Christoph Nonn. Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder: Gerücht, Gewalt und Antisemitismus im Kaiserreich. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2002. 248 S. + 10 Abb. EUR 19.00 (broschiert), ISBN 978-3-525-36267-9.
Reviewed by Eva Bischoff (Graduiertenkolleg Postcolonial Studies, Ludwig-Maximilians-UniversitÃƒÂ¤t MÃƒÂ¼nchen)
Published on H-German (March, 2004)
The Anti-Semitism of Ordinary People: Rumors and Riots in Prussian Konitz in 1900
The Anti-Semitism of Ordinary People: Rumors and Riots in Prussian Konitz in 1900
Why did people from different social, national and Christian backgrounds, who lived together with their Jewish neighbors without recognizable conflicts for decades, suddenly believe in a Jewish conspiracy to plot and cover up a so-called "ritual murder?" And why did they, despite the struggles they fought amongst themselves, merge into a single irrational and anti-Semitic mob (p. 8)? These are the two central questions that Christoph Nonn tries to answer in his examination of the social and political background of the anti-Semitic riots in Konitz in 1900.
After parts of the mortal remains of the nineteen-year-old high school student Ernst Winter were discovered on March 11, the small west-Prussian city was the scene of a series of violent anti-Semitic demonstrations. Twice, the Prussian military was sent to Konitz to enforce the law, since the local police forces were unable to stop the damaging and plundering of Jewish houses, shops and the synagogue of the Konitz's Jewish community. Twice, both the military and the police got involved in serious street fights with the demonstrators instead of putting an end to disorder and danger. The so-called "Konitz affair" was of great national interest (Wilhelm II insisted on being informed about the situation in Konitz regularly) and resulted in the emigration of 130 of the 480 members of the Jewish community of Konitz within the next 2 years (p. 51).
Research into the reasons and conditions of anti-Semitic violence certainly is a leitmotiv of German historiography on the Kaiserreich and the Weimar republic. The scientific and ethical horizon of these studies is the question: why was Auschwitz possible? Initiated by the controversial discussion of Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, the latency of anti-Semitic stereotypes and prejudices among "ordinary" Germans are of increasing academic (and political) interest in Germany. With his analysis of the "Konitz affair," Nonn adds a complementary perspective to this discussion: the perspective of micro-history. On the basis of the files of the Prussian Justiz-, Innen- and Kultusministerium, and of the regional and local administrations (Regierungen Marienwerder and Bromberg, Landratsamt Konitz)--which were stored in GDR archives between 1945 and 1990)--as well as the published records of three trials resulting from the events in Konitz, Nonn carefully and skillfully reconstructs the anti-Semitic stereotypes and their usage by the different historical actors involved.
From the examination of this material he claims that the main reason for the anti-Semitic riots in Konitz was the shared belief in a rumor according to which Ernst Winter was the victim of a Jewish "ritual murder" (Ritualmordgeruecht). Moreover, he argues that the circulation of this rumor and its wide dissemination among the population of Konitz were not due to a common anti-Semitic mentality but to its usefulness for the individual as well as the collective desire for social prestige. He characterizes this kind of anti-Semitism as Gelegenheits-Antisemitismus (anti-Semitism of opportunity, or rather, opportunism):
"Hinter solchem Verhalten standen keine tief verwurzelten antisemitischen Ueberzeugungen. Dafuer war nicht mehr erforderlich als die 1900 weit verbreitete Annahme, dass ein Ritualmord zumindest moeglich sei, und der Wille zur Selbstdarstellung. Solches Verhalten laesst sich als Gelegenheits-Antisemitismus charakterisieren. Sein hauptsaechlicher Antrieb war das Beduerfnis, Prestige zu gewinnen" (p. 198).
Consequently, Nonn's analyses the "Konitz affair" as a history of a rumor, starting from the point where it first appeared in the sources, following its traces through the texts of police interrogations, denunciatory statements of Konitz's citizens, testimonies in trials, official reports of the local civil servants to their superiors in Berlin and articles in local, regional or national newspapers or publications of more or less open anti-Semitic attitude. Nonn's study falls in two sections: in the first part (chapters 1 to 4) he presents a reconstruction of the events and the spread of the rumor of the "ritual murder" in Konitz from March to June 1900 whereas in the second part (chapters 5 to 8) he considers these events in the context of the political and social questions on a regional as well as a national scale (the political climate in Konitz, integration of the Jewish population, anti-Semitism among civil servants and the role of anti-Semitic organizations and the press).
From his reconstruction of the events in Konitz, he develops two explanations for the success of the Ritualmordgeruecht: first, its usefulness for different individual and collective agendas. Through a breathtakingly detailed reading of the sources, Nonn shows how the conservative member of the city council, Gustav Hoffmann, promoted the rumor to distract the public attention from the police investigations against himself and his daughter, how the rumor fueled the regional political conflict between German and Polish nationalists--actualized by the by-elections to the Prussian Landtag in 1900 in which the Jewish electors of German citizenship played a crucial role in securing the parliamentary majority for the German interests--or how local intellectuals, whose social and professional situations were unsatisfying and insecure, tried to prove themselves as valuable members of the community. They led the informal investigations against "the Jews" in form of a self-declared "committee of surveillance" (Ueberwachungskommittee), thereby giving legitimacy and authority to anti-Semitic accusations.
The second reason for the success of the rumor of a Jewish conspiracy around a so-called "ritual murder" was, as Nonn argues, its explanatory power as part of the alternative grape-vine news that flourished in the atmosphere of fear following the police failures. It offered a missing explanation where official investigations failed to give satisfactory answers because of grave methodological and psychological mistakes. Nonn argues that this widespread fear and feeling of insecurity has to be seen as the basis and the starting point of the riots in Konitz in 1900 (p. 54).
Moreover, the rumor of the "ritual-murder" perfectly fit into the general narrative framework of rumors: it could be told in the form of a fascinating story of blood and mystery. In fact, it could be told in form of many stories because everybody who had a Jewish neighbor or business partner could participate and tell his or her own version. And as the Jewish citizens of Konitz led their life in a more or less segregated circle--formally fully included into the community (i.e. the men as full citizens of the German nation state), yet excluded socially (e.g. organized in exclusively Jewish clubs and associations, with practically no religiously mixed marriages)--they lived at a middle social distance to their fellow citizens. This made business contact between Christians and Jews a rule but left many uncertainties and questions about the private life and the belief of the Jewish citizens of Konitz in the minds of their Christian neighbors.
According to Nonn, it was especially the narrative qualities of the story that distinguished the rumor of the "ritual murder" from any other alternative explanation that was popular in contemporary Konitz. Most important among them was a rumor that claimed Ernst Winter to be the victim of a so-called Lustmord. In this version of the story of the murder, one or the other of two male Konitz citizens, who were commonly assumed to be homosexuals, killed Ernst Winter in a sexual frenzy. Nonn argues that the prudish Victorian mentality of the period made it impossible to talk about sexuality openly and that therefore this alternative explanation was not available for public discussion. Whereas the story of the "ritual murder" could be told and retold by many speakers, openly discussing bloodshed, murder and even alluding to sexuality without transgressing the bourgeois standards of respectability.
Nonn's study is an impressive and detailed exemplary analysis of role of anti-Semitism in the society of the Kaiserreich. By scrutinizing readings of the sources, he is able to pinpoint the protagonists of the anti-Semitic rumor of the "ritual murder" and reconstruct the individual and collective agendas that were connected to it--micro-history at its very best. But at the end of the study, the reader is left with a number of nagging questions. Nonn convincingly reconstructs the different agendas of the social actors involved. Not all of them, in fact not even most of them, were motivated by the desire for social prestige. To name but a few examples that Nonn describes himself: a conservative member of the city council who wanted to disperse the suspicion against himself by actively promoting the rumor, a maid servant who tried to use the rumors as a weapon in her conflicts with her Jewish employers, and several civil servants who hinted at a Jewish conspiracy to cover up an assumed "ritual murder" in their reports to Berlin in order to find a scapegoat to blame for their failures. Additionally, the rumors were used as a strategic argument in the conflict between the Polish majority and the German minority in the political struggle before the by-elections of the Prussian Landtag. In contrast to this, Nonn repeatedly stresses the importance of the urge for recognition and social prestige (Geltungsbeduerfnis), as the driving force behind the spreading of the rumor. But why limit the explanatory model to a monocausal one, if the reading of the sources suggests a multicausal explanation? The latter explanation is also favored by a parallel study on the "Konitz affair" by Helmut Walser Smith, also published in 2002. Apart from the individual desire for social prestige, Nonn also diagnoses a collective desire for recognition among the Konitz population that made it an easy prey for anti-Semitic agitators and journalists. As part of the rural periphery of the German nation-state, Nonn argues, the population of Konitz developed a collective inferiority complex that resulted in a simultaneous desire for and hatred of everything that was connected to the center, to Berlin. In contrast to the official investigators who refused to take the accusations of a "ritual murder" seriously, the anti-Semites from the world outside were prepared to listen to the stories the people of Konitz wanted to tell. These men gave the population of Konitz the attention and recognition it had longed for. Moreover, they published the local rumors and individual stories in newspapers like the Staatsbuerger-Zeitung, where they could be appreciated by a nationwide audience. Thus, according to Nonn, the people of Konitz did not necessarily share the political conviction of organized anti-Semitism and were not manipulated by them, but used every opportunity to gain respect and prestige from outside their parochial world.
Diagnosing an inferiority complex for the population of a whole city seems a bit far-fetched for a critical reader. Yet it demonstrates Nonn's determination to show the various usages of the rumor of the "ritual murder" and makes a strong argument for the historical agency of Konitz citizens by conceptualizing them not as seduced victims of anti-Semitic propaganda but as self-determined historical actors, pursuing their own agendas. This argument that is made on the basis of a detailed micro-historical analysis and should be taken seriously, however critical a reader may be towards the psychological analysis of group mentalities. Nevertheless, this interpretation implies a cleavage between "real anti-Semites" and the "opportunistic anti-Semites" (Gelegenheitsantisemiten). Who was who? According to Nonn's description of the Konitz affair, the local population has to be characterized as Gelegenheitsantisemiten. The "real anti-Semites" in Nonn's study are outsiders: either the members of anti-Semitic parties and the anti-Semitic national press, trying to instrumentalize the locals for their racist political aim, or the officials in the Prussian administration sitting in Berlin (noblemen, conservatives, mostly incompetent and getting jobs only by good connections), believing in the tale of a Jewish conspiracy to cover up a "ritual murder" that was told by their subordinates who needed a scapegoat for their own failures to save their careers. But what would be the result of a micro-study of the every day life of the Prussian administration or the Staatsbuerger-Zeitung? What exactly is anti-Semitism, if not a shared set of discriminating stereotypes and prejudices that different social actors can successfully relate to?
Apart from all these questions, Nonn's study is an impressive analysis of an example that demonstrates not the functioning of anti-Semitism as a cultural code that signaled a political standpoint  but the usage of its elements (like the rumor of the "ritual murder") to promote individual and collective goals. Most impressive is his analysis where it demonstrates the consequences of hate speech in the form of the anti-Semitic rumor and the influence that individual choices had on the development of a pogrom-like atmosphere in Konitz. Moreover, it is beautifully written and as fascinating a read as any detective novel, but manages not to lose its analytical grip (rare enough among German historiography). As such, the book is to be strongly recommended for teaching the history of anti-Semitism in Germany in secondary schools or undergraduate classes at universities.
. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York: Knopf 1996) and as a recent representation of the discussion initiated by it, Geoff Eley, ed., The "Goldhagen Effect": History, Memory, Nazism--Facing the German Past (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2000).
. Points of reference for his historical study of a rumor are: Jean-Noel Kapferer, Geruechte (Leipzig: Kiepenheuer, 1997); Gordon W. Allport/Leo Postman, The Psychology of Rumor (New York: Russell & Russell, 1947); Tamotsu Shibutani, Improvised News: A Sociological Study of Rumor (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merill, 1966); Hans-Joachim Neubauer, Fama. Eine Geschichte des Geruechts (Berlin: Berlin-Verlag, 199.
. The title of Nonn's study alludes to this alternative rumor: "Eine Stadt sucht einen Moerder," which is also the title of Fritz Lang's famous 1931 film. The film tells the story of the hunt for a serial killer and was inspired by the search for the "vampire of Duesseldorf," Peter Kuerten, in 1929-1930. Kuerten was one among several serial killers whose crimes were publicly discussed during the Weimar Republic. Unlike Nonn's implicit assumption, the discussion was not dominated by a discourse on sexuality but on moral decay and disintegration. See Maria Tatar, Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Weimar Germany (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).
. Helmut Walser Smith, The Butcher's Tale: Murder and Anti-Semitism in a German Town (New York and London: W. W. Norton, 2002).
. Shulamit Volkov, "Antisemitismus als kultureller Code," in: Shulamit Volkov, Juedisches Leben und Antisemitismus im 19. und 20. Jahrhundert (Muenchen: Beck, 1990), pp. 13-36, here p. 23.
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Eva Bischoff. Review of Nonn, Christoph, Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder: Gerücht, Gewalt und Antisemitismus im Kaiserreich.
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Copyright © 2004 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.