The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2014), by Helmut Walser Smith – Reaction Essay

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The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town Book Cover

In The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (2014), Helmut Walser Smith uses the murder of Ernst Winter in Konitz in 1900 as a lens through which to examine the historical place of the Jews in German and Christian society. The narrative is constructed like a murder-mystery novel that contains analysis both of the event itself and historical anti-Semitism. Smith does an excellent job of interjecting his analysis into the narrative in a way that maintains the pace and “action” of the story, with the exception of Chapter 5, “Performing Ritual Murder,” which is necessarily more abstract, but feels out of place, as if it just happened to find itself in the middle of an otherwise fluid narrative.

Through his examination of Winter’s murder and the reaction of the people of Konitz, Smith touches on the idea of nations, nationalism and state formation. Who gets to be German? What are the criteria? In a period of crisis, clear lines were drawn between “us” and “them,” with the Jews being clearly placed outside of German society. Based on Smith’s work, the majority of the Jews in Konitz led what might be called average lives. Many did not see themselves as very different from their neighbors. Some rejected Judaism and Jewishness altogether, like the boy that incriminated his father in an 1882 trial regarding a ritual murder charge in Tisza-Eszlar in Hungary (Kindle location 1801). Reform Judaism was on the rise. Most Jews clearly wanted to separate themselves from their past and become German, to one degree or another. What stopped them was latent anti-Semitism that continued to come to the fore during times of crisis.

Another important force that buttressed anti-Semitism during the early 1900s was the press. Because of Germany’s high literacy rates and the apparent freedom to publish uncensored material, “journalists” like Bruhn were able to cater to a demographic that craved news that satisfied their existing world view that supposed Jews really did commit ritual murders. Bruhn, and others like him, leapt on every opportunity to publish sensational stories, much like modern tabloids, invariably making the situation for Jews worse. It makes one question how free the press should be allowed to be. Why does the free press work in the modern US, but so obviously failed in Germany in 1900? One possibility is that the people were not so far removed from natural, learned behaviors imparted to them by their religious affiliation and past.

Smith attempts to explain this by looking at the history of ritual murder accusations and their relationship to the idea of host desecration. The idea that Jews might desecrate the “host” through desecrating a cracker perpetuated the image of Jews as Christ-killers, as people beyond the pale of civilization. Ritual murders were supposedly re-enactments of the murder of Christ. In a period of secularization, where highly educated people were denouncing ritual murder as a myth from an age of barbarism, average people were still by-and-large defining themselves based on religious affiliation. It is interesting that when it came to Jews, Christians in general united in hatred against them, regardless of their personal denominational affiliation.

One of the weak points of Smith’s work is the failure to more clearly link the events that happened in Konitz with Hitler, whom he discusses in the opening of the book as representing the fringe, rather than the mainstream of German society (Kindle location 152). In fact, Smith’s narrative, which shows a nearly united Christian front, ready to accept and lie to support ritual murder charges, seems to contradict that statement. Like the ritual murder charge, anti-Semitism in general did not die out, but rested “in repose,” both among Catholics and Protestants and served as the unifying factor that excluded Jews from belonging to the nation, which in turn constituted the imagined state (Kindle location 1552).

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