History of Zionism: The Failed Prophet – Culture

Theodor Herzl’s autobiography places disproportionate weight on the last seven years of his life. There is an obvious reason for this: in 1897, with the first Zionist Congress taking place in Basel, he established a political framework for the Jewish national movement that proved useful after his early death.

But for a less obvious reason, the Israelis do not look closely at the first 35 years of his short life. Herzl (1860-1904) was born in Budapest, but moved to Vienna at the age of 18, where he first made a name for himself as a German playwright and journalist before becoming a Jewish politician.

The basic texts of Zionism – the pamphlet “Der Judenstaat”, the “Zionistisches Tagebuch”, and the utopian novel “Altneuland” – are written in German, and in Israel’s founding years, after the Holocaust and beyond, people struggled with this cultural context.

Derek Penslar, the Canadian American professor of Jewish history, has no such reservations. In his excellent new autobiography, he focuses on the human being, Theodor Herzl. It soon becomes clear what the historiography of a young nation that arose from the ashes of European Jewry cannot admit. His “brief, meteoritic Zionist career” – as Benslar Herzl aptly describes the last years of his life – was a desperate rush forward, seeking to escape his personal tragedy.

[Derek Penslar: Theodor Herzl – Staatsmann ohne Staat. Eine Biografie. Aus dem Englischen von Norbert Juraschitz. Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2022.

256 Seiten, 24 €.]

Private life is a nightmare

His symptoms are everywhere: in Herzl’s fractious relationship with his Judaism. In the contrasting roles he played as a public figure – on the one hand as art editor at the Neue Freie Presse, the largest bourgeois liberal newspaper in Austria, and on the other as the leader of a political movement that overturned the bourgeois consensus; In his disastrous marriage, which made Herzl’s personal life a nightmare, he also haunted his children, some of whom later committed suicide.

It is to Penslar’s credit that he explained how Herzl’s general influence arose out of his own ordeal. At the turn of the century, Herzl’s Zionist career was at its zenith, and Benslar calls this chapter “Reaching for the Stars.” This would have been the title of the biography: Herzl Always Reaching for the Stars, for the Unattainable. From the impossibility of achieving the goals he had set for himself, he gained the infinite energy he needed to overcome the deep depression of his life.

In 1891, Herzl came to Paris for four years as a reporter for his newspaper, and in the last decade of the century he transformed from journalist to political visionary, from impartial observer of social conditions to a man who wanted to effectively change them. Circumstances. He envisions a particular need – the plight of the Jews, which he feels throughout Western and Eastern Europe. By presenting himself as her savior from this misery, he simultaneously frees him.

Fantastic predictions

This is the difference between Benslar’s study and Herzl’s Zionist biographies, which are always politically motivated and measure his various “solutions” to the plight of the Jews within the confines of their own agenda. Penslar has no such agenda, nor is he concerned with the “solutions” Herzl had to offer, but with his profound personal problems, which he turned into a motor for the Zionist movement through its genius projection onto the public space.

There are two reasons why he was able to do this: first, the charisma witnessed by many contemporaries, which made Herzl an often irrational cult figure. An example is the late statement of Martin Buber, who did not always agree with Herzl’s policies during his lifetime, but admitted ten years after his death: “Now I feel as I did not feel before: that we are orphans.”

But more important is the second reason why this charisma was so effective in the first place: The Jewish need that Herzl addressed was so real, many wanted to escape from it. However, at the turn of the century, there was no solution to them, which became possible only half a century later, when the tragedy of European Jewry came to a disastrous end. Since they had nothing concrete to oppose, Herzl’s visions – his access to the stars – were able to reveal their incredible magic.

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Herzl promoted his Zionist project everywhere: to the Turks and the English, to the German Emperor and even to the Pope. But he refused everywhere. In the end he despaired, and two years before his death he wrote the novel “Altneuland”, in which he painted a picture of a utopian society of free Jews.

Penslar wrote his clever conclusion in Israel. Herzl’s utopia was not – and cannot – be realized. Instead, Penslar depicts how the historical Herzl became a legend in the Jewish state. If you want to know how this Jewish state arose, you should read the biography of a man like David Ben-Gurion as well as the biography of Theodor Herzl. But this is another story.

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