Becoming Austrians: Jews and Culture between the World Wars

By Lisa Silverman | Go to book overview

1 COURTS OF INJUSTICE
FOUR TRIALS, THREE MURDERS, TWO JEWS

The libel trial at the courtroom in Hietzing, a leafy outer district of Vienna bordering the Wienerwald, began like any other. On June 19, 1928, judge, jury, witnesses, lawyers, court guards, and secretary assumed their roles in the service of justice.1 Jewish editor Bruno Wolf stood accused of libel for his public claim that Oskar Pöffel had blackmailed firms into advertising in the newspaper—the very firms Poffel covered as editor of the Neues Wiener Journals financial section. But before the judge could call the first witness, Pöffel himself calmly pulled a pistol from his pocket and fired six shots. Two of them hit Wolf, two hit the wall, one hit the briefcase of Wolf’s lawyer, and another brushed a table. As the judge testified seven months later at the murder trial in his new role as witness, he immediately called for the guard and rushed over to Wolf, who lay face down on the courtroom floor. “Because he moved his foot I thought he might only be hurt, so that’s why I called for the ambulance.” Another witness, the courtroom secretary, recalled that Póffel shot at Wolf even after he had fallen. “I went right over there and raised Wolf’s head. His blood ran over my hands.”2 Wolf died before the ambulance arrived.

The setting of the murder in the middle of a Viennese courtroom had both profound and ironic consequences. To be sure, every trial is a performance of sorts in which all involved assume roles as prosecutors, defendants, witnesses, judges, and jurors. But the trial for the murder of Bruno Wolf that began nearly seven months later turned into an unusual repeat performance that cast former judges, lawyers, and court guards from the first trial in new roles on a different stage as witnesses, in which they were compelled to revisit and reenact their earlier roles.3 As newspaper reporters and even the state prosecutor quickly noticed, instead of focusing on the murder, the trial not only replayed the original libel case but also carried it even further. It seemed that instead of Pöffel, on trial were prominent, mainly Jewish, businessmen and publishers whose names had long been associated

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