This Day in Jewish History

1738: A Controversial Financier Hangs

Joseph Suess Oppenheimer, adviser and confidant of Duke Karl Alexander of Stuttgart, Germany, rejects conversion and gets the gallows in 1738.

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On February 4, 1738, Joseph Suess Oppenheimer, a controversial Jewish financier and close adviser to the recently deceased Duke Karl Alexander of Wuerttemberg, was executed by hanging in Stuttgart, Germany, after being convicted of a litany of charges, including fraud and treason. Oppenheimer has figured in a number of literary and dramatic treatments over the centuries, most notoriously in a Nazi propaganda film in 1940, directed by Veit Harlan.

Born in Heidelberg in 1698, Oppenheimer showed an early aptitude for business. He was introduced to Prince Karl Alexander in 1732, when the latter was governor of Serbia, and became his banker and adviser. He continued as close confidant when the prince became Duke of Wuerttemberg in December 1733. Oppenheimer helped the duke regulate his finances, find new sources of income (taxes, stamps, even the establishment of several monopolies under the duke’s ownership), and was given responsibility for running the mint.

Oppenheimer’s extensive power and influence, and the fact that he contracted out many valuable financial opportunities to fellow Jews, led to deep resentment among the duke’s enemies and later among the wider public. Accusations were leveled at Oppenheimer that he minted substandard coins and profited in other illicit ways. He invited an investigation and offered to step down as mint director, but Karl Alexander, keen to show his confidence in his aide, promoted Oppenheimer to be his privy councilor of finance.

In 1736, Oppenheimer was also given responsibility for managing court officials and making appointments, a position he used to accept bribes, which he then split with the duke, causing additional resentment. When Karl Alexander died suddenly, on March 11, 1737, all the Jews of Stuttgart were placed under arrest. Oppenheimer attempted to flee, but was also arrested and tried on grounds of fraud, embezzlement, treason and even illicit relations with women of the court. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Oppenheimer was offered several opportunities to convert to Christianity, an act that might have saved his life, but he refused, even at the last minute as he was led to the gallows. He responded by reciting the Shema prayer. Engravings of the execution on February 4, 1738, show a crowd of many thousands in attendance. After his death, his body was left hanging on public display in a cage for six years.

Oppenheimer's story was revived in 1925 by the Jewish German writer Lion Feuchtwanger, whose novel "Jew Suess" was a popular success.  Ironically, it was this sympathetic portrait of the financier that was adopted and twisted by director Veit Harlan in his iconic 1940 Nazi propaganda film version of “Jew Suess.” The making of that film was itself the subject of a 2010 German feature, “Jew Suess: Rise and Fall,” which was nominated for the top prize at the Berlin Film Festival that year, though it was poorly received by critics.