Theodor Herzl: Charlatan or Genius

IN ITS DECEMBER 1974 issue, Encounter magazine published part of a moving dialogue between Amos Elon, an Israeli journalist and historian, and Sana Hassan, an Arab student leader and the daughter of a former Egyptian ambassador to the United States. What was particularly striking about their frank discussion wasn’t so much the things they said as the fact that an Arab and an Israeli were actually listening to one another. This wasn’t just one more of those consecutive monologues we so often get. At the end of the excerpt in Encounter (their entire conversation has now been published as a book titled Between Enemies) one has no doubt that Hassan and Elon see one another differently, more compassionately. Some of the myths they’ve subscribed to and some of the blinkers they’ve been wearing have been torn away. Between Enemies gives one hope.

Now Elon has turned his considerable talents to helping demythologize another subject — the story of the father of modern Zionism, Theodor Herzl. “In Israel today,” writes Elon, “Herzl is a national hero. His popular image has become as two-dimensionally dull as the stylized Herzl portrait that adorns… bank notes. Behind the stately beard the human face has disappeared.” In the course of baring that face for us, Elon has produced the best new biography I’ve read in a couple of years, and the first biography of Herzl in more than forty years.

Cover of Herzl, by Amos Elon
Herzl, by Amos Elon

The story is fascinating. Theodor Herzl was born in 1860 in Budapest, the second child of assimilated upper middle class Jewish parents who were enormously ambitious for, and over-protective of, their only son. As a child Herzl was precocious and moody, utterly convinced that he was destined for greatness, a belief his parents encouraged. He claimed, for example, to have dreamt at age twelve that Jesus carried him to Moses, who told him: “Go and announce to the Jews that I shall soon come and perform great and wondrous deeds for my people….” And yet Herzl had little interest in things Jewish; if anything, he adopted some of the stereotyped anti-Semitic attitudes of his day.

In 1878 Herzl’s only sister died of typhoid fever; his parents, who couldn’t bear to remain in the city where the tragedy had occurred, moved to Vienna. There Theodor studied law, but without much enthusiasm, and made the only close friend he was to have in his life, Heinrich Kana. (Kana’s suicide in 1890 was a shattering blow.) As the years went by, Herzl marked his birthdays with increasingly despairing diary entries: “Twenty-two years! … I haven’t even the tiniest success to show, nothing to be proud of….” He gave up law, travelled and tried to establish himself as a writer, publishing reviews and travel pieces. Mostly, though, he wanted to be a playwright, and here he met with failure all his life. His moodiness grew; occasional moments of euphoria gave way to fits of suicidal depression and crippling headaches.

After years of falling in love with little girls, whom he worshipped from afar, and occasionally having sex with prostitutes, in 1889 Herzl married twenty-year-old Julie Naschauer. Their marriage was a disaster from the beginning; within weeks Herzl was contemplating divorce. It turned out his wife had been psychotic from infancy. Between 1889 and his death fifteen years later he and Julie had three children, perhaps a dozen separations, and as many reconciliations.

In 1891 Herzl became Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse, a job which gave him hope that finally he was on his way to the success he’d dreamed of. He wrote his parents: “[This] is the springboard from which I shall leap high, to your joy, my dear beloved parents.” His arrival in France coincided with a renewed outbreak of anti-Semitism, an outbreak which culminated in the Dreyfus affair of 1894.

Herzl’s reaction to the anti-Semitism in Vienna in the 1880s had been mixed. He’d resigned from a fraternity he’d belonged to because of its growing anti-Semitism, but at the same time had been toying with the then popular idea of conversion. (Mahler, for example, had converted to Catholicism because he thought it would help his career.) Herzl was convinced that inter-marriage was a good thing for Jews; it would improve their “alien-looking, despised physiognomy.” Now in France, Herzl suddenly began coming up with schemes for curing the world of anti-Semitism. He would duel with anti-Semites, and the resulting publicity would change things. He would go to the Pope, and in exchange for the Pope’s help against anti-Semitism, Herzl would urge the conversion of all Jews to Christianity. He would write a novel, the hero of which would lead the wretched of the earth to a new promised land.

The novel was never written, because Herzl decided that he should be that hero in real life. It would be simple. A piece of land would be acquired. Jews would put up some money; governments around the world, eager to solve their Jewish problem, would put up more. Herzl would go down in history “counted among the greatest benefactors of mankind.” The project, he was convinced, would “gild [his] dear parents’ old age.” He speculated on the kind of statue that would be built in his honor. “I shall be the Parnell of the Jews,” he wrote.

The rest of the story is perhaps more familiar. Although Herzl continued to earn his living from the Neue Freie Presse — he became literary editor based in Vienna after 1895 — he gave the best part of himself for the rest of his life to his Zionist dream. He wrote a pamphlet, The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question, unaware that similar documents had been produced by others, including Leo Pinsker, thirteen years earlier. “Seldom,” says Elon, “has a movement owed more to the fact that its founder was totally ignorant of his predecessors.” But it was an idea whose time had come, and despite opposition, Herzl became a celebrity almost overnight. Some Jews proclaimed him the Messiah. Kaiser Wilhelm declared, “I am all in favor of the kikes going to Palestine. The sooner they take off the better.”

Without money or even the promise of any, the self-appointed spokesman of the Jews bribed his way in to the Turkish sultan and offered to buy Palestine, oblivious of the fact that there were already people there; he suggested that the Jews of Europe would take over Turkey’s enormous national debt. But Jewish millionaires such as the Rothschilds, to whom he went for money, weren’t interested in his plan. Herzl therefore organized a grass roots Zionist movement and a political weekly, Die Welt. The first International Zionist Congress met in Basel in 1897; at the end of it, Herzl wrote in his diary: “In Basel I founded the Jewish state…. Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty years everyone will agree.”

A return to Palestine was not to be during Herzl’s lifetime. Attempts to establish a Jewish homeland in the Sinai or in Uganda were also unsuccessful. In 1904, after years of illness, Herzl died a broken and disappointed man at the age of forty-four. His wife died three years later. Two of his children committed suicide; a third died in a Nazi concentration camp. In 1946, his only grandchild committed suicide.

It’s foolish to be overly critical of a book as good as this. I wish there were more about Herzl’s relationship with his parents during his last years, and I wish we learned a little more about his children, given their terrible fate. Elon says that Herzl “walked a tightrope between charlatanism and genius,” but he doesn’t adequately explain that statement. He doesn’t really tell us to what extent he thinks Herzl’s ambitious parents, unhappy marriage, or whatever, were responsible for his monomania. To say, “Having failed in the theatre, he made the whole world his stage,” doesn’t seem quite enough. But these are minor reservations about an excellent book.

— Globe and Mail, 1975

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