The Labyrinth of Exile

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

The 1990’s will bring the hundredth anniversary of the beginning of Theodor Herzl’s quixotic quest to turn an age- old dream into reality and secure a homeland for the perennially persecuted Jewish people. Thus the appearance of this excellent biography, arguably the best of the three major books on the father of political Zionism that have been published during the past fifteen years, is particularly timely While it supplements rather than supplants Alex Bein’s classic study of 1934, it is a valuable companion to the reissue of Herzl’s utopian novel, Altneuland (1902; Old-New Land, 1941)—”My life now is no novel,” its author wrote in 1901, “and so the novel has become my life”—and to the seven-volume edition of Herzl’s Zionist writings, diaries, and letters in the original German that has been prepared by a team of German and Israeli scholars. Ernst Pawel successfully presents the Zionist leader, the writer, and the man in his full complexity and gives the reader a Herzl from within. His relentless, occasionally rather speculative, exploration of Herzl ’5 psyche and his touch of ironic condescension make him come closer to a demystification and debunking in the vein of psychohistory than to a hagiographic portrayal. Yet he never denies Herzl’s steadfast nobility of purpose, and, even stripped of heroics and sentimentality, Herzl emerges as “the first Jewish leader in modern times” and “thus far the only one,” because “those who came after him were politicians.” There is no belittling the achievement of the man who was at once a dreamer and a schemer and who “forged a patchwork of little groups and stillborn initiatives into a coherent movement.”

Herzl’s early life provided little indication that he would become a crusading Zionist. He was a former lawyer and a workaday journalist; he was the essentially agnostic author of elegant feuilletons, witty essays, whimsical stories, and justly forgotten drawing-room comedies and boudoir farces (some of which were performed at the prestigious Burgtheater in Vienna). Herzl once described himself as a writer of sorts, with little ambition and petty vanities,” yet at other times he displayed great arrogance; Pawel all too harshly speaks of “blinding egocentricity compounded by megalomania.” Despite the existence of a plethora of information about Herzl and such primary sources as his extensive diaries from the last decade of his short life (devoted entirely to the “Jewish cause”), it will probably always remain an enigma how this admirer of the “iron chancellor” Bismarck, the Prussian Junkers, and pan-Germanism, this assimilated and only marginally Jewish man, turned almost overnight into a courageous and charismatic (although autocratic) leader and messianic spokesman for the downtrodden Jewish masses.

With remarkable resilience, the dauntless Herzl overcame repeated disillusionments and reverses, and, despite numerous failures and discouragements in his hapless pursuit of one chimera after another, he came to call Zionism the Sabbath of his life. Shortly before his death in 1904, at age forty-four, which was hastened by overwork and frustration, Herzl ruefully realized that no Moses reaches the Promised Land and said that he had given his heart’s blood for the Jewish people. He had predicted early in his quest that by virtue of the grandeur and urgency of his cause he would associate and negotiate with the mighty of the earth as their equal, and in the succeeding years Herzl, who was endowed with a great capacity for self-deception, was received by the duplicitous Turkish sultan Abdul Hamid II (from whom he unsuccessfully strove to obtain a charter for the settlement of Palestine, then part of the Ottoman Empire), Kaiser Wilhelm II (from whom he vainly attempted to secure a German protectorate over Palestine), Pope Pius X, the Italian king Victor Emmanuel II, Czar Nicholas of Russia, and leaders of the Austrian and British governments. To these potentates Herzl represented Zionism as an effective antidote to socialism and other forms of radicalism and sedition. At one time the British offered Uganda and other controversial territories, which, in the face of pogroms in Eastern Europe, were deemed by some Zionists to be acceptable as a “shelter for the night.” These endeavors and accomplishments, to be sure, also obliged Herzl to deal with unctuous crackpots, charming rogues, corrupt intermediaries, and colorful adventurers, and he found himself caught in a vortex of international intrigues, power politics, and diplomatic deceit.

In some ways Herzl was prophetic. He wrote, after the First Zionist Congress in 1897, “At Basel I founded the Jewish State Perhaps in five years, and certainly in fifty, everyone will realize it.” In other, equally important respects, however, the great amateur of realpolitik was astonishingly naive and even obtuse and...

(The entire section is 2003 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 34)

Library Journal. CXIV, October 1, 1989, p.100.

The New York Times. December 15, 1989, p. B7(N).

The New York Times Book Review. XCIV, December 31, 1989, p.9.

Newsweek. CXV, January 15, 1990, p.57.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVI, September 22, 1989, p.44.

The Washington Post Book World. XIX, December 17, 1989, p.1.