The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew by Yair Mintzker - review by Jonathan Steinberg

Jonathan Steinberg

Power and Prejudice

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


Princeton University Press 330pp £27.95 order from our bookshop

The story of Jew Süss took place at the dawn of the modern era. The Holy Roman Empire still functioned but many observers thought it an absurd antique. As Voltaire sneered in 1756, ‘it’s not holy, not Roman and not an empire’. The essence of the Holy Roman Empire was the minute fragmentation of authority. One small region of southwest Germany alone contained archbishoprics, bishoprics, free abbeys, free cities, principalities, duchies, margravates, landgraviates, lordships and so on. There were Palatinate holdings, Fürstenberg holdings and Hohenzollern holdings, and the dukes of Württemberg had properties of all kinds. Large kingdoms such as Prussia or Saxony came close to being modern states, but their territories were still riddled with lands belonging to foreign authorities.

The Duchy of Württemberg became the site of the trial of the ‘court Jew’ Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. He was a very wealthy and powerful figure, who served a number of princes in southwest Germany, most notably Duke Carl Alexander of Württemberg, for whom he acted as financial adviser and master of the mint. Shortly after Carl Alexander’s death in March 1737, Oppenheimer was arrested and accused of numerous crimes, including embezzlement, adultery, debasement of the coinage and treason. After months of imprisonment and interrogation, he was put on trial. He was found guilty and publicly hanged in Stuttgart on 4 February 1738.

The life and death of Oppenheimer was portrayed in the single most notorious Nazi film, Jud Süss, a vivid and hideous anti-Semitic work that characterised him as greedy, lascivious and alien. It was directed by Veit Harlan and commissioned by Joseph Goebbels. After the war, in a web of lies and in a Germany full of ex-Nazis, Harlan denied contributing, through his film, to the massacre of the Jews of Europe. After all, he was just a film-maker and nothing more. In the denazification process he was tried for crimes against humanity and exonerated, but witnesses later accused him of doing everything possible to win the contract to make the film. He was accused again of war crimes but never punished.

What really happened? Was Oppenheimer guilty? What was his trial like? The complexity of the story has led Yair Mintzker to adopt a very unusual technique. He calls his book ‘a polyvocal, critical work of scholarship: a polyphonic history’. He provides four accounts, each with its own dedicated chapter, of the trial, examining the case in turn from the perspectives of four individuals connected with it: Philipp Friedrich Jäger, the judge-inquisitor who wrote the narrative of Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes that was used as the basis for the death sentence against him; Christoph David Bernard, a ‘university lecturer with a problematic past’, born a Jew in Lemberg in 1682, who met Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution and wrote an account of his last days; Mordecai Schloss, a Jewish notable who published the only contemporary account by a Jew of Oppenheimer’s life and death; and David Fassmann, a Leipzig-based author who wrote a series of popular works about the characters involved in the case. At the end of each chapter, Mintzker answers methodological questions and defends his technique in a dialogue with an imaginary critic who raises doubts and difficulties. Whatever approximation to the truth the polyphonic method yields, it brings the society and its protagonists to life in a way I have never seen before. On account of the rich texture of the evidence, the ancien régime becomes real, while Mintzker’s lively prose turns the case into a detective story.

The first chapter concentrates on Jäger and the Ehrbarkeit (the ‘honourables’), the several-thousand-strong upper bourgeoisie who dominated the legislature, which had power to raise taxes, and also provided the majority of lawyers, judges and higher civil servants in the state. The regional titled nobility had effectively become independent of the duke and answered only to the emperor, so the Ehrbarkeit acted as a kind of ruling elite as well as a social class.

The documents allow Mintzker to reconstruct in astonishing detail the life and career of Jäger, first as an advocate and then as a member of the court. Shortly before the Oppenheimer case he prosecuted Christina Wilhelmina von Grävenitz, the mistress of Duke Eberhard Ludwig, uncle and predecessor of Carl Alexander. Von Grävenitz was, ironically, accused of extorting money from the Jews, along with other crimes. She settled the case, to Jäger’s dismay, and not long afterwards he became prosecutor in the Oppenheimer case. Mintzker makes a detailed and plausible case that Jäger, having failed to secure von Grävenitz’s conviction, was determined not to let Oppenheimer get away in a similar case, even though the evidence had to be twisted.

The second chapter focuses on Bernard, a mysterious convert to Christianity, a teacher at the seminary in Tübingen, a translator used by the court and a missionary. Bernard, poor and hard-working, is as complicated a character as one could imagine and Mintzker shows his extraordinary learning in trying to make sense of him. The biblical, theological and textual skills that Mintzker deploys to decipher the evidence are not the least of the merits of this chapter.

The section dedicated to Schloss is set in the Frankfurt ghetto, a long, narrow lane in which over two thousand Jews lived and Schloss grew up. The lane’s habits, dwellings and schools created a very specific Jewish culture in Frankfurt, unlike that found elsewhere. By 1706 Schloss had reached such a level of financial prominence that Duke Ludwig and his mistress employed him as their court Jew. Consequently, he moved to the ducal court in Stuttgart, where he had a large family and many servants and was free of the restrictions of the ghetto. Ludwig created a splendid new residence, Ludwigsburg, just outside Stuttgart, and a large Jewish business community grew in Württenberg to furnish the supplies necessary to build and decorate the grand new buildings. Following Oppenheimer’s execution, Schloss helped to publish a work defending the probity of Oppenheimer and recording his piety when faced with the traditional evils of the Christian world. Schloss himself appears in this work as a ‘rabbi’ and as a witness to the accused’s innocence and faithfulness.

Finally Mintzker turns his attention to Fassman, a vigorous commercial writer in the flourishing market town of Leipzig, home of the great fairs, most famously the book fair. Fassman turned out nearly 250 seventy-page accounts of the intrigues and follies of the numerous courts of the Holy Roman Empire called ‘Conversations in the Realm of the Dead’. These take the form of classical dialogues of the dead. But whereas traditional dialogues of this sort involved great figures, Fassman wrote about political lives. As Mintzker puts it, Fassman ‘hit a subterranean reservoir of immense dimensions’. Fassman wrote three dialogues connected with Oppenheimer’s life and death, two involving Carl Alexander, in which the duke testifies to Oppenheimer’s honour and integrity, and one involving Oppenheimer himself, which reveals various versions of the protagonist.

At the end of this study, after considering all of these different accounts, Mintzker writes, ‘We are left with a blank or negative space at the very center of the book: with a kind of Godot-like Oppenheimer who never shows up. Or does he?’ He concludes, ‘we have stood in Oppenheimer’s shoes all along.’ This wonderful book raises all sorts of questions. We are left to make up our own minds. Which was the real Oppenheimer? Can we find a compromise among the four accounts, and on what basis? I certainly cannot, but Mintzker’s attempt to do so makes this work an excellent exercise.

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