Essay: Truth in History
I remember the moment perfectly. I was in Stuttgart, a few days after Christmas 2011. I had spent the previous three days in the central archive in the city center, reading through the records of one of the most notorious trials in German history. The trial took place in 1737–38, and led to the execution of a man named Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, better known to history as “Jew Süss.”
The archival materials I had been studying were both extraordinary and utterly frustrating, and I wasn’t sure how best to proceed. As I was leaving the archive, I lingered for a moment in the vestibule, looking at the large snowflakes slowly descending from the sky and recalling the last few meetings of the undergraduate seminar I had just taught at Princeton. Then, too, snow was lying outside. And all of a sudden it hit me: The problem I was facing was not a problem at all; in fact, it was a solution.
Joseph Süss Oppenheimer is one of the most important figures in the history of anti-Semitism. Born in the Jewish community of Heidelberg in the last decade of the 17th century, he served as the personal banker of several princes in southwest Germany in the 1720s before moving to Stuttgart in 1733 and becoming the “court Jew” (financial and political adviser) of Carl Alexander, the duke of the small German state of Württemberg. For several years after 1733, Oppenheimer was highly successful, serving as the duke’s closest associate while also making large sums of money for himself. But when Carl Alexander died unexpectedly in 1737, the Württemberg authorities arrested Oppenheimer, put him on trial, and condemned him to death for a long list of unsubstantiated accusations, including bribery, treason, and rape. On Feb. 4, 1738, Oppenheimer was hanged just outside Stuttgart, his body then locked for six years in a metal cage at the northern entrance to the city.