The Life, Trial and Death of a 'Court Jew' Executed 300 Years Ago

In his new book, historian Yair Mintzker tells the story of the 18-century 'Jew Süss' from a number of viewpoints

A drawing of the 1738 hanging of "Jew Süss," Joseph Süsskind Oppenheimer.
Württembergische Landesbibliothek / Wikimedia Commons

Six years ago, in an archive in Stuttgart, Germany, Princeton historian Yair Mintzker found a real treasure – 30,000 handwritten pages in 100 boxes documenting one of the most famous trials in German-Jewish history. The material revealed the minutes of the trial of “court Jew” Joseph Süsskind Oppenheimer, known as Jew Süss, who was executed nearly 300 years ago and became a symbol of the fate of the Jewish people.

This month, The Financial Times named Mintzker’s book about that archive – “The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew”one of the top history books of 2017.

Oppenheimer is one of the most important figures in the history of anti-Semitism. He was born in the German city of Heidelberg at the end of the 17th century and was the personal banker to several German princes. In 1733 he moved to Stuttgart, where he was the “court Jew” – a political and financial adviser – to Duke Karl Alexander of Württenberg. The four ensuing years were his most successful, but they ended in disaster; the duke died suddenly and Oppenheimer was left alone and surrounded by enemies.

He was quickly tried and convicted of dubious offenses including bribery and treason, and in 1738 was hanged before a crowd of thousands. “During the trial it was clear that what was at stake wasn’t Oppenheimer’s alleged crimes but his association with the duke, his accumulated wealth and his failed efforts to be accepted as an equal in Christian society,” Mintzker told Haaretz.

During the 19th and 20th centuries, the story of Jew Süss, also sometimes spelled Jew Suess, became a metaphor for the tragic story of German Jews, who tried to be accepted as equal members of German society but suffered from political blindness and arrogance and in the end experienced a cruel fate.

Princeton historian Yair Mintzker
Tony Bennett

Oppenheimer was the inspiration for “Jud Süss,” the 1925 novel by German-Jewish playwright and novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, and later for the Nazis’ anti-Semitic propaganda film of the same name produced in 1940.

“Although Jew Süss is one of the key figures in the history of anti-Semitism, the research literature about him made me very uncomfortable,” Mintzker, an Israeli, says when asked why he wrote the book. “You get the impression from it that the man lived outside history. Most of it deals with the way Oppenheimer’s story was told years after he was executed, while books and articles that do deal with his life story are full of generalizations that a careful reading clearly shows weren’t based on contemporary accounts.”

Contradictory testimonies

One of the most amazing things that Mintzker learned was that until his book, no one had reported the words of the people who condemned Oppenheimer to death, or of the Jews in his immediate environment. Mintzker was the first to publish that material, which he found in the German archive.

“I found tens of thousands of pages from the period of Süss’ trial that shed new light on his life and especially on the society in which he operated,” Mintzker says. “The quantity of documents amazed me.”

Joseph Süsskind Oppenheimer, 'Jew Süss'
Landesarchiv Baden-Württenberg / Wikimedia Commons

During the first weeks of his research he realized that quantity was only a small aspect of the challenge he faced.

“The main problem of every historian in the case of Jew Süss is that on the one hand the people of that era had a lot to say about Süss during his trial, but on the other you can’t rely on a single word they said,” Mintzker says. “The testimonies contradict each other all the time and sometimes even contradict themselves. How can you write history in such a case?”

Moreover, the material raised a serious question. If, as some historians have argued, Süss’ trial was a classic blood libel, why did the authorities collect such a huge quantity of documents and work for almost a year to convict him? “Wouldn’t it have been much easier to simply execute the Jew quickly and without problems?” Mintzker asks.

The picture that emerges from the documents is of a society with clear anti-Jewish tendencies, but not to an extent that would explain Süss’ fate. The prosecutor, Philipp Friedrich Jäger, for example, defended other court Jews against unfounded allegations before demanding Süss’ execution on similar charges.

Contemporary Jewry wasn’t monolithic, either. “It turns out that some of the most serious accusations against Süss came from other court Jews,” Mintzker says. “The opposing sides in the trial weren’t the evil goyim on one side and the good Jews on the other. Far from it.”

In an attempt to make order out of the conflicting testimonies and unreliable information, Mintzker decided to tell the story of the life and death of Oppenheimer from a number of viewpoints, rather than arbitrarily choosing whom to believe and creating a simplistic story.

History of many sides

He calls this method polyphonic history – history of many voices. His book therefore is constructed as a type of Rashomon – four stories, each based on contemporary documents, that each in its own way tells what happened during the years Oppenheimer was in Stuttgart and during the trial.

“This kind of polyphonic history isn’t postmodern history, if what’s meant by that term is history in which the historical truth is unimportant. But it’s also not the most common type of historical writing in which the historian acts as if he knows the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth when that isn’t the case,” Mintzker says.

“To me, both those methods border on fake news. We know a lot about what happened to Jew Süss, but we certainly don’t know everything. Polyphonic history tries to find a balance between these two extremes.”

Mintzker mentioned fake news, so this might be the place to mention a contemporary figure, Jared Kushner. “Court Jews are a transhistorical phenomenon,” Mintzker says. “It was true in the time of the Jew Süss, and it’s true, with a thousand distinctions, today as well.”

In recent months, several American intellectuals have compared Kushner to court Jews of yesteryear, a comparison Mintzker validates. “Describing Kushner as a type of modern court Jew fits the concept like a glove,” he says. “Kushner comes from a finance background, he’s personally close to the ruler, his official role is not at all clear and he advocates for Jews within court society and not through the regular American democratic institutions.”

And what will happen to him if Trump falls? That will be for the next generation of historians to deal with.