Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Wandering Court Jew and the Hand of God: Wilhelm Hauff's Jud Suss as Historical Fiction

Academic journal article The Modern Language Review

The Wandering Court Jew and the Hand of God: Wilhelm Hauff's Jud Suss as Historical Fiction

Article excerpt

Though rarely read today, Wilhelm Hauff's Jud Suss is a watershed work in German cultural history. Published in July 1827 in Cotta's Morgenblatt fur gebildete Stande, where Hauff himself worked as editor, the novella established the story of Josef Suss-Oppenheimer, financial advisor and general factotum under Duke Karl Alexander of Wurttemberg (1733-37), as legitimate literary and historical subject-matter. In the course of the next 150 years, some 100 to 200 literary works (1 were to retell the tale of Suss-Oppenheimer's mercurial rise from the Heidelberg ghetto and spectacular 1738 execution, after a notoriously unfair trial, for the crimes of extortion, office-selling, defamation of the monarchy, and high treason. Addressing a number of nineteenth-century social issues, especially those of Jewish emancipation and mainstream integration, this life story would prove extremely malleable. Almost by turns, the Suss figure was to emerge in successive retellings of the narrative as both a hero and a villain. Lion Feuchtwanger's novel Jud Suss of 1925, which makes the protagonist a hero for his refusal to convert to Christianity, would represent the apotheosis of the 'pro-Suss' tendency. The corresponding racist depth would come a scant fifteen years thereafter with Veit Harlan's now notorious film of the same title, where Suss appears as a scheming coward. Hauff's novella prefigures both the would-be philo-Semitic and anti-Semitic treatments of the Suss-Oppenheimer story and, as such, rehearses the entangled logic of emancipation and chauvinism so prominent in the German nineteenth century. (2) This article examines how the two sides of Jud Suss fit together.

The most immediate impression is that they do not. From the novella's first pages, a radical disjuncture makes itself felt between the levels of discours and histoire, (3) between the narrator's constant, passionately advanced rhetoric of tolerance and a plot line in which the removal of the corrupt finance minister, and indeed of the Jews as a people, is crucial to the survival of the native community. The discrepancy manifests Hauff's dual aims for his narrative: his open fictionalization of the Suss-Oppenheimer story and his ambition of capturing the true essence of actual events from the past. In constructing his plot, he borrows liberally from literary models such as Walter Scott and avails himself of a range of what we today might consider crass anti-Jewish stereotypes. (4) Yet he is also concerned with maintaining the empirical authority of the historical record. Through his narrator, Hauff often draws attention to source material, even on those occasions when it seemingly contradicts the main thrust of his own narrative. The result is a work that says one thing and does another. To make sense of such a text, it is necessary to examine Hauff's strategies for transforming Suss-Oppenheimer into Jud Suss, especially his conscious deviations from the available historical record. (5) These moments of authorial intervention provide a record of Hauff's own attitudes and desires vis-a-vis history, suggesting why he chose to tell his story as he did. Moreover, investigating them allows us today to comment on a number of crucial issues in German Studies. Jud Suss is a very good place to start looking at, among other things, the parallel construction of minority and majority identity, the evolution of stereotypes over time, and the relation of both to standards of coherence for literary and historical narratives.

Any investigation into strategies of fictionalizing history involves reconstructing audience response, a rather frustrating enterprise for a story that appeared in serial form and did not attract a neat corpus of reviews. None the less, there can be little doubt that Hauff was a major writer and that the novella exercised an influence on generations of readers. At the tender age of twenty-five, the author of Jud Suss had become the literary editor of the most prestigious belletristic journal of the time and had already acquired a reputation as a German Walter Scott. …

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