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March 11: The Blood Libel in 1900

March 11, 2016

ritualmurderWhen Ernst Winter, a 19-year-old who liked to party, disappeared on this date in 1900 in Konitz, West Prussia, he was thought to have fallen through the ice while skating on the lake. Two weeks later, his dismembered body was found in the lake and at various sites, leading police to suspect the father of a young woman whom Winter had been buttering up; the father, a butcher, had publicly threatened the young man. Anti-Semites and their favored media, however, leveled blood libel charges against local Jews, leading to a trial, convictions for perjury, riots against Jews and Jewish property, and a nationwide elevation of anti-Semitic propaganda and tensions. According to Hillel J. Kieval in the YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe, “During the last two decades of the 19th century and the first decade and a half of the 20th -- following a relative hiatus of close to 300 years -- public accusations against Jews for the crime of ‘ritual murder’ proliferated throughout Central Europe. One turn-of-the-century observer detailed no fewer than 128 public accusations of Jewish ritual murders during the years 1881 to 1900.... The majority of... [these] claims . . . may never have gone beyond rumor-mongering or sensational reporting in the mass media. It is equally conceivable that dozens of accusations were followed up by criminal investigations of varying duration and intensity. What is truly remarkable is that . . . Germany, Austria, Hungary, and Russia . . . chose formally to prosecute Jewish defendants at six public trials between 1879 and 1913” -- including in the Konitz Affair.

“In each of the states in question, the prosecutors and ministry officials who made the decision to conduct formal criminal investigations and, eventually, to prosecute the Jewish defendants did so while trying to maintain their identity as scientifically trained, bureaucratic rationalists. Their cases also relied to a large extent on the opinions of a variety of expert witnesses — physicians, forensic scientists, criminologists, theologians, and academic scholars of Judaism — whose testimony appeared to provide the modern ritual murder accusation an aura of scientific respectability. Far from being a throwback to the middle ages, the modern ritual murder trial was, in fact, a product of post-Enlightenment politics, fears, and conventional wisdoms.” —Hillel J. Kieval