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.