- The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town
The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town, by Helmut Walser Smith. New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2002. 270 pp. $25.95.
In March 1900, a grisly murder came to light in Konitz, a town of about ten thousand inhabitants in the province of West Prussia. A torso, then other body parts of a high-school student were discovered in several locations around town. As the investigation began, rumors circulated that the boy had fallen victim to a ritual murder by local Jews. The arrest of a Jewish skinner on the charge of murder gave the signal in Konitz and the surrounding region for a wave of riots, which flared intermittently for the next three months. Encouraged by antisemitic agitators who descended on Konitz from Berlin, the violence came to an end only when Prussian soldiers occupied the town.
The Konitz murder and the attendant events are now the theme of a fascinating, gripping study by Helmut Smith. It is both a detective-story and an essay on the ethnography of popular antisemitism. The murderer was never brought to trial, but Smith provides a detailed account of the investigation. He documents how the efforts of the investigators were crippled by incompetence, as well as by the presumption, which the police shared with the demonstrators, that the murderer must have been a Jew. The reasons for this presumption, which soon settled onto a local Jewish butcher, provide the focus for Smith’s wide-ranging reflections on the cultural dynamics of ritual-murder accusations.
The “butcher’s tale” of the book’s title was composed by another of Konitz’s butchers. This one was Christian. Because he possessed the skills necessary to commit the crime and was the father of a girl who was thought to have been romantically involved with the murdered boy, this butcher was himself a principal suspect in the crime. His efforts at self-exoneration featured a lengthy declaration that appeared in the antisemitic Staatsbürgerzeitung in Berlin, whose editor clearly had a hand in its composition. In this remarkable, slanderous document, the butcher not only proclaimed his innocence but developed an elaborate theory of how a conspiracy of Jews, led by the Jewish butcher, had slaughtered the student, in the words of the declaration, “like a piece of cattle according to full Jewish ritual” (p. 64). The butcher’s tale thus provided a compendium of the countless wild rumors and baseless allegations that had animated the local antisemitic violence.
The central parts of Smith’s book analyze this violence as the playing out of a different kind of ritual. An excursus into the history of ritual-murder accusations against Jews persuasively frames the events in Konitz within the rituals of Christian community and exclusion, the elements of which had circulated in popular memory, like archetypal [End Page 136] debris, since the Middle Ages throughout central and eastern Europe. Their periodic mobilization into collective violence against Jews and Jewish property (most recently a year earlier in Bohemia) needed little rehearsal, writes Smith. In the service of communal solidarity, this violence itself represented an act of ritual murder against a marginal group. To analyze the dynamics of the process, the mobilization of resentment and rumor into collective action, Smith has read widely and thoughtfully in the work of anthropologists and social psychologists; and he draws persuasive comparisons with other exclusionary rituals, such as the burning of witches, North American lynchings, and the state-sponsored murder of Europe’s Jews, which redefined the parameters of the phenomenon later in the twentieth century.
The thrust of the analysis thus locates the sufficient cause of the Konitz riots in the cultural traditions of popular antisemitism, which had festered for centuries among the illiterate and scarcely literate. In making this argument, Smith deprecates the claims of the German scholar Christoph Nonn, whose recent work on the same episode has emphasized additional causal factors that were more specific to Konitz, particularly the play of local social, ethnic, and confessional tensions. The “community” in whose name the Jews of Konitz were ritually excluded...