A Book Review of Helmut Walser Smith, 2003, ‘The Butcher’s Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town’, 1st Edition, W. W. Norton: New York
Jewish Ritual Murder is one of those subjects within anti-Semitism that many anti-Semites shy away from because they consider it to be an absurd assertion: that jews have and do ritually murder people on occasion. What tends to get overlooked within that logic - also used by the jews and apologists - is that jews do murder people and also produce their own serial killers. The heart of the jewish and philo-Semitic argument that jews could not possibly have performed ritual murder because of the Decalogue (i.e., the ten commandments) is thus not only suspect, but utterly untenable. (1) This is not to say, of course, that some jewish ritual murder cases haven’t been fabrications, because they have, but at the same time it is not plausible to generally assert that jews have not committed ritual murder just because some of the cases were discovered to have been fabricated (usually by the authorities at the time although later commentators have been quick to claim that they have ‘uncovered new evidence of a conspiracy’). (2)
Most jewish ritual murder cases occurred in and around the Middle Ages and Early Modern Europe: this isn’t to say there haven’t been others, but that rather these are the cases that we know about and we can suspect - although we cannot prove - that were many other instances of such an accusation being rightly or wrongly levelled against the jews. That said at the turn of the twentieth century there was a spate of new ritual murder cases levelled against the jews and one of the most famous of these was in the German town of Konitz in Prussia. This case perhaps fuelled purchases and interest in the best book from the philo-Semitic side of the argument to be written (3) and also inspired anti-Semitic investigation of the subject in greater detail.
This is the starting point for Walser Smith’s well-received micro-historical study of the Konitz case and to be fair and frank it does - unlike so many books in this genre - deserve the fulsome praise that has been awarded to it and its author. The book itself is an excellent example of how academic books should be written: the tone is not overly partisan (although it is obviously not an ‘objective’ study although it, of course, claims to be), the research is excellent, and the narrative is like that of a good novel. If only more academic books were written like it then there would be less of a problem with undergraduates getting horribly bored while conducting research: unfortunately as far as that goes Walser Smith is a comparative rarity.
That said however Walser Smith’s work and thesis has two major defects, which I cannot but believe that Walser Smith knows about considering that they are both fundamental to any intellectual method of writing about history that I know or have heard of.
The first of these two defects is that Walser Smith doesn’t even once consider Adolphe Lewy - the jew accused of committing the ritual murder of Ernest Winter - as a suspect. This might not seem bizarre to the reader, but it will if we state that Walser Smith goes into great detail about all the other potential non-jewish suspects in the case and applies the results of his generally excellent research into discussing whether or not these individuals could have been the killer. The problem is, of course, that he simply leaves out Lewy, which is not only decidedly odd but it also suggests that something is off regarding Walser Smith’s scholarship.
Why leave out Lewy?
I can see only two plausible situations which could motivate Walser Smith to make so absurd a claim by implication:
1) Walser Smith believes that Lewy does not merit consideration, because he sees Lewy as a victim of anti-Semitic prejudice and therefore there is no reasonable possibility in Walser Smith’s mind that a jew - or more specifically Lewy- could have possibly committed the crime.
2) Walser Smith believes that Lewy actually committed the crime that was ascribed to him and that in order to prevent Lewy coming under suspicion Walser Smith tacitly ‘forgets’ to include him as a suspect in his analysis purely focusing on possible non-jewish perpetrators as this would force Walser Smith to engage in an analysis, which would show almost inevitably show Lewy to be the most plausible suspect (and therefore destroy his whole thesis in the process).
If we reflect on these two positions we must further take into consideration that Walser Smith does not throughout ‘The Butcher’s Tale’ analyse any jewish potential suspect and only analyses non-jewish ones. This is notable because from Walser Smith account he notes that the finger of suspicion quickly pointed towards the jews and Adolphe Lewy was certainly not the only jew to be singled out. That said he was however the only jew to be seriously investigated, but this does not mitigate Walser Smith’s omission, because Walser Smith analyses rumoured (and not seriously investigated) non-jewish potential suspects so why not the jewish ones?
I am tempted to suggest that the first solution is the more probable one. On the grounds that it focuses on the common rationale in academic literature on jewish history and anti-Semitism to simply start off with the assumption that jews are not guilty of what they have been accused of and are thus perpetual ‘victims’. (4) The second involves more assumptions and thus is less probable, but the fact that Walser Smith systematically suppresses all jewish potential suspects could be held to suggest that Walser Smith’s research led him to a potentially anti-Semitic conclusion, which would not have been endorsed by the academic community (for to even suggest that a jew may have committed the murder in a jewish ritual murder case is intellectual ‘heresy’ of the highest order). (5) It is impossible to decide between the two possibilities, but we must err on the side of caution and suggest that the first situation is more likely than the second, but we cannot rule the second situation out either.
By not considering Lewy or any other jewish potential subject; Walser Smith plays to his kosher academic audience as his book reinforces pro-jewish stereotypes but it also detracts from the intellectual rigour of the book, which is otherwise excellent in its micro-historical narrative and attention to detail. It is not my purpose here to outline the - in my opinion - substantial case against Lewy as the murderer of Ernest Winter, which I will do elsewhere at a later date once I have the opportunity to collect the primary and secondary literature on the subject. I merely point out to the reader that the case against Lewy is substantial and that despite Walser Smith’s intellectual dishonesty in not analysing Lewy as a suspect. He does a fine job (inadvertently) of discrediting all the other suspects with his otherwise rigorous analysis. In some ways we may compare Walser Smith’s analysis of the Konitz ritual murder case and his inadvertent strengthening of the case against Lewy in ‘The Butcher’s Tale’ to James Burnham’s brilliant, supposed defence, but actual inadvertent indictment of democracy as a political system in his ‘The Machiavellians’. We must therefore offer Walser Smith our thanks for producing such a useful book for anti-Semites to use as a means to defend an anti-Semitic interpretation of the Konitz jewish ritual murder case.
The second of the two defects of ‘The Butcher’s Tale’ can be found in Walser Smith’s citation of the primary accounts of the event. This may be summarised simply as a massive imbalance in the credibility he gives to one side of the debate’s literature and his absolute rejection without critical analysis of the other side’s literature. To be specific: Walser Smith endorses all philo-Semitic interpretations and reportage of the case from the era of the trial as being ‘factual’ and/or ‘reliable’, while he automatically rejects all anti-Semitic interpretations and reportage of the Konitz case as being ‘fiction’ and/or ‘unreliable’. Walser Smith’s rationale for this is simply: if he judges something as anti-Semitic then it is based on irrational hatred of the jews and therefore is unlikely to be ‘fact-based’, because it is coloured with irrationality and selective interpretation. (6)
We may find irony in this in so far as Walser Smith does not even stop to consider that if this is true of anti-Semitic interpretations and reportage of the Konitz case then it must ipso facto be equally true of the opposing philo-Semitic interpretations and reportage that Walser Smith cites with intellectual gusto. We must disagree with Walser Smith here, because he is using a double standard to support his intellectual work and by not citing the anti-Semitic literature with an equal amount of credibility attached to its arguments then Walser Smith is engaging in selective interpretation, which as my reader will likely know is the bane of many an academic field particularly in the humanities and the social sciences. In essence Walser Smith’s work should be regarded as a philo-Semitic work that engages in active propaganda for jews, but at the same time is of much value to the anti-Semitic cause for its trenchant and often devastating analysis of the non-jewish suspects, which generally points to the one conclusion that Walser Smith is so desperate to avoid: Adolphe Lewy committed the murder of Ernest Winter. Whether or not it was a genuine case of ritual murder is far harder to ascertain, but on balance I think we must suspect that it probably was not, but rather the murder of a gentile by a jew.
We may then surmise that these two defects; while very important to keep in mind while reading and using Walser Smith’s work for the anti-Semitic cause, do not impinge on Walser Smith’s otherwise very useful and scholarly account of the Konitz ritual murder case. We merely need to get beyond Walser Smith’s platitudes and into the meat of his arguments to find much to interest us as rational and informed critics of jews. It is perhaps redundant to say that if the reader is interested in jewish ritual murder then Walser Smith’s ‘The Butcher’s Tale’ should be high on their list of books on the subject to acquire.
(1) The argument flows from the idea that because the jews are forbidden to murder [their kinsfolk - i.e., other jews - if you consult the latest scholarly works on the subject] they are therefore innocent. By the same taken we might argue that a Christian couldn’t possibly have committed the crime for exactly the same reason! Who could have committed the crime then? A ghost: perhaps? For an example of this type of reasoning in action see Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, 1988, ‘The Myth of Ritual Murder: Jews and Magic in Reformation Germany’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven, especially pp. 137-151.
(2) For example see Jonathan Frankel, 1997, ‘The Damascus Affair: “Ritual Murder,” Politics, and the Jews in 1840’, 1st Edition, Cambridge University Press: New York, which advances a ‘conspiracy’ thesis. Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia offers a similar explanation in his 1992, ‘Trent 1475: Stories of a Ritual Murder Trial’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven and also in his ‘The Myth of Ritual Murder’, Op. Cit., pp. 86-110.
(3) Hermann Strack, Anon. (Trans.), 1909, , ‘The Jew and Human Sacrifice: Human Blood and Jewish Ritual’, 1st Edition, Bloch: New York. This work went through at least eight editions in the original German in eighteen years, which gives the reader some idea of its importance and it is one of the few truly scholarly works from either side on this most controversial of subjects. Two other very important philo-Semitic (by a jew no less) studies which touch on this topic are Joshua Tractenberg, 1939, ‘Jewish Magic and Superstition: A Study in Folk Religion’, 1st Edition, Behrman’s Jewish Book House: New York and Joshua Tractenberg, 1943, ‘The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and its Relation to Modern Antisemitism’, 1st Edition, Yale University Press: New Haven.
(4) For a recent detailed discussion of this please see Elliot Horowitz, 2007, ‘Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence’, 1st Edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton, pp. 192-198
(5) A very recent example of this is the suppression of Ariel Toaff’s, 2007, ‘Blood Passover’, which credited the Trent ritual murder case as being genuine and offered a very different perspective on it than that offered by Hsia: the main recent philo-Semitic author on the subject. It should be noted that prior to this and still to this day Ariel Toaff is a well-known jewish studies scholar and his works are often cited in relation to jewish communities around the Mediterranean.
(6) Walser Smith’s interpretation can be considered little different from popular anti-Semitic accounts of the Konitz case for example see Hellmut Schramm’s, 1941, ‘Der jüdische Ritualmord: Eine historische Untersuchung’, 1st Edition, Hammer Verlag: Berlin, pp. 289-332