This original and engaging book raises large questions about how historians should treat legal and narrative sources. Its subject is the notorious Court Jew, Joseph Süss Oppenheimer (1697?–1738), who as a banker and an adviser to Duke Carl Alexander of Württemberg made himself so unpopular that as soon as his ducal protector died, he was arrested, tried, and finally executed. Although, or because, the charges against him were nebulous, they generated a prodigious amount of paperwork, filling, as Yair Mintzker tells us, some thirty thousand handwritten pages. That should be a historian’s paradise, and it has made possible several detailed accounts of Oppenheimer, the best known being that by Selma Stern (1929). Unfortunately, in Mintzker’s view, the documents are so patently biased against Oppenheimer that although we can learn a good deal about his actions, his motives, his character and his inner life remain a blank. Faced with this problem, Mintzker, instead of attempting another biography of Oppenheimer, has reconstructed the lives of his most eloquent accusers in order to discover their motives for their various representations of him. Oppenheimer’s voice is remote from us, distorted by the conventions of interrogation and the possible inaccuracy of a secretary. Others, however, wrote directly about him, so that even when we have allowed for textual conventions, their voices are much more audible. This applies to Philipp Friedrich Jäger, a member of the inquisitorial panel investigating Oppenheimer’s case, and to Christoph David Bernard, whose account of a conversation with Oppenheimer shortly before the latter’s execution has naturally been seized on as a document of rare immediacy. Mintzker is not out to debunk his sources or preach historical relativism. He wants to examine them in a nuanced way, alert to what they reveal about their authors. Bernard’s narrative in particular is revealed as an exercise in self-presentation, quite as much as a presentation of Oppenheimer. Reconstructing his subjects’ biographies by laborious researches in scattered archives, Mintzker uncovers a good deal of pertinent but hitherto overlooked material. Jäger, for example, had previously been appointed to prosecute Christina von Würben, mistress to the previous duke, but his zeal was frustrated when, on his accession, Duke Carl Alexander reached a financial settlement with her, apparently helped by Oppenheimer as mediator. Professional disappointment and enmity against Oppenheimer may well go far to explain why Jäger asks Oppenheimer prurient questions about his sexual activities, denounces him in intemperate language and inserts demonstrable falsehoods into his summary of the facts of the case. As for Bernard, he was a convert from Judaism who used his Judaic learning to conduct disputes with Jews in the hope of converting them, and the conversation with Oppenheimer that he records is cast in the form of a disputation. Bernard is using the bad Jew Oppenheimer as a foil to himself, the good ex-Jew who uses his Jewish knowledge for the advancement of Christianity. The second half of the book is less rewarding, because the texts it discusses are not even potential historical sources, but posthumous fictionalizations of Oppenheimer. One is a Yiddish hagiography, praising him as a ‘righteous man’. The other is by David Fassmann, a disreputable and prolific author, who wrote many ‘dialogues of the dead’ featuring recently dead political figures. In one, Oppenheimer appears in Hades and recounts his life story, admitting all his crimes, and ending with a circumstantial account of his own execution. Here, doubts set in about the author’s project. The latter two chapters both end, not with conclusions about Oppenheimer, but with different justifications of the author’s activity in writing them. In the last, Mintzker claims that Fassmann’s fiction with its omniscient narrator resembles the procedures of modern historians who claim complete knowledge about their subject matter. The afterword develops this theme. Mintzker professes to have written a work of ‘polyphonic’ history and thus to have introduced into historiography the techniques of modern fiction, whereas most historians are still producing the equivalent of nineteenth-century realism. But this topic is stale. Peter Burke made a similar case in a chapter of his edited volume New Perspectives on Historical Writing (1991). He could point to attempts at modernist history-writing by Jonathan Spence, whose Emperor of China (1974) is presented (with full historical documentation) as a first-person autobiography by the K’ang-hsi Emperor, and who organized The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci (1984) around motifs supposedly present to the consciousness of the Jesuit missionary. Mintzker does not mention these texts, but does cite Richard Price’s Alabi’s World (1990), which, using different typographies, interweaves the narratives of European settlers, runaway slaves and Moravian missionaries in the Dutch colony of Suriname. For what my own reaction is worth, I was initially intrigued by these experiments, but I found Alabi’s World dully written and The Memory Palace tiresomely tricksy. There are good reasons why such histories have remained unusual. They require a distinctive and rare literary talent. And, just as a good biography, as opposed to a vie romancée, frankly admits what can and cannot be known, so a good history remains anchored in ascertainable fact and acknowledges the inevitable gaps in the historical record, without resorting to speculation or literary frills. To Mintzker’s credit, he has shown that the historical record in Oppenheimer’s case is even more suspect than was realized. His book is written accessibly and attractively. Extended quotations from the texts by Bernard and Fassmann are inserted at well-chosen locations. Even if some of the material he has extracted from archives is less than significant, he has made a serious and thought-provoking addition to scholarship on Joseph Süss Oppenheimer. © The Author(s) 2017. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the German History Society. All rights reserved.
German History – Oxford University Press
Published: Mar 1, 2018
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