Theodor Herzl Biography


(History of the World: The 19th Century)

0111205145-Herzl.jpg (Library of Congress) Published by Salem Press, Inc.

Article abstract: Often called the “father of modern Zionism,” Herzl expounded on the need for a Jewish homeland and created an effective organizational framework for this political movement. His diplomatic missions to secure a Jewish state lent worldwide credibility to early Zionism.

Early Life

Theodor Herzl was born to a Jewish family which, like so many others of the era, diplayed confused notions about its cultural heritage. His grandfather, Simon Loeb Herzl, adhered to traditional religious observance, while his two brothers converted to Christianity. A successful businessman and banker, Theodor’s father, Jacob, hewed a middle line: He remained a culturally assimilated Jew. As the young Herzl approached his thirteenth year, his parents announced a “confirmation” rather than a “bar mitzvah.” Thus, Theodor made the passage into Jewish manhood.

The city of Pest (which merged with Buda in 1872 to become Budapest) similarly polarized its residents into either the Hungarian or the German cultural camp. Nationalism was only beginning to stir Europe. With a respect for what she deemed the more refined and cosmopolitan culture, Jeannette Herzl inculcated in her son a love of German language and literature.

Herzl began his formal education at the age of six, attending a bilingual (German and Hungarian) parochial school, the Israelitische Normalhauptschule. In 1869, he moved to a municipal technical institute, where he could pursue his alleged proclivities for the sciences. During the course of four years, however, Herzl found himself only motivated by the humanities. He even initiated and presided over a literary society, an activity which foretold both his journalistic interests and his leadership drive. The anti-Semitic remarks of a teacher finally hastened Herzl’s departure from the institute.

After these early educational experiments, the young Herzl at last entered the Evangelical Gymnasium, a nondenominational academy with a largely Jewish student body, which emphasized German culture and classical learning. He proved to be committed to his writing and, while still in secondary school, published a political article in the Viennese weekly, Leben, and book reviews for the Pest Journal. As Herzl neared graduation, his only sibling, an elder sister, Pauline, died of typhoid fever. The Herzls moved to Vienna one week later. Theodor returned to Budapest in June to complete his examinations, then entered the University of Vienna’s law school.

Law school proved to be rather routine, except for one incident. Herzl joined Albia, a fraternity at the University of Vienna. When the organization endorsed a memorial rally—with strong anti-Semitic overtones—for the composer Richard Wagner, Herzl issued a vehement protest letter and offered his resignation. Albia responded by expelling him. Herzl received his law degree in 1884. He was admitted to the Vienna bar and subsequently worked for criminal and civil courts. A year after commencing his legal practice, he left law altogether, finally choosing a writer’s life.

Perhaps Herzl most vigorously aspired to be a playwright. Though one of his works made it to the German-language stage in New York, critics generally judged his plays mediocre. He achieved far greater success writing feuilletons, observations of the various people, places, and characteristics defining late nineteenth century life. Summer travels, heavily subsidized by the elder Herzls, also yielded articles for the vaunted Neue Freie Presse. With his career advancing, Herzl married Julie Naschauer, an attractive young woman from a prosperous Jewish family. The union was to produce three children—and numerous difficulties. Thought to have had emotional problems, Julie probably also clashed with her domineering mother-in-law. Herzl’s prolonged absences only exacerbated the situation.

Life’s Work

Herzl, now married and in his thirties, received a professional assignment which, in its own way, was to change his life. October, 1891, brought a telegram from the Neue Freie Presse: The paper’s editors wanted Herzl to serve as Paris correspondent. For the rest of his days, he remained affiliated with the journal. Herzl’s locus, Paris, stood at the nucleus of late nineteenth century culture, and the writer developed from a feuilletonist into a journalist. With the trial of Captain Alfred Dreyfus, however, he also added a new element to his restless personality.

Dreyfus, a Jew, had been accused by the French government of treason. Perhaps the most egregious aspect of the 1894 trial was the virulent, far-flung anti-Semitism which it invoked. True to journalistic ethics, Herzl did not debate Dreyfus’ guilt or innocence; rather, he reported on the less-than-humane treatment meted out to the captain in this most civilized of Western European nations. As a result of the Dreyfus trial and a resurgence of anti-Semitism across the continent, Jewish issues emerged in Herzl’s writings, thoughts, and most important, actions. Mid-1895 marked the initiation of his Zionist career.

Preparing for visits with millionaire Jewish philanthropists Baron Moritz Hirsch and members of the Rothschild family, Herzl crystallized and committed to paper his developing ideas about a Jewish state. The meetings did not go well. As some scholars note, the philanthropists dwelled on charity; Herzl instead pondered nationhood as a self-help mechanism for the Jewish people. The notes which Herzl prepared for these...

(The entire section is 2291 words.)