Among Wilhelm Hauff’s works, the one that probably sparks the most discussion is the novella “Jud Süß”. The material has been repeatedly adapted by other authors, composers and directors, a process that continues to this day. The most famous examples are doubtless the propaganda film by Veit Harlan in 1940, and the novel of the same name by Lion Feuchtwanger.
For us today, the question is whether Wilhelm Hauff was an Anti-Semite? Based on our current understanding – yes, probably. But in the context of his own time? In the 19th century, Anti-Judaism, the rejection of the Jewish religion, was commonplace. It was essentially considered “good form”. The term “Anti-Semitism” only surfaced in around 1880, long after Hauff’s death. That date marked a turning point. The issue was no longer to do with religious motivation. The new Anti-Semitism argued from a racist point of view and was supposedly based on science.
But Wilhelm Hauff isn’t blameless, either. With his novella, he helped to establish anti-Jewish stereotypes – which was possible mainly due to his enormous popularity in the 19th century. But also because of the taste of the reading public. They adored historical novels, even though the plots all too often glossed over the historical reality. Just as it does in the novella “Jüd Süß”.
“Jud Süß” was actually a real person. The man behind the derisive nickname was one Joseph Süß Oppenheimer. By profession, he was advisor to Duke Karl Alexander of Württemberg, who – please note – was a Roman Catholic. To repair the country’s desperate financial situation, Oppenheimer introduced a range of economic reforms. At times, his influence extended far beyond the financial sector and into domestic administration and the judicial system. For his many enemies, that was the cue to spread the rumour that he was aiming to effectively usurp the office of prime minister.
90 years had gone by since these historical events when Hauff chose Oppenheimer as the protagonist of his novella. The privy councillor on fiscal matters became a rich and powerful Jew with a “known lifestyle”. He appears untouchable, since he is in possession of a ducal edict that, in Hauff’s words “acquitted him for all time of any responsibility for matters past and future”.
But the duke dies unexpectedly – and so the edict becomes worthless. Oppenheimer is arrested and sentenced to death. In the real world, that did in fact happen in 1738. Oppenheimer was hanged on Gallows Hill in Stuttgart, and his corpse was displayed in a cage for six years. The court papers remained sealed until 1919 – so Wilhelm Hauff’s story was probably based mainly on rumours – and on the aforementioned Anti-Semitic stereotypes of the period.
You only have to look at the constellation of the characters in the novella for that to become clear. On one side, there’s the powerful Jewish financial consultant. On the other are the patriotic citizens that belong to Württemberg’s “Landstände”, the territorial estates, and are planning a coup against the duke. The duke himself doesn’t appear as a character in the novella. And that turns “Jud Süß” himself into the secret puller of strings, the true power in the state.
The conspirators, by contrast, are seen as patriots who simply want to help the duke to take up his legitimate rights. So the planned coup is not objectionable, but rather the only appropriate means by which the country can be liberated from wrongful Jewish rule. Conversely, Oppenheimer represents the despicable antithesis to this patriotism.
In the end, the revolt comes to nothing, because the duke dies – which the narrator interprets as divine intervention. According to this view, order has been restored in society.
Foto: © Wilhelm-Hauff-Museum