Herzl’s German adventure

I’m very interested in the influence of German ideas and in particular German nationalism on early political Zionism. In previous posts, I’ve written about how the Utopia that Theodor Herzl imagined in his novel Altneuland was in some ways a very German one and how Max Nordau’s ideas were strikingly similar to those of German nationalists. I’ve just finished reading Amos Elon’s excellent biography of Herzl (1975), which (in contrast to Alex Bein’s earlier biography) emphasises how thoroughly German Herzl was in his ideas and aspirations. But the really interesting thing that emerges is how Herzl’s affinity for German culture influenced the political strategy that he followed in order to try to realise his dream of a Jewish state. It seems that Herzl saw it not just as a solution to the “Jewish question” but also as an outpost of German influence in the Orient.

Elon describes the young Herzl as a German romantic. He was “German by culture” – largely the result of his mother, who was “enamored of German Kultur“. Elsewhere Elon says Herzl’s parents were “piously devoted to the German culture of the master nation”. When he was a schoolboy in Budapest, Bismarck replaced Ferdinand de Lesseps, the engineer who built the Suez canal, as his idol. He loved Heine and Hölderlin and wanted above all to become a “German writer”. German culture seems to have continued to influence Herzl as an adult. For example, while writing The Jewish State in Paris in 1895, he listened to Wagner’s Tannhäuser for inspiration. The German influence is also clear in the text itself – for example in the conception of the Jews as a Volk. Herzl imagined the main language of the Jewish state would be German rather than Hebrew, which he did not know. “I can never be anything but a German”, he wrote.

Herzl’s sense of German identity may explain why he turned first to the Kaiser to help him realise his dream of a Jewish state. As I mentioned in a previous post, Bismarck had seen Germany as a European power, but after he resigned as chancellor in 1890, Wilhelm II sought to make the Reich a “world empire” (although Brendan Simms argues in a forthcoming book that this “global turn in German grand strategy” was ultimately “not a bid for world domination but a cry for help in Europe”). Herzl’s idea of a Jewish state in Palestine – at the time part of the Ottoman empire – initially appealed to the Kaiser because it fitted into his Weltpolitik. In particular, at the time when Herzl approached him in 1898, the Kaiser was seeking a concession to build a railway from Berlin to Constantinople (the first stretch of what became known as the Berlin-Baghdad railway), which would extend German influence into the Middle East to fill the vacuum left by the ailing Ottoman empire.

When Herzl met the Grand Duke of Baden (who acted as an intermediary between him and the Kaiser) he emphasised that “German writers – though of Jewish descent – are leading the Zionist movement”. He explained that he envisioned the Jewish state as a German protectorate that would export German culture to the Orient. Excited about the prospect, he wrote in his diary that “life under the protectorate of this powerful, great, moral, splendidly administered, firmly governed Germany, can only have the most salutary effects on the Jewish national character”. It was only after what Elon calls Herzl’s “German adventure” failed – in part, Elon suggests, because of Herzl’s “infatuation with the person and would-be role of the Kaiser” – that Herzl turned to the Ottoman Empire and Britain. But just before Herzl died, he made another last attempt to enlist the Kaiser’s support. “There is in our movement an element of German culture which should not be underestimated”, he wrote.


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  1. Pingback: Tribal qualities « Hans Kundnani

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