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THE BUTCHER’S TALE by Helmut Walser Smith


Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town

by Helmut Walser Smith

Pub Date: Aug. 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-393-05098-X
Publisher: Norton

A braided and illuminating study of local-level anti-Semitism and its insinuation into the life of a small town in early 20th-century Germany.

In 1900, in Konitz, West Prussia, a young man was killed, his body dismembered, and the parts distributed about the town, neatly wrapped in packing paper. A rumor soon took shape: It was an act of ancient blood libel, the ritual slaughter of Christian children by Jews to use their blood in the baking of Passover matzo. Riots and acts of violence against the Jewish community followed, and Smith (History/Vanderbilt University) has taken as his task to discern the motives behind the anti-Semitism, twining together the many threads with the dexterity of a lace-worker. He sees the phenomenon as a “process,” making “latent anti-Semitism manifest, transforming private enmity and neighborly disputes into bloodstained canvases of persecutory landscapes.” The townspeople fabricated tales against a Jewish butcher; an anti-Semitic press fanned the tales into a collective narrative of good and bad, respectable and low, light and dark; anti-Semitic political groups exploited archaic layers of hatred and superstition, fashioning an allegory of the dangers of social pollution. Smith follows both the course of Jewish relations with the German state, which was markedly liberal in 1900, and the history of such symbols as ritual murder and how they play and endure across the popular imagination. As well, he charts the mutual influence of oral and print cultures, the creation of a spectacle, economic and class factors, and, most importantly, “the dynamics of personal power, with Christians typically asserting power over the Jews they worked for, or had once been injured by, or . . . had once been in love with.” A unifying theme can be found in the “human relationships” and the way they “target the weak points in the overall system of relations.”

A dreadful augury, critically and masterfully told.