The many faces of 'Jud S??'

The ongoing resonance of an 18th century anti-Semitic scandal.

Jud S?? 248.88 (photo credit: )
Jud S?? 248.88
(photo credit: )
Ferdinand Marian couldn't take it anymore. The wide-ranging resumé of the once renowned Austrian actor had been reduced to the one role he despised having ever played - Jud Süß. It was the main role in the 1940-Nazi propaganda movie of the same title. Marian succumbed to his drinking habit and, in 1946, died in a car crash on a country road in Freising in Bavaria. To this day, there have been consistent, yet never quite proven, rumors that it was suicide. If it were true, then the story of the German-Jewish court Jew Joseph Süß Oppenheimer (a.k.a. Jud Süß) - hanged in 1738 - would have found its last victim 300 years later - in the same vicinity. IT WAS an offer he couldn't refuse: When Prince Carl Alexander, who had just become duke of Württemberg, asked Joseph Süß Oppenheimer in January 1734 to become his court Jew, Oppenheimer couldn't pass. He would be the duke's confidential adviser as well his assistant in regulating financial affairs. Süß was 36, and about to reach unprecedented success: The duchy monopoly on certain products (leather, tobacco, liquor, mint, etc.), as proposed by Oppenheimer, yielded an unprecedented prosperity for the state. Oppenheimer, who rose up the ladder to councillor of finance, used his new power to enable the settlement of Jews at Ludwigsburg, despite legal constraints. Success, of course, attracts foes, of which the prince had more than enough to begin with. They also found a perfect scapegoat in the figure of Oppenheimer, or Jud Süß (Süß also means "sweet"), as he was referred to already during his life. He seemed to embody every anti-Semitic prejudice there was: Jews and money, Jews infiltrating the highest realms of government, Jews and double loyalty, etc. While the duke was alive, he protected Oppenheimer from any attacks, and declared in a decree on February 12, 1737, "that the privy councillor of finance Oppenheimer was a faithful servant of his prince and of the state, and was intent in every way upon the welfare of both, for which he deserved the thanks of all. Since instead he was persecuted by envy and ill-will to such an extent that attempts were even made to bring him into disfavor with the duke, the latter accorded him his especial protection and expressly forbade the continuation of such attacks." Then the duke died, and Oppenheimer's fate was sealed: In a show trial that would have made the Nazis proud, he was accused of fraud, embezzlement, treason and - another common motif of anti-Semitic libel - deviant sexual acts with proper German ladies. These sexual acts that most likely never took place took center stage in a trial the verdict of which was obvious from the start. Under torture, Oppenheimer confessed to everything. However, despite various efforts, he refused to do one thing: To convert to Christianity. Even on the gallows, to which he was led on February 4, 1738, he was given the opportunity to convert. Oppenheimer, however, stayed a Jew. He continued to be Jud Süß, the Jew Süß. Hanging inside a human-size cage, surrounded by a huge crowd of spectators, his last words - while a rope was tied around his neck - were those of the central prayer of Judaism, "Shema Yisrael." THUS ENDED the life of the real Jud Süß. His story, however, and his fame was just about to unravel. And how could it not have? It is the quintessential story of German Jews: The granting of citizens' rights, assimilation, rising up the social ladder. And then, when they felt the most integrated, the most accepted, the most German - it is then that they realized that society had always viewed them only as Jews. For Oppenheimer, this realization ended at the gallows. To be sure, a person in the 18th century would probably not have identified himself as "German" or a member of any other, not yet existing, nation state. However, the story at hand is a local version of the same dilemma. At the same time, this story has also been an inspiration for anti-Semites: The true biography of the court Jew, the political and financial adviser to the prince, combined with the false allegation at the trial - misconduct, treason, sexually deviant behavior - embodied the combined prejudices of Jew-haters in one person: Jud Süß. And so, as early as the 19th century, with new ideas of nationalism rising, Jud Süß became "a fascination for both philo- and anti-Semites," as Friedrich Knilli points out. Knilli is an Austrian media researcher who spent 30 years researching Jud Süß - producing countless articles, a few books, many lectures and two Internet portals ( and Knilli mentions a large number of newspaper articles, books and plays on the topic, all produced in the 19th century. "These adaptations only had success with the audience if they had a certain ambiguity about the character: Mostly, the anti-Semitic parts were put in for the entertainment, the philo-Semitic ones for edification." The best-known adaptation is by Wilhelm Hauff, Jud Süß, published in 1827. In the case of Hauff's novel, the above-mentioned ambiguity is taken a step further: His character, unlike the real Oppenheimer, finds out before execution that he is not Jewish - but prefers to die as a Jew rather than betray the community he grew up in. This artistic license does not fail to achieve its aim. After realizing that the most stereotypical of Jews is, after all, not Jewish, the reader might come to realize that - maybe - some of these stereotypes are not, either. Whether this was, indeed, Hauff's intention is another question. THE QUESTION of overlapping identities and loyalties increased in the course of the 19th century and into the 20th century, with the foundation of the first German nation state (1871), the Enlightenment and its new ideas of secularization, national self-determination and citizens' rights. As far as the Jews are concerned, this created yet another dichotomy: On the one hand, they experienced almost unprecedented rights and opportunities. At the same time, the secularization and nationalistic fervor gave birth to a new, racially-based - rather than theological - anti-Semitism, which found its expression in the pogroms in Eastern Europe, the Dreyfus trial and the vast success of many anti-Semitic publications. In a sense, it was the collective experience of the Jud Süß biography: the social rise that included its deepest fall. The culmination of this dilemma was the Weimar Republic. A state at once pioneering in some of the biggest achievements of democracy and citizens' rights and at the same time a state breeding the worst elements of militant anti-Semites. And, as we shall see, both elements would be inspired by the story of Joseph Jud Süß Oppenheimer. On one end of the spectrum is Lion Feuchtwanger, German-Jewish novelist, whose biography has the German-Jewish dilemma engraved in it, as did Oppenheimer's. Born and raised in Munich, Feuchtwanger joined the army after his university studies (he was discharged due to health reasons). He then went on to become a theater critic and novelist. In 1921-22, he wrote Jud Süß, published in 1925, a semi-fictional account of the historic figure, which shows clear traces of the Weimar Republic Jewish experience, even though the plot still takes place in the 18th century. It ends - as did Oppenheimer's real life - with the realization, just before being walked to the gallows, that assimilation had been in vain. Feuchtwanger's Jud Süß had tried to live as a German, but was always regarded as a Jew - and died as such. It is not without irony that Feuchtwanger himself shared this fate: His books were burned by the Nazis and he was bound to be killed by them. Unlike Oppenheimer, though, Feuchtwanger successfully managed to flee his pursuers. After imprisonment in France, he eventually escaped to Los Angeles, where he continued to live and write until his death in 1958. "His generation considered themselves more German in exile than they had in Germany," says Prof. Ehrhard Bahr of the University of California at Los Angeles. "Unlike their children, they always thought, spoke and wrote in German, even after living in exile for decades." BAHR, HIMSELF a German expatriate living in Los Angeles, wrote a book on the German exiles in Los Angeles titled Weimar on the Pacific: German Exile Culture in Los Angeles and the Crisis of Modernism. He knew Feuchtwanger's wife Marta, who died in 1987, a woman who devoted the remainder of her life to her late husband's legacy. Before Feuchtwanger's death, however, a movie adaptation of Jud Süß hit the theaters in 1940: It was arguably the most successful Nazi propaganda movie. Directed by Veit Harlan, the film - "based on true events," says the disclaimer at the beginning - competed with Der Ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), favored by Goebbels. Advanced screenings of Der Ewige Jude, a pseudo-documentary in which Jews are compared to rats, however, proved to be disastrous: A disgusted audience ran out of the screenings, some vomiting. What the Nazis needed, then, was less graphic propaganda: And Jud Süß, which presented all the allegations of the anti-Semitic trial as historic fact, was just that. It embodied every anti-Jewish prejudice in one figure: Jud Süß. The sexual allegations against Süß, overexaggerated in the film, fit the Nazis and their ideology quite well, especially in light of the Nuremberg Laws prohibiting relations between "Aryans" and Jews. It was a success of unprecedented kind: The movie had its premiere at the Venice Film Festival to much acclaim. And it didn't disappoint in its inciting function. Ralph Giordano, a German-Jewish journalist who survived the Holocaust in hiding, recalled the atmosphere during a screening as a storm of angry moaning and disgust passing through the seats, a relief of formerly suppressed feelings. Giordano himself was afraid to get out of his seat, for fear of being recognized and lynched. He wasn't the only one to experience that feeling: In the end, Goebbels himself had not only accepted the film, but also called it in his diaries "the first real anti-Semitic film." On the request of Himmler, it was shown to SS troops to incite them against the Jews. In the end, more than 20 million viewers saw the film. While its director, Veit Harlan, was a committed Nazi and anti-Semite who would continue to make propaganda movies for the Nazis, the main actor, Ferdinand Marian, was a tragic figure: Blackmailed into making it, he would be identified with this one role, Jud Süß, a fact that broke him. And then there was a mysterious 1941 letter from Feuchtwanger published in the Atlantic Monthly and the New York-based German-Jewish Aufbau, addressed to Harlan and the participants of Harlan's film, many of whom Feuchtwanger had known from his days in Germany. "You, dear sirs, have taken my novel, Jud Süß, and with your own additions, have turned into an anti-Semitic hate film in the sense of Streicher and his Stürmer," it read. Whether or not Harlan really based his propaganda movie on Feuchtwanger is a yet unresolved question. A theater version of Feuchtwanger's novel had hit the stage, though, including many actors who would later appear in Harlan's movie. What, however, motivated the Jewish writer to claim the rights to an anti-Semitic hate-mongering adaptation of his book? There are a few answers to this question. Knilli thinks of it as a copyright question: Both adaptations deal with the same topic and literary motifs that apply to both philo- and anti-Semites. In Knilli's view, a great injustice has been done to the Feuchtwanger family, who never had the right to the movie adaptation - and still doesn't - partly based on the book. He further mentioned a letter by Marta Feuchtwanger sent to the German federal government after her husband's death, asking for the rights. Bahr, on the other hand, disagrees concerning Feuchtwanger's letter: It should be seen as satirical, in the context of other letters he wrote to high-ranking Nazis, including Goebbels. WHILE FEUCHTWANGER'S novel became a thing of the past, Harlan's movie made headlines in the 1950s, during two denazification trials in Hamburg, accusing him and Jud Süß of "incitement to genocide." He was acquitted both times. Harlan's line of defense was that he was forced by Goebbels to direct the movie - unlikely, considering Goebbels's diary entries of the warm relations between the two. While Harlan's fans carried him on their shoulders, there were also protests. Bahr, who was still living in Germany at the time, remembers these protests: "It was an early sign of the 1968 movement, a preview of the younger German generation rebelling against their parents' willing participation in the Nazi crimes." And today? Jud Süß still inspires people, even in the 21st century. In addition to a number of theater, TV and movie adaptations, there is a permanent exhibition at the Jewish Museum of Berlin dealing with Jud Süß, the historic person and its various adaptations. Last year marked the 50th anniversary of Feuchtwanger's death, followed a year later by the 125th anniversary of his birth (July 7). Both times, his oeuvre was again the topic of conversation of the literary world, including Jud Süß. Also in 2008, a documentary on Veit Harlan hit the German theaters, ironically titled Im Schatten von Jud Süß (In the Shadow of Jud Süß). Ironic, since Harlan's life was anything but in the shadow of that infamous movie - rather, the opposite is true: Harlan thrived on the success of Jud Süß, which didn't hinder his reputation even after the war. The one person who lived in the shadow of Jud Süß was its main actor, Ferdinand Marian, possibly the last victim. He was the topic of Knilli's biography titled Ich War Jud Süß: Die Geschichte des Filmstars Ferdinand Marian (I Was Jud Süß: The Story of the Film Star Ferdinand Marian), published in 2000. This year, a feature film based on Knilli's book is being made. Some well-known German actors are said to play in it, including Tobias Moretti as Marian and Moritz Bleibtreu, of Run, Lola, Run fame as Goebbels. The movie, directed by Oskar Röhler - he wrote the screenplay with Klaus Richter and Franz Novotny - is called Jud Süß and is scheduled to be released in 2010. Knilli, who has seen the screenplay, notes that it falsifies his fact-based biography of Marian: In the movie version, Marian's wife is Jewish, while her real-life counterpart was actually Catholic. This artistic license is quite ironic considering how Wilhelm Hauff had turned Oppenheimer into a non-Jew.