Who Was Herzl?

Theodor Herzl would have been 165 this week and this coincides with my first trip to Basel – of Zionist Congress fame – so I wanted to share this wonderful piece. For any local readers I also repost here a piece of mine published in Die Jüdische Allgemeine in German a number of years ago.

Who was Theodor Herzl? I think I first heard his name as a 9 year old on a Hanoah HaTzioni camp in a song about beards and Basel. And although his name is one of the most quoted in discussions about the Jewish 20th century – and rightly so – I’ve rarely heard or read much about the personality behind the vision. So it was a pleasure a few years ago to find a long first-hand description in ‘The World of Yesterday’, the memoir of the Austrian-Jewish writer Stefan Zweig. At the peak of his fame, Zweig was the most translated author in the world but committed suicide in South America during WWII having seen the world he loved destroyed. He was given his first publishing break by the darling of the Viennese cultural and literary scene, Theodor Herzl, and his description of Herzl, placing him in his original context as it were, is very moving. To read Zweig’s description in a separate PDF click here otherwise just carry on reading


The editor of the feuilleton of the Neue Freie Presse was Theodor Herzl, and he was the first man of international stature whom I had met in my life – not that I knew what great changes he would bring to the destiny of the Jewish people and the history of our times.  His position at that point was rather contradictory and indeterminate.  He had set out to become a writer, had shown dazzling journalistic talents at an early age, and became the darling of the Viennese public first as Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, then as writer for the feuilleton.  His essays are still captivating in their wealth of sharp and often wise observation, their felicity of style and their high-minded tone, which never lost its natural distinction even when he was in cheerful or critical mood.  They were the most cultivated imaginable kind of journalism, and delighted a city that had trained itself to appreciate subtlety.  He had also had a play successfully produced at the Burgtheater, and now he was a highly esteemed man, idolised by us younger people and respected by our fathers, until one day the unexpected happened. Fate can always find a way to track down the man it needs for its secret purposes, even if he tries to hide from it.

Theodor Herzl had had an experience in Paris that shook him badly, one of those moments that change an entire life.  As Paris correspondent, he had been present at the official degradation of Alfred Dreyfus.  He had seen the epaulettes torn from the pale man’s uniform as he cried out aloud, “I am innocent.” And he had known in his heart at that moment that Dreyfus was indeed innocent, and only the fact that he was Jewish had brought the terrible suspicion of treason down on him.  As a student, Theodor Herzl had already suffered in his straightforward and manly pride from the fate of the Jews – or rather, thanks to his prophetic insight, he had anticipated all its tragic significance at a time when it hardly seemed a serious matter.  At that time, with a sense of being a born leader, which was justified by both his extremely imposing physical appearance and the wide scope of his mind and his knowledge of the world, he had formed the fantastic plan of bringing the Jewish problem to an end once and for all by uniting Jews and Christians in voluntary mass-baptism.  Always inclined to think in dramatic terms, he had imagined himself leading thousands upon thousands of Austrian Jews in a long procession to St Stephen’s Cathedral, there to liberate his persecuted, homeless people forever from the curse of segregation and hatred in an exemplary symbolic  act.  He had soon realised that this plan was impractical, and years of his own work had distracted him from the problem at the heart of his life, although he saw solving it as his true vocation.  However, at the moment when he saw Dreyfus degraded the idea of this own people’s eternal ostracism went to his heart like a dagger.  If segregation is inevitable, he said to himself, why not make it complete? If humiliation is always to be our fate, let us meet it with pride.  If we suffer from the lack of a home, let us build ourselves one!  So he published his pamphlet on The Jewish State, in which he pronounced all adaptation through assimilation and all hope of total tolerance impossible for the Jewish people.  They would have to found a new home for themselves in their old homeland of Palestine.

When this pamphlet, which was short but had the power and forcefulness of a steel bolt, was published I was still at school, but I remember the general astonishment and annoyance it aroused in bourgeois Jewish circles in Vienna.  What on earth, they said angrily, has that usually clever, witty and cultivated writer Herzl taken into his head? What stupid stuff is he saying and writing? Why would we want to go to Palestine? We speak German, not Hebrew, our home is in beautiful Austria.  Aren’t we very well off under good Emperor Franz Joseph? Don’t we make a respectable living and enjoy a secure position? Don’t we have equal rights, aren’t we loyal, established citizens of our beloved Vienna? And don’t we live in a progressive time which will do away with all religious prejudice within a few decades? If he’s a Jew who wants to help other Jews, why does he present our worst enemies with arguments, trying to segregate us from the German-speaking world when every day unites us more closely with it?  Rabbis waxed indignant in their pulpits, the managing director of the Neue Freie Press banned even the mention of the word Zionism in his allegedly progressive newspaper.  Karl Kraus, the doyen of Viennese literature and a past master of venomous mockery, wrote a pamphlet entitled A Crown for Zion, and when Theodor Herzl entered the theatre sarcastic murmurs ran through the rows of spectators: “Here comes His Majesty!”

At first Herzl could reasonably feel misunderstood – Vienna, where he thought himself most secure after enjoying years of popularity, was abandoning him, even laughing at him.  But then the answer came thundering back with such a weight of approval that he was almost alarmed to see what a mighty movement, far greater than his own person, he had called into being with his few dozen pages.  Admittedly the answer did not come from the well-situated, middle-class Western Jews with their comfortable lives, but from the great masses in the East, the Galician, Polish and Russian proletariat.  Without knowing it, Herzl’s pamphlet had fanned the heart of Judaism into flame.  The Messianic dream, two thousand years old, of the return to the Promised Land as affirmed in the holy books, had been smouldering among the ashes of foreign domination.  It was a hope and at the same time a religious certainty, the one thing that still gave meaning to life for those downtrodden and oppressed millions.  Whenever someone, whether prophet or impostor, had plucked that string in the millennia of exile, the soul of the people had vibrated in sympathy, but never so powerfully as now, never echoing back with such a clamorous roar.  One man, with a few dozen pages, had shaped a scattered and disunited throng into a single entity.

That first moment, when the idea was still taking dreamlike but uncertain shape, was to be the happiest in Herzl’s short life.  As soon as he began to define the aims of the movement in real terms, trying to combine its forces, he could not help seeing how different these people had become under various different nationalities, with their different histories, sometimes religious, sometimes free-thinking, some of them socialist and others capitalist Jews, stirring themselves up against each other in a wide variety of languages, and none of them willing to fall into line with a single unified authority.  In the year 1901, when I first met him, he was in mid-struggle, and was perhaps at odds with himself as well; he did not yet believe in ultimate success enough to give up the post that earned him and his family a living.  He had to divide himself between his lesser work of journalism and the mission that was his real life.  It was as feuilleton editor that Theodor Herzl received me that day.

Theodor  Herzl rose to greet me, and instinctively I felt there was a grain of truth in the ill-intentioned joke about the King of Zion – he really did look regal with his high forehead, his clear-cut features, his long and almost blue-black beard and his deep-blue, melancholy eyes.  His sweeping, rather theatrical gestures did not seem affected, because they arose from a natural dignity, and it would not have taken this particular occasion to make him look imposing to me.  Even standing in front of the shabby desk heaped high with papers in that miserably cramped editorial office with its single window, he was like a Bedouin desert sheikh; a billowing white burnous would have looked as natural on him as his black morning coat, well-cut in an obviously Parisian style.  After a brief and deliberately inserted pause – as I often noticed later, he liked such small effects, and had probably studied them at the Burgtheater – he deigned to give me his hand, though in a very friendly way.  Indicating the chair beside him, he asked, “I think I’ve heard or read your name somewhere before.  You write poetry, don’t you?” I said that I did.  “Well,” he said leaning back, “so what have you brought for me?”

I told him I would very much like to submit a little prose essay to him, and handed him my manuscript.  He looked at the title page, turned to the end to assess its extent, and then leant back further in his chair.  And to my surprise (I had not expected it) I saw that he had already begun to read the manuscript.  He read slowly, turning the page without looking up.  When he had finished the final page, he slowly folded the manuscript, then ceremoniously and still without looking at me put it into an envelope, and wrote something on the envelope in pencil.  Only then, after keeping me in suspense for some time with these mysterious moves, did he raise his dark, weighty glance to me, saying with deliberate and slow solemnity, “I am glad to tell you that your fine piece is accepted for publication in the feuilleton of the Neue Freie Presse.”  It was like Napoleon presenting a young sergeant with the cross of the Legion d’Honneur on the battlefield.

This may seem a minor, unimportant episode in itself.  But you would have to be Viennese, and Viennese of my generation, to understand what a meteoric rise this encouragement meant.  In my nineteenth year, I had risen to a position of prominence overnight, and Theodor Herzl, who was kind to me from that first moment, used the occasion of our meeting to say, in one of his next essays, that no one should believe the arts were in decline in Vienna.  On the contrary, he wrote, as well as Hofmannsthal there were now a number of gifted young writers around who might be expected to do great things, and he mentioned my name first.  I have always felt it a particular distinction that a man of the towering importance of Theodor Herzl, in his highly visible and thus very responsible position, was the first to express support for me.

It was a difficult decision for me to make when I said later, with apparent ingratitude, that I felt I could not join his Zionist movement actively and even help him to lead it, as he had asked.  However, I could never have made a real success of such a connection; I was alienated most of all by the lack of respect, hardly imaginable today, that his real comrades expressed towards Herzl himself.  The Eastern Jews complained that he understood nothing about the Jewish way of life and wasn’t even conversant with Jewish customs, while the economists among them regarded him as a mere journalist and feuilletonist.  Everyone had his own objection, and did not always express it respectfully.  I knew how much goodwill, particularly just then, those truly attuned to Herzl’s ideas, particularly the young, could and should owe him, and the quarrelsome, opinionated spirit of constant opposition, the lack of honest, heartfelt acceptance in the Zionist circle, estranged me from a movement that I would willingly have approached with curiosity, if only for Herzl’s sake.  Once, when we were discussing the subject, I openly confessed my dislike of the indiscipline in his ranks.  He smiled rather bitterly and said,  “Don’t forget, we’ve been used to dealing with problems and arguing over ideas for centuries.  After all, historically speaking, we Jews have gone two thousand years without any experience of bringing something real into the world.  Unconditional commitment has to be learnt, and I still haven’t learnt it myself.  I still write for feuilletons now and then, I am still Feuilleton Editor of the Neue Freie Presse, when it should really be my duty to have only one thought in the world and never write a line about anything else.  But I’m on my way to rectifying that; I’ll have to learn unconditional commitment myself first, and then maybe the rest of them will learn with me.”  I still remember the deep impression these remarks made on me, for none of us could understand why it took Herzl so long to give up his position with the Neue Freie Presse – we thought it was for his family’s sake.  But the world did not know until much later that such was not the case, and he had even sacrificed his own private fortune to the cause.  This conversation showed me how much Herzl suffered personally in this dilemma, and many accounts in his diaries confirm it.

I met him many more times, but of all our encounters only one other seems to me really worth remembering, indeed unforgettable, because it was the last.  I had been abroad, keeping in touch with Vienna only by letter, and met him one day in the city park.  He was obviously coming away from the editorial offices, walking very slowly and not with his old, swinging step, but stooping slightly.  I greeted him politely and was going to pass on, but he quickly came towards me, straightening his posture, and gave me is hand.  “Now, why are you hiding away? There’s no need for that.”  He approved of my frequent trips abroad.  “It’s our only way,” he said.   “All I know I learnt from abroad.  Only there do you get used to thinking on a wide scale.  I’m sure that I would never have had the courage to form my first concept here, it would have been nipped in the bud.  But thank God, when I came up with it, it was all ready, and they couldn’t do anything but try tripping me up.”  He then spoke very bitterly about Vienna where, he said, he had found most opposition, and if new initiatives had not come from outside, particularly from the East and now from America too, he would have grown weary.  “What’s more,” he said, “my mistake was to begin too late.  Victor Adler was leader of the Social Democratic party at the age of thirty, the age when he was best fitted for the struggle, and I won’t even speak of the great figures of history.  If you knew how I suffer mentally, thinking of the lost years – regretting that I didn’t find my vocation earlier.  If my health were as strong as my will, then all would still be well, but you can’t buy back the past.”  I went back to his house with him.  Arriving there, he stopped, shook hands with me, and said, “Why do you never come to see me? You’ve never visited me at home.  Telephone first and I’ll make sure I am free.”  I promised him, firmly determined not to keep that promise, for the more I love someone the more I respect his time.

But I did join him after all, only a few months later.  The illness that was beginning to make him stoop at that last meeting of ours had suddenly felled him, and now I could accompany him only to the cemetery.  It was a strange day, a day in July, and no one who was there will ever forget it.  For suddenly people arrived at all the Viennese railway stations, coming with every train by day and night, from all lands and countries; Western, Eastern, Russian, Turkish Jews – from all the provinces and small towns they suddenly stormed in, the shock of the news of his death still showing on their faces.  You never felt more clearly what their quarrels and talking had veiled over – the leader of a great movement was being carried to his grave.  It was an endless procession.  Suddenly Vienna realised that it was not only a writer, an author of moderate importance, who had died, but one of those original thinkers who rise victorious in a country and among its people only at rare intervals.  There was uproar in the cemetery itself; too many mourners suddenly poured like a torrent up to his coffin, weeping, howling and screaming in a wild explosion of despair.  There was an almost raging turmoil; all order failed in the face of a kind of elemental, ecstatic grief.  I have never seen anything like it at a funeral before or since.  And I could tell for the first time from all this pain, rising in sudden great outbursts from the hearts of a crowd a million strong, how much passion and hope this one lonely man had brought into the world by the force of his ideas.

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