The Many Tales of Joseph Oppenheimer

Joshua Teplitsky on Yair Mintzker 

Yair Mintzker. The Many Deaths of Jew Süss The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew. Princeton UP, 2017. $35.00.

Yair Mintzker’s new book on crime, sensation, religious-ethnic difference, power, and perspective could not be more timely. The Many Deaths of Jew Süss: The Notorious Trial and Execution of an Eighteenth-Century Court Jew unpacks the story of the meteoric rise and dramatic fall of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, an eighteenth-century German Jew, from the heights of political favor to the hangman’s gallows before the hungry eyes of the crowd. Oppenheimer was born in Heidelberg and served as the financier and advisor of Duke Carl Alexander of Württenberg when the latter, a Catholic, ascended the throne of the largely Lutheran duchy in 1733. Barely four years later, the duke suffered a stroke and died, and within hours of his death, his trusted advisor was arrested and brought up on vague charges of corruption, currency manipulation, and sexual immorality. On February 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was executed and his corpse was displayed for public spectacle for days to follow.

This is not an unknown tale. The events have loomed so largely in history and memory that, in his introduction to the book in which he considers his intellectual forerunners, Mintzker divides the previous work on this topic into various methodological categories (deducing “what really happened,” fictionalizing the events, examining the reception of the story, even setting aside the details of the trial in favor of attending to the remainder of the biography), rather than simply listing previous titles. In Mintzker’s estimation, the story’s allure derives both from the drama of the events in their own time and the symbolic representation of the episode as it resonated through the centuries as an allegory for Jewish life in modern Germany. Indeed, one need look no further than Veit Harlan’s infamous portrayal of the perfidious Jew in the film Jud Süss (1940), which, at the War’s end, served as sufficient grounds for the director to face criminal charges.

So why another book about Jud Süss Oppenheimer?  To begin with, the book is not really about Oppenheimer at all. This is not to say that Mintzker is indifferent to the “over one hundred cardboard boxes” that house “thirty thousand handwritten pages of documents” in direct relation to Oppenheimer’s trial. But the book is structured around four chapters, each of which reconstructs the life of an eighteenth-century contemporary of Oppenheimer.

Unconventional though it may be, Mintzker is under no illusion of complete originality in this “Rashomon-like” approach. Indeed he draws attention to other historians who adopted a similar narrative device.  His approach is refreshing, however, as he moves beyond the, in his words, “utterly banal” observation that diverse actors apprehend events through the prisms of variegated experiences and vantage points. Instead, in his words, “the multiperspectival, polyphonic nature of lived experience as my starting point, not as my destination; it is a belief that informs what I’m about to do rather than a conclusion toward which I’m driving.”  It is only at the midpoint of the book that Mintzker explicitly acknowledges the volume’s purpose: “Oppenheimer is the book’s absent center; he is its pictorial negative space, its structuring absence.”

Indeed, this negative space permits Mintzker to paint across a broad canvas. In each chapter, Mintzker predominantly concerns himself with the ways in which each of Oppenheimer’s acquaintances selected elements of the events to fashion their own image for public consumption, or how those actors played out their own tensions and conflicts on the stage of Oppenheimer’s scenes.  We thus encounter “the inquisitor,” Dr. Philipp Friedrich Jäger, in the first chapter and are led from the unique political circumstances of the Württemburg Ehrbarkeit (the “worthies” who dominated the city’s administrative bureaucracy) through the education of the maturing Jäger and into the courtly intrigue that preceded Oppenheimer’s trial: an affair involving the Duke’s mistress, similarly revolving about questions of foreign collusion and moral corruption. In the second chapter, we meet a convert from Judaism and follow the priorities that drove his rendering of his jailhouse encounter with the condemned Oppenheimer. During the third, we are drawn into the Frankfurt ghetto to encounter Jewish responses to the affair, whereas the final chapter reaches even farther abroad, to the transmission of news in early modern Europe.

Given the author’s interest in using the case to think through the historian’s craft, some of the most engaging elements of the book are to be found not in the events of the episode or the actions of its agents, but in Mintzker’s attention to the production of the sources that shaped how the trial entered posterity. Mintzker guides the reader through not only the social, legal, and political history of the affair, but also the genres of early modern writing that mediated it.  He reconstructs the culture of writing, record-keeping, and legal knowledge-making in his discussion of the power of scribes and the generic conventions of different forms of writing and publishing. For example, with the inquisitors, we learn of the importance of diarium (logbook) of the protocols of the inquisitorial commission and the Relation, a composite legal document which summarized the trial and produced the opinion justifying the final verdict. When we encounter the convert, Bernard, we are led through the formal elements of disputation and its confrontational conventions of style which structured and even constituted how its author expressed the facts of his relationship to the affair, a “performance” of the convert’s own expertise in Judaic arcana. When we meet Jewish reactions to the affair we encounter a broadside that mingles Hebrew and Yiddish, and Mintzker meditates upon the intertextual resonances of the text with Biblical paradigms. And in the book’s final chapter, he examines the early modern European appetite for news by considering the genre of the “dialogue with the dead,” a millenia-old genre of fictive writing that found renewed use as a form of political critique in the world of the Baroque German court. Thus, Mintzker not only makes use of the documentary record, but he examines how the practices of record-keeping shaped different accounts of the event and shows us the means by which such narratives were fashioned and mediated.  

Mintzker’s prowess as a historian is delightful in his subtle attention to detail, and in making those details matter. In much the same way as he gives life to the routines of record keeping and legal practice, Mintzker masterfully recreates the material and spatial features of daily life, a talent he already demonstrated in his first book, The Defortification of the German City, 1689-1866 (Cambridge, 2012). For instance, as he describes the city of Schorndorf, home to the jurist who tried Oppenheimer, Mintzker sets the scene by telling us that “at the center of Schorndorf, not far from the Lutheran church and the grammar school, was the town’s elongated marketplace, running north to south,” offering a sense of the reality of daily life and the topography against which it was set. When he relays the details of a seminary at Tübingen, “the external wall of its southern wing protruding beyond the town’s medieval fortifications” and the layout of its storage areas, kitchen, and residences, the reader can almost imagine strolling along the perimeter of this wall while running a hand against its surface.  He is equally attentive to spatial absences in this story of inter-religious encounter, noting that “there was no synagogue in sight nor any other trace of Jewish life in the town, Jews having never before lived in Schorndorf, or in almost any other Württemberg town, for that matter.” This attention to materiality and observational detail make the book an engaging work of storytelling.

A book that strives to break the boundaries of historical narrative convention is, by definition, unconventional, and this brings both balances and deficits to the project. The distance of historians from their sources and the challenge of contradictory accounting lie at the center of this book and generate its structuring principle. Indeed, by crafting his narrative around four characters that might not otherwise have been at center stage, Mintzker suggests that his text is meant to grapple with the inconsistencies and contradictions of the sources. However, by dedicating a separate chapter to four distinct protagonists, the book’s structure eventuates in us hearing four different tunes played out in divergent theaters. This is a question as much of historical method as of literary structure: The treatment of four distinct historical actors who are only linked by their commentary on the trial in effect brings the study away from either sorting out contradiction or from fully embracing the contradictions that inhere in historical reconstruction. In fact, it might have been exciting to see Mintzker take his narrative experiment even further and integrate the polyphony of voices within the chapters themselves, by alternating voice, narrator, and even font, or by showing the way that the different historical actors confronted the same event. Instead, each follows his own path away from the structuring absence, so that there is no moment of contradiction or inconsistency to directly confront, but rather four discrete narratives bound together in a single volume. While this makes for an engaging and entertaining book that expands the reach of its investigation well beyond the life and trial of a single man, it can leave the reader without fresh models for fully confronting competing sources as it refocuses the direction of inquiry towards subjects other than Oppenheimer and his trial.   

If the pursuit of polyphony marks an unconventional approach to historical narrative, the book is also unconventional in its interruption of the chapters with a constructed dialogue between the author himself (Mintzker) and a fictional, imagined reader. This is at once an interruption and a literary device necessitated by the disjuncture between the chapters. Because each of the chapters stands in relative isolation from the others, a bridge is required to link them, and Mintzker breaks the fourth wall in order to do so. This device lends Mintzker a platform by which to justify his authorial choices, but some readers may find this more jarring than pleasing.  What’s more, the book is engagingly written, so it comes across as perhaps somewhat unnecessarily self-congratulatory when Mintzker’s imaginary reader compliments the author with such statements as “I tend to agree, and the way you mapped out his life and place in the world worked quite well” or when Mintzker appears so pleased with his own joke in the text that he places laughter into the mouth of his hypothetical reader.

The call to arms with which he closes the work is undeniably provocative and exciting: that historical writing must enter literary modernity and embrace competing narratives much as historians do in their classroom teaching. Nonetheless, Mintzker is perhaps a bit too hard on his fellow practitioners of history when he suggests that although historians are carefully self-conscious about their intellectual and epistemological limitations, they have not yet devised narratological means by which to convey that uncertainty. The point is a provocative one, but historians are also story-tellers, and argument-driven story-tellers at that. We would be an impoverished profession if we could not enthrall without fracturing our narrative into a mode befitting James Joyce, or if we perennially had to resist conclusions in the name of uncertainty. We live in an age of uncertainty and political strife, but perhaps experts must be reminded (or remind themselves) that uncertainty and polyphony can also be a luxury that we cannot always afford when truth claims are at stake.  

Joshua Teplitsky is assistant professor of history at Stony Brook University. He specializes in the history of the Jews in Europe in the early modern period and in the study of books and media. He lives in New York City.