Commentary Magazine

Herzl's Fate

In its general outline the story or legend of Theodor Herzl is well-known. Once upon a time there was a Viennese-Jewish dandy and littérateur who had established a reputation as a gifted but rather frivolous playwright and journalist. As a correspondent for the famous Vienna daily, Neue Freie Presse, he was given the task of covering the Dreyfus trial in Paris. The anti-Semitic outbursts which the trial produced from every level of French society, supposedly the most enlightened in Europe, shocked him into a new awareness of his own Jewishness, which had hitherto meant little to him, and of the dangers which confronted the entire Jewish people. In this state of shock he hurriedly composed his most famous book, The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question; then he went on immediately to create, almost single-handedly, a political movement dedicated to bringing into being the state which his book had proposed. Nine years later, at the age of forty-four, he was dead, having utterly exhausted himself in constant effort on behalf of his great cause. Initially he was derided as a madman and visionary both by Jews he was trying to save and by the Gentiles whose support he tried to solicit. Today his portrait hangs in the chamber of the Israel parliament (the Knesset) in Jerusalem; on a hilltop nearby, which bears his name and which overlooks the city, his body lies enshrined.

By and large, this legend is accurate, as Amos Elon's compendious and candid biography reveals.1 The legend does contain some errors of fact (e.g., Herzl had become much preoccupied with “the Jewish question” well before the Dreyfus trial began), and more errors of emphasis (e.g., the idea of political Zionism was not as dramatically novel, when Herzl proposed it, as the folk-memory would suggest). Nevertheless, one of the great virtues of Elon's biography is that it demonstrates just how much unfamiliar and embarrassing detail the legend is capable of incorporating without losing its essential shape. Parts of Elon's book, especially those which attempt to convey the appearance and atmosphere of Herzl's Vienna and Paris, are anxiously overwritten; for the rest the job is done admirably. All the facts are laid out lucidly, and Herzl is allowed to speak for himself as much as possible. One reads the story with a singular mixture of wonder and embarrassment; in the end it becomes difficult to tell the one emotion from the other.

Why embarrassment? Well, take the only son of a well-to-do Jewish family; admire him extravagantly, indulge his every whim, and prophesy constantly to him that some day he will be a great man; teach him virtually nothing about Judaism, Jewish history, or the Hebrew language; let him grow up moody, lonely, and “poetic” in his aspirations; fill him with banal, enlightened notions about progress, science, and the universal brotherhood of man; encourage in him a multitude of snobberies, including a whole-hearted contempt for commerce and a self-abasing admiration for all that is most aristocratic and exclusive in the culture and society around him; let him yearn from afar for blond, blue-eyed Gentile girls; inculcate in him a sentimental attachment to the history and language of the country he lives in; and, finally, curse him with ambitions that far outstrip his talents . . . and what have you got? The father of a nation? Or any one of half-a-dozen people you might have known at school or university?

Of course, these familiar characteristics and tendencies took the coloration of their time and place, and expressed themselves accordingly. Herzl did everything that was expected of him. He joined a students dueling club and was struck about the face in traditional style. He composed fervent pan-German nationalist hymns. He patronized grisettes and got a close of the clap. He wrote plays which he submitted for production to the Viennese theaters. He considered committing suicide, at some length. In copious notes, diaries, letters, and essays, which are both excruciatingly self-conscious and childishly self-betraying, he solemnly recorded his reflections and impulses, as befitted the important writer he intended to become, “Although,” wrote the Budapest-born youngster to his parents, who were then living in Vienna, “there arc many Viennese and Budapest Jews here [in a holiday resort] the rest of the vacationing population is very pleasant.” In loftier mood, perhaps even admitting Viennese and Budapest Jews within his conspectus, he confided to his diary. “Nothing on earth, or very little, deserves our wrath. With disdain and pity it is possible . . . to get on very well in the world.” Or, “At the sound of music, sweet intoxicating dreams of future fame and glory envelop my drunken heart.” Or, “I do not carry a great work within me. Break your pen, poor devil!” Or, simply, “To be blond is everything.”

Such posturings and schemings, vanities and predictable torments, cannot be set apart from the deeper strains and compulsions of his nature, or from his response to the griefs and disappointments life inflicted upon him. Toward the end of his adolescence his only sister, whom he adored, died suddenly of typhoid fever; some years later he wrote a passage of sardonic self-analysis, almost worthy of Dickens's David Copperfield or Pip, of how he had behaved at the time. His devotion to his parents, always intense, became positively sickly after his sister's death. His enduring isolation from his contemporaries was a fact as well as a pose. The striking success he enjoyed as a journalist, and the far more modest degree of recognition he achieved as a playwright, did not assuage his feeling that he had failed to justify his literary ambitions. When, in his late twenties, he married a wealthy, pretty, and hopelessly unstable girl, the marriage promptly turned bad and became a source of constant misery to him. His melancholy, which had once been almost soothing, a proof of the refinement of his sensibility (“I can only be happy when I am absolutely miserable”), settled into a real affliction. Even his vanity about his personal appearance had its oddly somber or significant aspects.

The last point is worth dwelling on, if only because it shows how inextricably confused in Herzl's case (as in so many others) were those “accidental” or “trivial” circumstances which we so rarely link with the birth of major political and ideological movements. Would Herzl have become a Zionist if he had been as “blond” as he obviously wished to be? I very much doubt it. Consider the difficulty of his position. On the one hand he was (and was proud to be) a man of the most striking appearance. Tall, handsome, upright, dignified in his bearing, he was noticed at once in any group in which he found himself. But the looks which drew attention to him were as far from his own ideal of pure, blond Teutonic knighthood as it would be possible to imagine. His skin was olive, his hair and beard were black, his nose was large, his eyes were dark and deep. He looked like a prince, indeed—a Prince of Judah. Or perhaps of Assyria. (In the later pictures, including the one hanging in the Knesset building, his resemblance to a figure from ancient Assyrian statuary is quite remarkable.) So what was he to do, given his preoccupation with his appearance? Forgo the special destiny he seemed to have been marked out for? Or find some unprecedented way of fulfilling it?


The painful and intricate relationship between certain forms of “Jewish self-hatred” and Zionism has never perhaps been more clearly demonstrated than in the life of the founder of the movement. This is not to suggest that all the bafflements and blockages suffered by Herzl were a direct consequence of his position as a Jew. Still less is it to belittle his terrible and all too accurate perception of the catastrophic situation in which European Jewry would sooner or later find itself. If he was driven to try to reconstruct imaginatively the future of an entire people, it was because the tensions and contradictions within him had become as intolerable as the provocations of history; it was because he had reached a point where he could no longer make a distinction between his pride and the wounds inflicted upon it, or between his injured self and the injured group he belonged to.

In a matter of weeks—weeks of sleeplessness, scribblings, loneliness, incoherent wanderings through the streets and parks of Paris—Herzl was swept away by his sudden vision of the Jewish people sovereign once again in a country of its own. During that period of exaltation he transformed himself irrevocably from a hurt and haughty man of letters into the would-be Moses of his people. It was a transformation that was eventually to cost him everything: family, fortune, life. “I think,” he wrote, “for me life has ended and world-history has begun. . . . At night it burns within me when my eyes are closed; I cannot hide from it.”

From that point onward, it might be supposed, the reader of his biography should begin to feel wonder and admiration only, tinged perhaps with pity. But embarrassment persists too. The truth is that we are inclined to nourish sentimental notions of what obsessions, manias, madnesses, even drug-trances, can do to the people possessed by them. (Some of the writing on the subject reminds one of those old comic-book advertisements: “I was a 90 lb. emotional and intellectual weakling until I discovered . . . MADNESS!”) To compare Herzl's seizure by the Zionist idea with an attack of madness is of course grossly unfair. But it is equally unfair to expect him somehow to have been able to step forward completely newborn out of the shell of himself. The astonishing energies that were released as a result of his discovery of the Zionist cause had to make do with the mental resources and emotional habits which had always been his; he simply had no others.

Thus, his determination to find a solution to “the Jewish question” was heralded by two flamboyant, absurd ideas which he wrote about with almost the same fervor he later showed on behalf of the establishment of a Jewish state. His first proposal was that he, Herzl, should challenge some of the leading anti-Semites of the day to a series of duels: in this way he would prove to them that the Jews were brave and gentlemanly. His next brainwave was for a series of immense pageants to be staged in every capital of Europe, in the course of which the Jews would undergo mass conversions to Christianity. (But noblesse oblige: the leaders of the movement, Herzl included, would not be converted; they would continue to bear the stigma of being Jewish in order to prove how disinterested and pure their motives were in leading their people to take this step.)


The Zionist idea, as events proved, was very different from these grotesque false starts. What is more, Herzl knew it at once. But his touchiness, his passionate desire to cut a figure, the shallowness of much of his thinking about society and history, his acquiescence in many of the beliefs anti-Semites held about Jews, his concern with medals and decorations, the difficulty he had in cooperating with others, the mixture of naiveté and self-consciousness which had always characterized him—he did not shed any of these when he became the demoniacally driven leader of a people. His yearning admiration for Prussian Junkers and English aristocrats did not diminish; on the contrary, as a result of his political campaigning he met more members of both classes than before, and reveled in doing so. The blueprints he projected for his Zion-to-be were jejune: all electricity, brass bands, and well-dressed ladies and gentlemen conversing in German amid elegant Mediterranean townscapes. Though he had the largeness of spirit to recognize the strengths of East European Jewry, of whom he had been quite ignorant before, he never wholly reconciled himself to the fact that it was these despised Ostjuden who really rallied to him, not the classier Jews of the West.

The unconsciously clownish aspects of his character, which pursued him throughout his own pursuit of grandeur, like some mocking shadow or anti-self, must affect our sense of the tragedy and heroism of the last stage of his life. However, they should not really diminish it. The idea of a reborn Jewish commonwealth was more daring in its historical sweep, and more desperate in its prospects, than any other of the nationalist movements which sprang up in Europe during the 19th century; perhaps the best way of indicating Herzl's strength of will is to say that it measured up fully to the daring and desperation of the cause. One marvels, as one goes through the second half of the tale told by his biographer, at his energy and obduracy; his courage in the face of repeated heartbreaks and rebuffs; the boldness of the political feats of sleight-of-hand he attempted to carry off; his readiness to sacrifice his personal wealth; his calm acceptance of the fact that the pace he was going at was bound to kill him, and his refusal to be slowed down by this consideration; his willingness to open himself to new experiences and new perceptions right to the end of his career; the tirelessness with which he would follow up any idea, no matter how bizarre, or go on any journey, no matter how distant and exhausting, which might be of help in the struggle.

Essentially his campaigns were all fought on two fronts simultaneously. On the one hand he had to try, through some spectacular success in his dealings with the great powers of the day, to convince the Jews of Europe that he had indeed found a solution to their problems, and that it would be worth their while to support him. On the other hand, in his meetings with kings, sultans, popes, prime ministers, foreign ministers, and assorted notables in a host of countries, he had to pretend that the support he was seeking from the Jews was already his, and that as a result he had at his command millions of followers and (no less important) millions of francs or marks or pounds sterling.

On both fronts his successes were few and far between. The Zionists he managed to gather around him were neither numerous nor wealthy; they hardly made up for these lacks by being given to interminable caucusing and bitter personal rivalries. He was cold-shouldered by the wealthy Jewish philanthropists, like the Rothschilds and the Hirschs, without whom his prospects of raising large sums of money were nil. The rabbis from one side, and the Jewish socialists from the other, fought him tooth and nail. Setting up his organization in these unpropitious circumstances, he at the same time negotiated endlessly with the Sultan of Turkey, who then ruled Palestine; this meant throwing bribes wholesale down the bottomless pit of the Sultan's court. (For which the financial managers of the Zionist movement denounced him.) He discussed with Joseph Chamberlain, the British Colonial Secretary, the possibility of the Jews' establishing a new “Zion” in Uganda, Cyprus, or Sinai. (For which the “Palestine-only” faction among the Zionists reviled him.) To the outrage of the Russian Jews he met the anti-Semitic Czarist minister, Plehve, and tried to canvas his support. All his schemes and travels, meetings and negotiations, came to naught. At the end of nine years he had nothing to show for his efforts but a noisy and penniless Zionist organization. with almost as many factions as it had branches or committees. On his deathbed, in delirium, he pointed at a particular spot on the bedclothes and instructed his secretary, “This piece of land—the National Fund must buy it.”


Let a single example of his frantic, fruitless endeavors, taken from one of the most amusing and saddest chapters in Elon's biography, stand for all the rest. The Kaiser, who had Middle Eastern ambitions, announced that he was going on a pilgrimage to Palestine. Herzl, who had been working for years to interest the Kaiser in his plans, hoped in some ill-defined fashion that as a result of this journey the Sultan would grant the Kaiser a protectorate over Palestine; and that he in turn would obligingly grant the Zionists a charter enabling them to settle there and begin building the Jewish state. Through various intermediaries, some well-intentioned, some malicious, Herzl was given to understand that it would be a good thing if he were to petition the Kaiser to that effect in Jerusalem itself. Off he rushed, in a state of euphoric expectation, to await the Kaiser's arrival in Palestine. En route he had a bad fall on the ship's gangway and injured his leg. Then he caught a fever. The heat in Palestine, which he was visiting for the first time, overwhelmed him. Turkish secret policemen followed him and his colleagues everywhere. The tiny Jewish colonies he visited were poverty-stricken and unwelcoming. (They did not believe in his political fantasies, and were ready to continue living indefinitely on Baron Rothschild's charity.) His foot swollen, his temperature mounting steadily, subject to attacks of vomiting, irritated beyond endurance by the dust and heat, he awaited the Kaiser's arrival outside an agricultural college called Mikve Israel (the Hope of Israel). When the Kaiser arrived, in a huge mounted party, he exchanged a few bland words with Herzl; then rode on.

Everybody followed the imperial cavalcade to Jerusalem. The filth and smells of the Old City disgusted Herzl. After five days of waiting, he and his friends were summoned to see the Kaiser again. Sweltering in their formal court dress, the deputation came and said its piece. The Kaiser made some politely discouraging remarks in response and the audience was over. Nothing had been said about charters or protectorates or the return of the Jews to Palestine. Nor was a word said about any of these matters in the few lines devoted to the meeting in the official report on the pilgrimage. The Empress smiled pleasantly at Herzl, but said to her confidantes that what she didn't like about Jerusalem was that there were “so many filthy Jews” to be seen there. End of chapter; end of years of careful planning and much less careful hoping by Herzl. Back to the Sultan. Back to the British. Back to Lord Rothschild. Back to face a disappointed and bitterly critical Zionist Congress.


One of the photographs in the book shows Herzl, sun helmet in hand, waiting for the Kaiser outside Mikve Israel. He wears a dark suit. He stands quite alone, but gazes toward the horizon like the commander of an army. There is nothing nearby but barren sand and an incongruous kitchen chair; in the background is a dispiriting huddle of Arab-style huts. The forlorn pathos of the photograph is difficult to describe; or even to contemplate.

In fact, that picture reminded me vaguely of the old illustrations I used to come across, during my schooldays in South Africa, of worthies of one sort or another proclaiming republics, negotiating treaties with bemused blacks, or solemnly extending the Queen's territories by means of a flag and a declaration. Why should Herzl have imagined that Palestine or the Middle East would be any different from the Africa of his day? No wonder he thought of a potentate like the Kaiser as of some kind of deus ex machina, dispensing charters and protectorates to suitable applicants: the years of his most intense political activity coincided almost exactly with the “Scramble for Africa,” when an entire continent was carved up almost effortlessly among the European powers. No wonder, too, that he was so interested in the career of that arch-Scrambler, Cecil John Rhodes, Prime Minister of the then-British Cape Colony, and tried repeatedly to get in touch with him. But while Englishmen like Rhodes, as well as Belgians, Frenchmen, Germans, and the rest had armies and navies to deploy, Herzl had only his own preposterous dignity to depend on. (So dignified was he, indeed, that he had had eyes only for the Kaiser; none for the Arabs who actually occupied the land.) Which makes it all the more remarkable that today the state for the sake of which he stood in the sun actually exists, however precariously, while all those empires have melted away.

Herzl did not even have any money at his disposal. However unfair it may be to compare men so differently placed from each other, the contrast with Rhodes is again instructive, in one respect at least. Rhodes, who succeeded in dragging the British government in London into one imperial adventure after another, did not even begin his political career until he had amassed a huge fortune in the South African diamond and gold fields. He had had no shame in setting out quite deliberately to make a fortune, with the express intention of using it later to further his political ambitions. Herzl, the Jew, could never have gone about things in that way. He despised moneymaking: among other reasons because it was so “Jewish.” He was too aristocratic in his tastes. He wanted to be an author and gentleman. The result? Once in politics, he was constantly having to go cap-in-hand to those unsympathetic Jewish magnates who had shown themselves less delicate in their sensibilities than he; and he was never able to make the offer of hard cash to the Sultan which he believed (perhaps wrongly) might have made a crucial difference to their negotiations.

The involutions and ironies of Herzl's fate as a man, a writer, and a leader, do not end there. It was precisely that delicate and wounded sensibility of his which eventually drove him into politics, where he revealed how much steel there was in his character. And, paradoxically enough, it was his brutally “unaesthetic” and unrewarding political life which provided him with the materials and the passions to write the one book which can today sustain the reader's interest, when all the rest of the literary work he set so much store by has turned to dross and tedium. I refer not to The Jewish State, which is merely an outdated pamphlet, a call to action, but to the series of private diaries he began when his obsession took hold of him. To the first of them he prefixed the bold title: Book One: Of the Jewish Cause: Begun in Paris: Around Pentecost 1895. It is extraordinary how, throughout the years that followed, with all their disappointments and failures, plans that miscarried and childish dreams he never realized, he managed to maintain something of the tone of electric excitement we find in its opening paragraph:

For some time I have been occupied with a work of infinite grandeur. At the moment I do not know if I will carry it through. It looks like a mighty dream. But for days and weeks it has possessed me beyond the limits of my consciousness; it accompanies me wherever I go, hovers behind my ordinary talk, looks over my shoulder at my comically trivial journalistic work, disturbs me and intoxicates me.

In the Epilogue to his absorbing book, Elon reminds us that below Herzl's tomb, on the hill which bears his name, stretches one of the largest military cemeteries in Israel. There lie the bodies of many hundreds of young men killed in successive wars, defending the state he did so much to call into being. On the western slope of the hill is the Yad Vashem, the memorial to the six million Jews of Europe whom the state came into existence too late to save.



1 Herzl, Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 448 pp., $15.00.


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