of the picture.

The Mighty Hater: Martin Luther’s Reformations of Rhetoric and Affect

Interpreting the reformation as the “birth of subjectivity” is a topos in intellectual history. Against this background, the book project The Mighty Hater: Martin Luther’s Reformations of Rhetoric and Affect takes up Luther’s most aggressive speeches in relation to contemporary theories of hate speech. What if the paradigmatic subject is a “hater”? How shall we interpret the persistent equation over centuries of an aggressive “Luther style” with German style and Germanness as such? In other words, why have Germans so strongly identified with Luther’s aggressive rhetorical persona? The book approaches Luther’s most hateful writings with the instruments of rhetorical analysis while starting from two basic assumptions:

  1. Criticism that does not acknowledge the pleasure of the text remains abstract and moralistic; effective criticism presupposes complicity—especially when it deals with a subject as problematic as hate speech. To understand hate speech in its affective appeal, we must dwell with its language. Only then can this language be turned against itself.

  2. In the light of the striking surge in hate speech throughout the last decade, we can no longer afford not to understand Luther’s rhetorical strategies: An echo of Luther’s often-used praeteritio can still be heard, for example, in the mobilization of the ironic “LOL” often added by the US Alt-Right to especially aggressive comments to render their horrific content more ambiguous (and to also take it back to a certain degree).

In addition to this presentist perspective, the project addressed the historical context of the Pamphlet Wars, which saw the publication of many of Luther’s most entertaining polemics (“Wider den Meuchler zu Dresden” [Against the Assassin of Dresden], “Wider Hans Worst” [Against Hans Worst]), but also some of the most horrific (i.e., “Wider die mörderischen und räuberischen Rotten der Bauern” [Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants] or “Von den Juden und ihren Lügen” [On the Jews and Their Lies]). In contrast to what the current debates on the epoch’s typical tropes might suggest, Luther’s most hateful writings in which he rails against peasants, Jews, Sinti and Roma, or the Catholic church make use of rhetorical figures which are not associated with the stilus vehemens—namely analogy, tautology, parrhesia, praeteritio, and oikeiosis. What all of these rhetorical figures have in common is that the theological discourse bestows a metaphysical dignity upon them. These findings, in turn, challenge the established thesis that Luther’s studies of rhetoric (as well as Melanchthon’s) were to be interpreted as an abandonment of scholastics. It becomes evident that, in hating, Luther reactivates scholastic leftovers, metaphysical detritus. Why is it precisely hatred that makes Luther revert to these scholastic figures? And what happens with their theological substance when transcendence clashes with the immanence of enmity in such a way that the formerly courageous monk becomes a preacher of hate?


Fig. above: Hans Finsler: Martin Luther’s death mask I (detail), © Kulturstiftung Sachsen-Anhalt (CC-BY-NC-SA).

Head researcher(s): Barbara Nagel


Barbara Nagel

previously published contributions on rhetoric in Luther:

  • Lutherstil, in: Interjekte 14 (2022): Stil und Rhetorik. Ein prekäres Paar und seine Geschichten, ed. by Eva Geulen and Melanie Möller, 32–40
  • Freidigkeit – Zur Protestantisierung der Parrhesie bei Luther, in: Rüdiger Campe, Malte Wessels (eds.): Bella Parrhesia: Begriff und Figur. Studien zur Ästhetik und Politik der freien Rede in der Neuzeit. Freiburg: Rombach 2018, 63–83 (with Daniel Hoffman-Schwartz)
  • Analogie: Martin Lutero, in: Leonardo Piasere, Gianluca Solla (eds.): I filosofi e gli zingari. Canterano: Aracne 2018, 39–46
  • Tautologie (Martin Luther), in: Judith Kasper, Cornelia Wild (eds.): Rom rückwärts. Europäische Übertragungsschicksale. München: Fink 2015, 56–60