Who was Joseph Oppenheimer, and why was he killed?

Yair Mintzker doesn't know. He's more interested in why other historians keep trying to write a 19th-century novel about the 18th-century case.

At the center of Yair Mintzker’s book is the blank shape of the man whose trial and death he recounts. Joseph Oppenheimer, known as “Jew Süss,” was a “court Jew” who was executed in 1758 in Württem­berg after being accused of various financial and moral crimes. Historians possess an unusually rich trove of documents pertaining to Oppen­heimer’s death.

But the proliferation of documentation does not create a coherent portrait. Who was the man at the center of this controversy? What were his deepest commitments? Why did the courts go to such great lengths to prove the case against him? Who wanted him dead and why? Why did his death resonate out into the broader community, taken up in fiction and legend? The man remains a “pictorial negative space, a structuring absence.”

Mintzker does not have any more answers to these questions than did previous historians who approached this subject. He is interested, however, in pursuing a kind of history that he calls polyphonic or polyvocal. Why, he wants to know, are historians still working as if their task were to write a 19th-century novel? Why have our narrative structures not changed when so much else about our understanding of history has?