Commentary Magazine


Theodor Herzl, a Portrait for This Age, edited and with an introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn

“King Herzl”
by Benno Weiser
Theodor Herzl, A Portrait for this age. Edited and with an Introduction by Ludwig Lewisohn. World. 345 pp. $4.00.

Zionist pamphlets, like Zionist seminars, have always been boring affairs. Now that Zionist aims have been fulfilled, the boredom is even more deadly. Consequently the late Ludwig Lewisohn’s Theodor Herzl, a Portrait for This Age might very well have passed unnoticed even by reading Zionists, which would have been regrettable indeed because this book deserves a better fate than to collect dust. Lewisohn’s essay is probably the most definitive and certainly the most concentrated study so far produced in all the mounting literature on Herzl.

Herzl first appears in Lewisohn’s portrait as the pampered son of a well-to-do Viennese family that lived in an atmosphere of hot and brooding intimacy. As a boy his only playmate was his older sister. He was strongly attached to his parents, so much so that even during his most hectic adult days he never failed to pay them a daily visit when in Vienna. Though he loved his father (whom he later visualized as one of the first senators of the Jewish state), his special devotion was to his mother; she seems to have been the one who fostered his ambition to become a great man in the German world of letters. This maternal attachment made Herzl “far too pure,” made him fiercely puritanical, unrelenting, petulant, proud, and rigid; it was to spoil his marriage.

Herzl did achieve a literary reputation, but in journalism, not, as he had hoped, in the theater. As a playwright he took his cue from the superficial intrigues of Scribe and Sardou, which were fashionable at the time in Paris. It is hard to imagine the stately, bearded Herzl, of whom there is hardly a smiling picture in existence, writing frivolous comedies in which bourgeois husbands are duped and their wives seduced. Lewisohn sees in these plays (one of which was produced on the German stage in New York) the compensatory fantasies of a puritan.

Herzl established his fame as a writer mainly in the feuilleton vein, but he was also an excellent political correspondent. His reports from France were early proof of his talent for detached analysis and shrewd observation. Another man might have been satisfied with the prestige and recognition Herzl won in journalism, but, the pampered child of indulgent parents, he felt like a prince whom the world refused to recognize. He affected a mocking, superior personal manner and a literary style of supercilious irony and cynicism. At the height of his journalistic career he secretly considered himself a failure. He had aimed higher.

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It is one of the clichés about Herzl that he did not become conscious of the Jewish problem until the Dreyfus Case hit him over the head. But the truth is that there was hardly a moment when he was unaware of it, and whatever his literary efforts may have meant to his parents, for him they served chiefly as a means of repressing his inner conflict as a Jew. “The Jewish question lay in ambush wherever I went,” wrote Herzl after the awakening. Lewisohn tells us why.

The new anti-Semitism based on “science” that replaced the religious variety in the latter 19th century did not spare assimilated Jews who could no longer be distinguished from Gentiles either by religion or by appearance. Herzl read Dühring’s treatise on race in his early twenties and was shaken in his innermost being. When he protested against anti-Semitic tendencies in his student corps “Albia,” he was unceremoniously dropped. His early aggressiveness, which did not contribute to his popularity with assistants and colleagues in his first newspaper jobs, his restlessness, and his sense of urgency were rooted in a Jewishness that lay below the threshold of his consciousness.

He wrote his best play, The New Ghetto, before becoming a Zionist. Its hero dies with the words, “Out of the ghetto”—but Herzl did not yet know where to go after leaving the ghetto. He had recognized the frustration and ultimate unfeasibility of assimilation, but since he had not found an alternative, he did not speak up. In 1893, scarcely two years before sitting down to write The Jewish State, he still thought baptism a more honest solution than servile assimilation. He visualized all the Jewish parents of Vienna (who would remain Jews) bringing their children, in a solemn procession, to Vienna’s Stefansdom for conversion. So Herzl did not need the Dreyfus Case to make a Jew of him. But it did take the Affaire to make him a Zionist. When the anti-Semite Lüger was elected mayor of Vienna, Herzl asked a French Jewish friend, “Why are you overcome by Lüger’s election and why am I by Dreyfus’s degradation, if you are a Frenchman and I an Austrian?” The answer burst upon him with the force of a revelation: he suddenly recognized that “We are a people, one people.”

One evening he began a new diary and wrote on the title page, “First Book of the Cause of the Jews.” The idea for The Jewish State was born during long solitary walks in the Bois de Boulogne, from which he often returned with tears in his eyes. When he finally sat down to write the treatise, he was in a state of creative euphoria, and after finishing it he noted in his diary, “I believe that my personal life is over, and world history has set in.”

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Out of Herzl’s frustration as a writer came greatness such as finally outshone anything he might have achieved in literature. From the moment that he found the promised land within himself, the half-lonely melancholic who had posed as a cynic was transformed into a man of moral stature, with a new humility, devotion, and honesty. His style became fresh, powerful, poignant just as soon as he began to devote it to the Jewish question. As a political writer he achieved the poetic beauty denied him as a litterateur.

Both David Ben Gurion, in his preface, and Lewisohn, in his essay, point out what Herzl himself discovered only after writing The Jewish State—that he had invented nothing new. Pinsker’s Auto-Emancipation and Hess’s Rome and Jerusalem had already been written. Fortunately, Herzl had never heard of them. According to Lewisohn, he succeeded where Pinsker and Hess failed to make an impact because he was a Westerner, an emancipated and apparently successfully assimilated Jew. Rereading the short extracts from his diary given in Lewisohn’s book, one feels, however, that there was more than just that to it. Zionism existed before Herzl, but it had remained a matter of words, words. He made it a matter of action, fruitful action at times, fruitless action more often perhaps, but still a political movement and not a conversation piece. (One cannot refrain from observing that after the creation of the State of Israel, Zionism, especially in this country, reverted to the earlier type.)

A great factor in Herzl’s success was his personality. It had not a trace of the pettiness that marked so many of the Zionist leaders who came after him. The Jews in the streets of Vilna, in a moment of euphoria, proclaimed him “Ha-melech Herzl,” King Herzl, and he was indeed a regal figure. As Lewisohn points out, “The hero who is needed is created. . . . But not every personality lends itself to apotheosis, not even every great personality.” Herzl did.

Parochialism is the inveterate fault of many lifelong Zionists and Israeli leaders. Herzl was a man of the world who turned Zionist only in the last years of a rather short life, thus escaping the limitations of his own movement.

In calling this book A Portrait for This Age, Lewisohn gave an accurate description of what he was doing. His book represents the most contemporary approach to the father of the State of Israel.

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