“Drowning Men Grasping at a Straw.” Humoristicke listy (Funny Pages), Prague, September 1899. Cartoon depicting Leopold Hilsner with Alfred Dreyfus, the French Jew convicted of espionage and recently pardoned by the French government, grasping at the straw of “denial” of guilt. (National Museum, Prague)

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Hilsner Affair

Political and cultural controversy surrounding the murder trials of Leopold Hilsner, a Jew from eastern Bohemia, in 1899 and 1900. The case involved an accusation of Jewish “ritual murder,” which was understood by most observers to lie at the heart of the prosecution.

On the morning of 29 March 1899, 19-year-old Anežka Hrůzová walked the 3.5 kilometers from her home in the Czech village of Malá Vĕžnice to the neighboring town of Polná, using a path that ran alongside the Březina woods, much as she had done nearly every day that month. Recently Anežka had taken on work as an assistant to a seamstress whose house stood adjacent to Polná’s Jewish quarter. She failed to return that evening to the home that she shared with her widowed mother, Marie, and her older brother, Jan. Three days later (1 April 1899—the day before Easter in Catholic countries) Anežka’s body was discovered face down, partially clothed, her bloodied head wrapped in part of her torn blouse. Leopold Hilsner (1876–1928), an unemployed journeyman shoemaker of somewhat unsavory reputation, who lived with his mother in the basement level of the German Jewish school through the charity of the Polná Jewish community, was arrested and eventually put on trial for Anežka’s murder.

The Hilsner Affair constituted the third major ritual murder trial to take place in East Central Europe in 16 years (the other two occurred in Tiszaeszlár, Hungary, in 1883 and in Xanten, province of Prussia, German Empire, in 1892) and would soon be followed by a fourth sensational case, which transpired in Konitz (Chojnice), West Prussia (after 1918, Poland) in 1900–1901. [See table at Blood Libels and Host Desecration Accusations.] The publicity generated by the earlier cases—together with scores of contemporary allegations that never made it to trial—created an atmosphere in which local residents were predisposed to view occurrences such as the murder of Hrůzová as ritually motivated crimes perpetrated by Jews.

“Commission over the corpse of A. Hrůzová in the Březina woods by Polná, 1 April 1899. Dr. Michálek and Dr. Prokeš make their report.” Postcard souvenir of the Leopold Hilsner case, Polná, Austro-Hungarian Empire (now in Czech Republic). (Městské muzeum Polná)

Coverage of the investigation in Czech nationalist, Catholic, and antisemitic newspapers explicitly construed the crime in such terms, while the responses provided by local medical examiners to leading questions put to them by the Kutná Hora (Kuttenberg) regional court were highly suggestive in their language. The physicians’ remarks to the court, that “on the basis of external as well as internal examination, that the body of Anežka Hrůzová was nearly completely emptied of blood, that the traces of blood found in the vicinity of the corpse did not correspond to the amount of blood, which we certainly might have expected under such circumstances of death,” were incorporated into the formal indictment against Hilsner. Finally, while the state’s attorney, Antonín Schneider-Svoboda, was content to advance the state’s theory of the case as a ritually inspired crime as much by inference and suggestion as by declarative statement, this was not the case with Karel Baxa (1863–1938), the attorney representing the victim’s family. Baxa, a Czech nationalist politician who left the Young Czech movement to form a new radical right-wing party and would go on to become the longtime mayor of Prague, reiterated the theme of Jewish ritual murder in his statements throughout the trial.

At the end of a five-day jury trial in Kutná Hora (12–16 September 1899), Hilsner was convicted of participating in aggravated murder (together with two unknown and unnamed accomplices) and sentenced to death. Both during the investigation and after the trial, riots against Jews broke out in numerous cities and towns in Bohemia and Moravia, including Polná, Jihlava (Iglau), Náchod, Deutsch Brod (Nĕmecký Brod [mod. Havlíčkův Brod]), Holešov (Holleschau), and Prague; Jewish and antisemitic deputies submitted competing interpolations in the Austrian Reichsrat; while Hilsner’s defense counsel, Zdenko Auředníček, appealed to the Supreme Court in Vienna to have the Kutná Hora verdict quashed.

It was in this atmosphere of heightened tension that Tomáš G. Masaryk (1850–1937)—the future president of Czechoslovakia, but at the time a professor of sociology at the Czech University in Prague—intervened forcefully in the affair. He urged a full review and retrial of the case in his 1899 pamphlet Nutnost revidovati process Polenský (The Need to Review the Polná Trial; German ed., Notwendigkeit der Revision des Polnaer Processes), which, though confiscated by the Austrian government, was read into the parliamentary record in the form of an interpolation and subsequently disseminated. In 1900 Masaryk directed a more substantial attack on both the Polná case and the ritual murder accusation with the publication of Význam procesu polenského pro povĕru rituální (The Meaning of the Polná Trial for the Blood Superstition; German ed., Die Bedeutung des Polnaer Verbrechens für den Ritualaberglauben). For his troubles, Masaryk was attacked by political opponents and hounded by students to such an extent that officials at the Czech University insisted that he take a leave from teaching during the 1900 winter term.

In response to Auředníček’s appeal, the court in Vienna requested the medical faculty at the Czech University in Prague to review the findings of the original medical commission and to issue an official report. The medical faculty came back with a harsh critique of the Polná doctors’ forensic work, in particular their claim that the amount of blood at the site of the corpse was conspicuously less than what one would expect in the case of a violent death. Thereupon the court nullified the original verdict and remanded the case to the regional court in the southern Bohemian city of Písek for a new trial. This time, however, Hilsner was charged with an additional count of murder: that of Marie Klímová, who had disappeared from Malá Vĕžnice in July 1898 and the condition of whose corpse—discovered a few months later—bore some resemblance to that of the Hrůzová crime scene. On instructions from the Supreme Court, the state’s attorney at the Písek trial emphatically rejected the theory of ritual murder (although Baxa, serving once again as the victim’s attorney, just as emphatically did not) and adopted instead the suggestion of the Czech medical faculty that the murders had been sexually motivated. Following a 17-day trial that ended on 14 November 1900, Leopold Hilsner once again was found guilty, this time of two murders. As earlier, he was sentenced to death, but the sentence was commuted in 1901 to life imprisonment. Shortly before the end of World War I (on 24 March 1918), Emperor Charles I granted Hilsner a pardon; he died in 1928 at the age of 52. Anežka Hrůzová’s killer was never found, although suspicion has been directed from time to time at various individuals, including her brother Jan Hrůz, Vincenc Zelinger, and Josef Zatřepálek.

The Hilsner trials and the surrounding controversy over Jewish “ritual murder” took place during a period of intense national conflict in Bohemia and Moravia. As a result, discourse on Jewish ritual criminality at times functioned as an indirect commentary on the national conflict between Czechs and Germans. If Jews were viewed by Czech nationalists as unreliable partners in the national struggle—if not treasonous—the motif of ritualized criminality added a potent, new dimension of antisocial danger. Newspapers were also quick to pick up on the fact that the Hilsner affair was transpiring at the same time as the retrial of Alfred Dreyfus in France, and nationalist and antisemitic cartoonists readily paired the images of Hilsner and Dreyfus, and of Masaryk and Zola, all of whom were deemed to be traitors to the nation. Less than two decades earlier, newspapers such as The Jewish Chronicle in London had been able to greet the acquittal of the Jewish defendants from Tiszaeszlár as a vindication of their faith in the principles of liberalism, reason, and progress characteristic of the nineteenth century. Yet accusations of Jewish ritual murder proliferated in the decades that followed. As people awaited Hilsner’s second trial, the Vienna correspondent for the same Jewish Chronicle proclaimed, “The ‘ritual murder’ fable is spreading like a contagion.”

Suggested Reading

Bohumil Černý, Justiční omyl: Hilsneriáda (Prague, 1990); Bohumil Černý, Milan Šup, et al., Hilsneriáda (k 100. výročí 1899–1999) (Polná, Czech Rep., 1999); František Červinka, “The Hilsner Affair,” Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 13 (1968): 142–157, rpt. in Alan Dundes, ed., The Blood Libel Legend: A Casebook in Anti-Semitic Folklore, pp. 135–161 (Madison, 1991); Michal Frankl, “The Background of the Hilsner Case: Political Antisemitism and Allegations of Ritual Murder, 1896–1900,” Judaica Bohemiae 36 (2000): 34–118; Hillel J. Kieval, “Representation and Knowledge in Medieval and Modern Accounts of Jewish Ritual Murder,” Jewish Social Studies New Series 1.1 (1994): 52–72; Hillel J. Kieval, Languages of Community: The Jewish Experience in the Czech Lands (Berkeley, 2000), pp. 181–197; George (Jiří) Kovtun, Tajuplná vražda: Případ Leopolda Hilsnera (Prague, 1994); Arthur Nussbaum, Der Polnaer Ritualmordprozess: Eine kriminalpsychologische Untersuchung auf aktenmässiger Grundlage, 2nd ed. (Berlin, 1906); Miloš Pojar, ed., Hilsnerova aféra a česká společnost, 1899–1999 (Prague, 1999).