The Jewish ‘Godot’

Truth, fiction and anti-Semitism

THE (Times Higher Education) - - CONTENTS - Bryan Cheyette is pro­fes­sor of mod­ern lit­er­a­ture and cul­ture at the Univer­sity of Read­ing. He is cur­rently work­ing on a short book about The Ghetto for Ox­ford Univer­sity Press.

The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The No­to­ri­ous Trial and Ex­e­cu­tion of an Eigh­teenth-Cen­tury Court Jew By Yair Mintzker

Prince­ton Univer­sity Press 344pp, £27.95

ISBN 9780691172323 Pub­lished 7 June 2017

Some tri­als de­fine an epoch. The decade-long “af­fair” gen­er­ated by the trial of Al­fred Drey­fus (1894-1906) ex­posed the deep fis­sures in postrev­o­lu­tion­ary France; the 1953 trial of a prom­i­nent group of Jewish doc­tors in Moscow (ac­cused of con­spir­ing to as­sas­si­nate the Soviet lead­er­ship) high­lighted the ex­cesses of Stal­in­ism; and the im­pris­on­ment of Nel­son Man­dela in 1964, af­ter the Rivo­nia Trial, came to char­ac­terise the in­equities of apartheid South Africa – which ended when Man­dela was re­leased in 1990. Each of these tri­als ex­posed the lim­its of law when racism and anti-Semitism shaped the po­lit­i­cal sphere.

The de­for­ma­tion of law by prej­u­dice has a par­tic­u­larly long history. In Ger­many, the trial and ex­e­cu­tion of Joseph Süss Op­pen­heimer in 1737 has the same sym­bolic res­o­nance as Drey­fus, Rivo­nia and the “doc­tors’ plot” has in France, South Africa and Rus­sia. For Yair Mintzker, the trial of “Jew Süss” is “to the Ger­man col­lec­tive imag­i­na­tion what Shake­speare’s Shy­lock is to the English-speak­ing world”. The trial of Shy­lock in The Mer­chant of Venice (1597) was in­spired by the 1594 trial and ex­e­cu­tion of the Por­tuguese-Jewish physi­cian to Queen El­iz­a­beth, Ro­drigo Lopez, who was ac­cused of poi­son­ing her. But it is Shy­lock and not Lopez who has en­tered English cul­ture, just as it is “Jew Süss” and not Op­pen­heimer (fab­ri­ca­tion and not re­al­ity) who is part of Ger­man cul­ture.

Op­pen­heimer was the prin­ci­pal fi­nan­cial ad­viser to Duke Carl Alexan­der of the small Ger­man state of Würt­tem­berg. He was the mas­ter of the mint and was given ex­ten­sive trad­ing priv­i­leges as a re­sult of this el­e­vated po­si­tion. Al­though he was one of hun­dreds of “court Jews” dot­ted through­out the Holy Ro­man Em­pire, whose cos­mopoli­tan trad­ing net­works and up­ward mo­bil­ity were val­ued and re­sented in equal mea­sure, Op­pen­heimer seems to have been par­tic­u­larly wealthy and in­flu­en­tial. His sup­posed power, how­ever, proved il­lu­sory and, when the duke died sud­denly in 1737, he was im­me­di­ately ar­rested and grad­u­ally trans­formed into the fic­tive “Jew Süss”. He was ac­cused of “damnable mal­treat­ments of prince and coun­try”, vague charges that were later speci­fis­pec­i­fieded to in­clude trea­son, em­bez­zle­ment, adul­tery and de­base­ment of the coinage. He was tor­tured for in­for­ma­tion to re­in­force the in­dict­ment, his many prop­er­ties were con­fis­cated to pay for the in­qui­si­tion, and he was ex­e­cuted 11 months later. This treat­ment was rightly de­scribed as “ju­di­cial mur­der” by Carl Alexan­der’s son, Duke Carl Eu­gen, a few years later.

As many as 20,000 peo­ple, from far and wide, wit­nessed Op­pen­heimer’s ex­e­cu­tion on a bright red gal­lows. Af­ter the hang­ing, his de­formed body was placed on per­ma­nent dis­play in a be­spoke iron gib­bet.

“Jew Süss” is re­mem­bered­bered to­day mainly be­cause of the repug­nant 1940 Nazi pro­pa­ganda fi­film,lm, com­mis­sioned by Joseph Goebbels, pur­port­edly about Op­pen­heimer’s life but in re­al­ity about the fi­nan­cial and sex­ual ra­pac­ity of Ger­man Jewry. The film, di­rected by Veit Har­lan, was a re­sponse to a 1934 Bri­tish film that high­lighted the per­se­cu­tion of Ger­man Jewry as Hitler came to power.

in­quisi­to­rial process). These doc­u­ments are in­ter­preted with con­sum­mate skill and weighed for their ve­rac­ity, since “not all his­tor­i­cal sources are cre­ated equal”. De­spite an ar­chive made up of thou­sands of doc­u­ments (along with dozens of mem­oirs and in­ter­pre­tive ac­counts), there is no “ac­tual” per­son whom the his­to­rian can re­trieve. Op­pen­heimer, in Mintzker’s words, was “twice removed from the truth”; he could not speak for him­self dur­ing his trial, and was rel­a­tively anony­mous be­fore his arrest. In­stead, the doc­u­ments pro­duced by “the judge”, “the con­vert”, “the Jew” and “the writer” are con­tex­tu­alised and hu­man­ised to show the com­plex ways in which Op­pen­heimer was rep­re­sented ac­cord­ing to widely dif­fer­ing so­cial, re­li­gious and po­lit­i­cal ends.

Jäger wrote the nar­ra­tive of Op­pen­heimer’s al­leged crimes that led to the death sen­tence, and he un­doubt­edly drew his “facts” from “a pre­de­ter­mined con­clu­sion” (not least his pruri­ent in­ter­est in Op­pen­heimer’s al­leged sex­ual con­quests). But the com­pet­ing so­cial and po­lit­i­cal spheres in which Jäger and Op­pen­heimer op­er­ated, rather than any in­nate prej­u­dice, de­ter­mined why Jäger pur­sued his quarry with such fa­nat­i­cal en­ergy. Jäger was a prom­i­nent mem­ber of the mainly Lutheran Ehrbarkeit (“the hon­ourables”), a large net­work of the haute bour­geoisie who pop­u­lated Würt­tem­berg with bu­reau­crats and pro­fes­sion­als and were in­de­pen­dent of the duke’s au­thor­ity. It was in this con­text that Op­pen­heimer be­came the an­tithe­sis of the Ehrbarkeit, a “shad­owy agent, the real cause of Jäger’s own stalling ca­reer”. Würt­tem­berg was frag­mented, a Lutheran duchy ruled by a Catholic duke. This ex­plains why Op­pen­heimer, in one in­car­na­tion, was deemed to be “a crea­ture of the un­holy mat­ri­mony be­tween Jews and pa­pish princes”. Such is the anti­Catholic di­men­sion to Op­pen­heimer’s per­se­cu­tion.

Jäger’s le­gal tes­ti­mony is fit­tingly de­scribed as a mix­ture of “ru­mours, gos­sip, out­right lies and (at best) half­truths”. Bernard and Schloss, on the other hand, viewed Op­pen­heimer through the prism of the bib­li­cal sto­ries of, re­spec­tively, King David and Joseph. They were in com­pe­ti­tion with Op­pen­heimer, Bernard as a rel­a­tively im­pov­er­ished Jewish con­vert, and Schloss as a fel­low “court Jew”, which meant that both had par­tic­u­lar axes to grind in their de­sire to harm Op­pen­heimer. Only Fass­mann, who imag­ined a dead Op­pen­heimer in the un­der­world, wrote a se­ries of three un­al­loyed fic­tions, which changed ac­cord­ing to the mood of the times. What is clear from Mintzker’s in­spired read­ings is that Op­pen­heimer be­came a ci­pher for much larger is­sues that had lit­tle to do with his ac­tions. But it re­mains a mystery why “Jew Süss”, and no other “court Jew” in the Holy Ro­man Em­pire, was sin­gled out for per­se­cu­tion.

The gulf be­tween the ac­tual Op­pen­heimer and the fic­tive “Jew Süss” is un­bridge­able, which turns the sub­ject of the book into a “struc­tur­ing ab­sence” or Jewish “Godot”. Mintzker’s re­sponse to this im­passe is to write a “poly­phonic history” that places four rad­i­cally var­ied nar­ra­tives in a fruit­ful di­a­logue. The main fault of this bril­liant ac­count is that the au­thor is all too aware how clever it is. This is, alas, re­in­forced at the end of each chap­ter with “con­ver­sa­tions” be­tween “Mintzker” and a crit­i­cal reader. Is it re­ally nec­es­sary to hear how “in­trigu­ing” the ar­gu­ment is, that a chap­ter “worked quite well” or that the book as a whole has a “gospel struc­ture”? Yet it can’t be de­nied that Mintzker has a great deal to be pleased about and he is right to hope that his “poly­phonic” chal­lenge to main­stream his­to­ri­og­ra­phy will be suc­cess­ful.

The gulf be­tween the ac­tual Op­pen­heimer and the fic­tive ‘Jew Süss’ is un­bridge­able... Mintzker’s re­sponse to this im­passe is to place four rad­i­cally var­ied nar­ra­tives in fruit­ful di­a­logue

‘Ju­di­cial mur­der’ the rise and fall of Joseph Süss Op­pen­heimer has been por­trayed in sev­eral nov­els and films, in­clud­ing a 1940 Nazi pro­pa­ganda movie com­mis­sioned by Joseph Goebbels

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