Wednesday, January 11, 2012

What am I reading? The Butcher's Tale by Helmut Walser Smith

The Butcher's Tale: Murder and anti-Semitism in a German town by Helmut Walser Smith

I've been doing quite a bit of reading over the Christmas break and since I've been making an effort to get back to the gym more regularly (if I'm torturing myself on the bike, I'm doing it while reading and listening to my ipod, thank you very much), so this isn't 'what I'm reading' so much as 'what I read before Christmas'. I would love to bring you more details from the book, but sadly when I went away for Christmas I forgot Bob's Golden Rule (heh) which is "If on the floor it be, then on it I shall pee" (Bob's words, not mine). So yeah, I foolishly left this book on the floor next to my bed, and when I came back a week later, Bob had peed all over it. Charming. Luckily enough, I had at least finished reading it.

Anyway, this book focuses on a murder that took place in Konitz, a small German (now I think Polish) town in 1900. The town's suspicions quickly turned on its Jewish inhabitants, and Walser Smith uses this incident to trace the history of the "blood libel" – the myth that Jews need the blood of Christians in order to carry out religious rituals. So yeah, it's "What Sarah Palin SHOULD have been reading". It goes back and forth between recounting what happened in Konitz – who accused the Jews and why, how anti-Semites came into the town from far afield in order to stoke the fires, theories on who the murderer might have been, etc. - and telling the broader history of blood libel accusations and anti-Semitism in Europe.

While I love a good murder mystery, I probably found the sections on the book which retraced the transmission of the blood libel idea most interesting. Walser Smith retraces how the blood libel story was formulated and passed down through time and space, flaring up at moments of tension despite having been consistently debunked (including by the Catholic Church) long before the dawn of the twentieth century. I often found myself wondering how people could still believe these things in 1900, before of course "remembering" that these sorts of beliefs and incidents are just part of the tapestry leading to the Holocaust.

Walser Smith doesn't really labour this point, but it is an interesting insight into the historical background of Nazism and a reminder that it wasn't just an isolated phenomenon based on an ideology totally foreign to contemporary Europe. It was also a reminder of how "history" (and religion) can be made into propaganda - the book recounts incidents of the cults of various saints, supposedly murdered by the Jews in the Middle Ages, being revived or plaques commemorating similar incidents being refurbished at moments when people, for whatever reason, wanted to stir up anti-Semitic feelings. History as politics. Of course, the act of remembering can also be a positive one, as with this book.

If you're interested in history in general, or any of these specific themes, I would definitely recommend this book. As a 'true crime' story, it is perhaps a little weaker, but then that's not really the point. It is popular history, but history nonetheless.


  1. So, Bob is a cat. At first, I thought that he was a dog and then a rather ill-mannered man until I searched your blog and found your "Meet Bob" post!

    The book sounds fascinating as is the subject. While reading "The Merchant of Venice", I remember heated debates about whether Shakespeare was anti-Semitic or just a product of his time. Unfortunately, we're still ready to believe negative things about people of other faiths or backgrounds when we all want pretty much the same things out of life.

  2. Ha ha, I'm a little bit more forgiving when it's a cat than if it had been a "rather" ill-mannered man :) Even so, he does try my patience sometimes. Came home to cat vomit on the bed yesterday, sigh!

    Indeed, I should have made the point that while our beliefs may sometimes be less obviously medieval these days, prejudices are alive and well. Thanks.

  3. Bob's vomit on your bed reminds me of Mlle Ella's post about her creepy psychopath. Maybe you should send him to live with Katie Milleisen - or would that be unfair to Bob? ;)

  4. MK! I just LOLed!!!! I love how it's always her full name used, never just's always Katie pauvre. Sorry Gwan to encroach on your post with my b.s!

    And it would be unfair to Bob if he lived with her..she's that awful.

    Gwan, do you have a photo of your little precious?

  5. No, Bob's already been rescued from one Bad Owner, he doesn't deserve the Katie Milleisen treatment! I could maybe work on sending some of Bob's "presents" to her though haha? He was only meant to be a temporary houseguest, but I couldn't get him into a shelter right away and then he wormed his way into my affections. Damn Bob!

    Here he is!

  6. Try to teach bob to vomit on toast or french bread. Two problems solved in a stroke!

  7. What a beautiful cat, Gwan.

    I was scared that he was going to be an orange cat and I'd have to lie and say he was so cute. But no, he is a gorgeous black kitty.

    Black cats are special, I had one in L.A (he now lives with my former landlord). I understand why he is challenging! Black cats do what ever the eff they want!

    What. a. beauty.

  8. Thanks, I'll pass that on! To be fair, he's quite a good boy. As I said, he was abandoned by his previous owner and has had to put up with going from living in a garden to living in an apartment, so he's doing quite well realy

  9. He was abandoned? I get so sad when I hear about animals getting abandoned. How mean.

    I did leave my cat in L.A with my landlady but only because she had his brother and didn't want to separate them. He definitely liked her more than me so it was the best decision for him and I still feel bad about that.

    I can't get over how cute he is...!

  10. Yeah, it's really sad, the neighbour of a friend of mine moved out and just left him in their garden! She (my friend) was putting food out for him in the garden, but of course every cat in the neighbourhood was coming to eat it and poor Bob was all starving and stressed and trying to run into my friend's apartment to eat her cat's food. So sad! So I was going to just take him until I could get him into a shelter, but they were all full because apparently a lot of people go away in August and dump their cats, so I held on to him until he sneakily stole my love. Oh, Bob!

  11. Talking about abandoned cats - a certain mutant has spen 2 nights crying outside my bedroom and is in severe danger of being parcelled off to a desret island if the person who abandoned her doesn't do something about it!

  12. Poor Mrs Beeton :( She just happy you're home and wants to spend time with you

  13. Lisa I really don't appreciate the slander online as Katie milleisen I am a very good person and your an even better writer as too describing my evil ways, sounds very convincing but your immature vengeance will never prevail karma. As you have ruined my reputation online I have built it beyond any attempt you took to real it down. I may have made one mistake but you have ruined a young girls life and name. I'm sorry I told you but I will not be publicly humiliated anymore. Email me.


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