A groundbreaking historical reexamination of one of the most infamous episodes in the history of anti-Semitism
Joseph Süss Oppenheimer—"Jew Süss"—is one of the most iconic figures in the history of anti-Semitism. In 1733, Oppenheimer became the "court Jew" of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. When Carl Alexander died unexpectedly, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for unspecified "misdeeds." On February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged in front of a large crowd just outside Stuttgart. He is most often remembered today through several works of fiction, chief among them a vicious Nazi propaganda movie made in 1940 at the behest of Joseph Goebbels.
The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a compelling new account of Oppenheimer's notorious trial. Drawing on a wealth of rare archival evidence, Yair Mintzker investigates conflicting versions of Oppenheimer's life and death as told by four contemporaries: the leading inquisitor in the criminal investigation, the most important eyewitness to Oppenheimer's final days, a fellow court Jew who was permitted to visit Oppenheimer on the eve of his execution, and one of Oppenheimer's earliest biographers. What emerges is a lurid tale of greed, sex, violence, and disgrace—but are these narrators to be trusted? Meticulously reconstructing the social world in which they lived, and taking nothing they say at face value, Mintzker conjures an unforgettable picture of "Jew Süss" in his final days that is at once moving, disturbing, and profound.
The Many Deaths of Jew Süss is a masterfully innovative work of history, and an illuminating parable about Jewish life in the fraught transition to modernity.
Yair Mintzker is associate professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Defortification of the German City, 1689–1866.
"This remarkable book does much more than offer a gripping reconstruction of the 1737 trial of Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, who had been the personal banker and advisor of the duke of a small German state and was executed, after the duke’s death, for serious crimes against the state. Such a reconstruction would already have been a significant achievement, as the rigorous attention to detail and nuance bring the case vividly to life. But Mintzker . . . also explains the challenges presented to a historian in ascertaining the truth about the trial, and the rationale behind his way of dealing with the evidentiary record. . . . This fascinating intellectual journey deserves a wide audience."--Publishers Weekly (Starred Review)
"Well written and engaging. . . . This meticulously researched work offers a fascinating and intelligent accounting of Oppenheimer’s life that will captivate readers of history and Jewish studies."--Jacqueline Parascandola, Library Journal (Starred Review)
"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. . . . 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."--Jonathan Steinberg, Literary Review
"I couldn't put this book down. Revisiting a notorious case of anti-Semitism, Mintzker excavates a mountain of contradictory evidence with penetrating intelligence, great erudition, and rich human sympathy. This is a resonant and profoundly original book."--Keith Michael Baker, Stanford University
Table of Contents:
Note to Readers xi
First Conversation 23
1 The Inquisitor 25
Part 1 Vita Ante Acta 25
Part 2 Species Facti 55
Second Conversation 100
2 A Convert’s Tale 103
Third Conversation 171
3 Joseph and His Brothers 177
Fourth Conversation 224
4 In the Land of the Dead 231
List of Illustrations 287
List of Abbreviations 289