Produced at the behest of Joseph Goebbels, the 1940 film Jud Süss expressed Nazi anti-Semitism at its most vulgar. It was a distorted version of the true story of Joseph Süss Oppenheimer, who served as a “court Jew” to Duke Carl Alexander of Württemberg and was arrested immediately after the duke’s death and then executed. Yair Mintzker’s recent The Many Deaths of Jew Süss explores the conflicting accounts of Oppenheimer’s trial and last days. In his review, Jonathan Karp explains the often misunderstood role of the court Jew:
[The] phenomenon of the court Jew . . . had its roots in the 16th century and flowered in the period following the Thirty Years War. The proliferation of large and small states [in what is now Germany] after the 1648 Peace of Westphalia, along with the war’s decimation of population and property, created an urgent need on the part of Central Europe’s new rulers for capital and credit. Jews, who had been excluded from most of Central Europe, . . . were now invited in small numbers to come back as creditors, financiers, ministers, crown merchants, and military suppliers.
They weren’t popular, which isn’t surprising given that they were now stigmatized both as aliens and as willing tools of new absolutist states which were seeking to bypass the fiscal authority of estates, guilds, and other traditional institutions. This made the court Jew and his retinue entirely dependent on the ruler’s protection—and uncertain continued favor. . . .
But Joseph Süss . . . stood out even in comparison [with his] wealthier and more powerful predecessors. . . . For one thing, during his rise [he] all but failed to pay the kind of lip service to traditional Jewish observance that the Jewish community expected of court Jews. Worse still, his aristocratic pretensions, numerous reported affairs, and overt political interventions threatened the fragile security of Württemberg’s fledgling Jewish population. In spite of these things, Oppenheimer’s refusal to renounce Judaism on the eve of his execution turned him into a genuine if unlikely martyr for some contemporary Jews.