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The Butcher's Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (original 2002; edition 2003)

by Helmut Walser Smith

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862140,249 (3.73)2
Member:bakabaka84
Title:The Butcher's Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town
Authors:Helmut Walser Smith
Info:W. W. Norton & Company (2003), Paperback, 276 pages
Collections:Your library, History
Rating:****
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The Butcher's Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town by Helmut Walser Smith (2002)

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A rather fascinating book about antisemitism and the myth of the blood ritual set in the small Prussian town of Konitz during the year 1900. The incident starts off when the torso of a local high school student Ernst Winter who had been missing was found. Quickly other parts were found and due and the autopsy that concluded, rather falsely that his blood had been drained before he was cut up. In addition, according to Hoffmann, Christian butcher in the town, whose family and newspaper connections would play a large part in whipping up the antisemitic frenzy identified the cuts as done by a Kosher butcher . This lead the public to believe that it was the Jewish community that had killed the boy so they could get his blood for the so called blood ritual that they believed Jews participated in. This view was then whipped into a frenzy by antisemitic newspapers that sent reporters to cover the case. Eventually it would get so bad that the mayor of the town had to call in the army to suppress rioters who had started to attack the Jewish people of the town and wanted to lynch the Jewish butch Adolf Lewy who was accused of committing the crime in his cellar. Once things started to cool investigates easily debunked the blood ritual charges however a large part of the community thought that they were shielding the Jews or had been paid off. At the end no one was ever charged for the crime but some people were sent to jail for perjury for lying about events during the case or in the case of Moritz Lewy, Adolfs son falsely sentenced for perjury because he couldn't remember if he had ever met Winter on the street.

Smith does a great job laying out the events of the crime and succeeding events as well as looking at all the people involved and analyzing their motives. My only real problem this the book was the chapter that accounts for the history and origin of the blood ritual charge. While it was interesting, I felt it took away from the main point of the book which was the Konitz Affair and the antisemitism during the event but could see why it was included so as to give the reader an idea why the people believed what they did. Although I think he makes up for it with the last chapter the presents some compelling cases as to who probably really killed Winter and why.

I also found it interesting that the authority throughout the affair never believed the Blood ritual charge and that it was mainly the poor and middle class who promoted it in what was for the most part settlements of old grudges. Another interesting point Smith makes is that it seemed that Germans of Catholic persuasion tended to be the majority of the persecutors during this time while the majority of blood ritual accusation happened predominantly in Protestant towns. It's rather sad that only 40 years later instead of protecting the Jewish people of Germany they would take part in their extinction allowing neighbors to turn on neighbor with no protection for the victims at all.

Overall if you're interested in cases of antisemitism prior to WW2 and/or are interested in trying to understand how you get to the outcome of the Holocaust this is a great book to pick up, as it show trends that might have been contributing factors. Furthermore, Smith as a nice writing style that at times makes you think you are reading a crime thriller and he as meticulously researched the event to create a very though provoking book on how easy it is for us to slide into our prejudges. ( )
  bakabaka84 | Nov 14, 2012 |
The Butcher's Tale is a very good, and very interesting book. The "Tale" centres on a particular event---the murder, and dismemberment, of a young man in the small town of Konitz in March, 1900 which turned into a huge anti-semitic protest because, in public opinion, the murder was attributed to a Jewish butcher as an example of the age-old libel about Jews killing Christians to get their blood. What makes the book particularly interesting is that Smith not only explores the event itself, and comes up with a well-reasoned theory as to who might actually have committed the murder, but he goes much further in exploring the meaning and the dynamic of the reaction to the murder and the strong anti-semitic element that it took on. He does so by drawing on historical analysis, sociology, anthropology, psychology, and communications and literary theories. The following sums up his approach:

"Process is what makes latent anti-Semitism manifest, transforming private enmity and neighborly disputes into the blood-stained canvases of persecutory landscapes. In one context, the whispers of rumor and the wages of private malice all on heedless ears; in another, they unleash a murderous dynamic. The preexistence of anti -Semitism, nationalism, or racism influences outcomes, but the outcome cannot be fully understood by a static measure of attitudes, anti-Semitic or otherwise. Looking at the process, we see historical forces converging: how local enmities become potent symbols resonating with larger antagonisms; how spiteful stories and tavern tales are elevated to public spectacle; and how these tales conform to a preexisting pattern of political and religious beliefs. We can also see how the accusations shift relations of power and support political agendas, and how people caught up in the resulting dynamic come to believe the objective truth of their own lies."

It is interesting to note that throughout the various events and investigations, the authorities never gave any credence to the accusation of ritual murder and they saw the wild and implausible accusations for what they were, and often punished those perpetrators for perjury. It was also the authorities who twice called in the army to make sure that demonstrations and high feelings did not get out of hand. This, as Smith points out, was a key point: "In 1900, imperial Germany safeguarded the rule of law and ensured the protection of its citizens, including Jews. Four decades later, the Third Reich attempted to annihilate the Jews...and encouraged violence. In this Hobbesian perspective, the state remains the only barrier between us and the hatchets of our neighbors, and, as a corollary, in 1900 only the Prussian army saved the Jews of Konitz from the clubs and axes of ‘ordinary Germans'".

Well documented, well researched, well written; a thoughtful and thought-provoking book. ( )
  John | Feb 18, 2007 |
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The greater part of historical and natural phenomena are not simple, or not simple in the way we would like. - Primo Levi

When all is said and done, a single word, "understanding" is the beacon light of our studies - Marc Bloch
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For Merke "Not until all the hills are flat..."
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A murder occured on a Sunday night, March 11, 1900, in Konitz, a small town on the eastern reaches of the German Empire in what is now Poland.
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Book description
In 1900, in a small Prussian town, a young boy was found murdered, his body brutally dismembered, the blood drained from his limbs. Local Christians quickly accused their Jewish neighbors of ritual murder-the infamous blood-libel charge that has haunted Jews for centuries-and rosr up in a maelstrom of anti-Semitic riots and demonstrations. Historian Helmut Walser Smith meticulously recontructs the murder, the investigation that followed, and the anti-Semitism that engulfed this otherwise peaceful town, providing a tragic foreshadowing of the violence that would sweep across Eastern Europe three decades later. (978-0-393-32-5205-8)
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0393325059, Paperback)

One of the most dramatic explorations of a German town in the grip of anti-Semitic passion ever written.

In 1900, in a small Prussian town, a young boy was found murdered, his body dismembered, the blood drained from his limbs. The Christians of the town quickly rose up in violent riots to accuse the Jews of ritual murder—the infamous blood-libel charge that has haunted Jews for centuries. In an absorbing narrative, Helmut Walser Smith reconstructs the murder and the ensuing storm of anti-Semitism that engulfed this otherwise peaceful town. Offering an instructive examination of hatred, bigotry, and mass hysteria, The Butcher's Tale is a modern parable that will be a classic for years to come. Winner of the Fraenkel Award. A Los Angeles Times Best Book of 2002. 4 pages of illustrations

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:37:47 -0400)

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W.W. Norton

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