Theodor Herzl


  • Herzl – a biography by Amos Elon, published 1975 by Holt Rinehart Winston
  • Chaim Weizman – by Isaiah Berlin in his 1957 Herbert Samuel lecture
  • Theodor Herzl – a biography by Alex Bein
  • Introduction to Herzl’s ‘The Jewish State’ by Louis Lipsky, published 1946 by the American Zionist Emergency Council
  • The Jewish State – by Theodor Herzl
  • Altneuland – by Theodor Herzl
  • The Dunera Internees – by Benzion Patkin

The historical setting

The history of the exile of the Jewish people from Israel and from Jerusalem dates back to the destruction of the First Temple in about 422 BCE. The Babylonians exiled the Jews to Babylon and were themselves conquered by the Persians, who allowed the Jews to return to Israel seventy years after their exile.

The Temple was rebuilt – in the sense that the original Temple was reconstucted to some extent but then, under the rule of Herod, the Temple was completely rebuilt on a new, extended platform.

That temple is known as the Second Temple. From the destruction of the First Temple and throughout various occupations thereafter the Jews remained in the land as a more or less independent people until the occupation in about 60BCE by Romans, who became the dominant power in the region.

After a series of revolts the Second Temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70CE and the Jews expelled from Jerusalem.

While a number of Jews remained in Israel and Jerusalem throughout the whole of the next nineteen hundred years, Israel did not become a national homeland for Jews until the emergence of the State of Israel in 1948.

The story of Theodor Herzl is the story of the emerging nationhood of the Jewish People and the part he played in it. It is also the story of the personal journey of Herzl towards his identification and connection with his Jewish identity.

Through Herzl it was said, Jews were taught not to fear the consequences of demanding national freedom. In the words of Richard Beer Hoffman, a poet and contemporary of Herzl “At last there comes again a man who does not carry his Judaism on his back as a burden or misfortune but is proud to be its heir.”

Nonetheless is took two World Wars to bring about the sense or feeling that prevailed in the days that led up to the declaration by the United Nations in 1947 of the intent to establish the State of Israel.

That sense was described by Louis Lipsky in his introduction to the 1946 reprint of Herzl’s manifesto as a sense “that the people and the desire of the people would not be rendered ineffectual against the wishes of those political leaders who engaged in a struggle for power as a game that was in the end no more than vanity”.

There is a lingering story about Herzl that he wanted to cart everyone off to Uganda and found the new Jewish State there. And it is absolutely true that he negotiated for a protectorate there.

But he did that at the same time as he was pursuing a homeland in Palestine. And at the same time as he was pursuing a homeland in Sinai. And elsewhere.

And the reason he pursued these different pronged advances to the cause of Jewish nationalism is because he felt that his wish to return to the land of his forefathers; and the wish of Jews across Europe and Russia to return to the land of their forefathers was all well and good, but if there were no Jews then it was all for nought.

And he saw that the mass of Jews were oppressed and that the situation was growing worse as antisemitsm spread across Europe. And his sense of responsibility to his fellows was such that he felt that while there were poor and downtrodden Jews in desperate need of a secure haven, he did not have the right to insist on a homeland in Palestine.

At the time, his stance almost destroyed his reputation within the Zionist movement.

In one sense he was right, for the Holocaust can be seen as a direct heir to the antisemitism of the late 1800s. And if the Zionist movement had swung behind him and opted for Uganda, perhaps history would be very different.

And in one sense he was perhaps wrong, for Jews and Israel and Jerusalem are so bound up in the meaning of each other that to separate them is to destroy part of each of them.

But if he was wrong, he was not wrong from bad intent. And the sense he gave to people that their movement towards a homeland would not be stopped, is of tremendous significance in the way history played itself out.


Theodor Hertzl, the father of Jewish nationalism, was born in 1860 and died in 1904 aged 44. He was born at a time when the Jewish world was divided between the comparative freedom of Western Europe, and the extreme isolation of the Pale of Settlement, where the Jews of Russia were contained.

On the stage of world history, there were advantages and disadvantages to both situations. In the Pale of Settlement living conditions were hard but the communities held fast to the Jewish traditions that has been with them in exile in some form or other since the destruction of the Second Temple. Their sense of identity and of community was therefore very strong.

In the West, Jews had opportunities open to them to succeed in life, but they were often assimilated into the general culture and removed from the traditions that had maintained and made their identity to that point.

Herzl was born in Budapest to a prosperous family. His father was a banker and his mother was the wife of a banker, and a lover of German culture. In Budapest ‘the other capital’ of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, they lived comfortably, in the most fashionable area of town.

It was next door to the Main synagogue, which was housed in a very large and recently built building. It was a Reform synagogue, which meant that it identified closely with the changing world and the culture of the host country.

There is some evidence according to the biographer Alex Bein, that the young Herzl (Benjamin ben Ze’ev) attended synagogue, but by the time Herzl was in his late teens there is no evidence that he identified himself with his Jewish roots to any more extent than that his roots were historical facts out of which he had grown.

Of the young Herzl, one can reflect on what thoughts went through his mind as he watched the people come and go to the synagogue next door to his parents’ house.

But there is no suggestion that in his later youth he identified himself in any sense as a Jew – with the connotation of religious identification and observance, a sense of history unfolding according to God’s plan, or of the world being run other than by the forces of men’s power to make them happen.


The family might have stayed in Budapest but in 1878, following and partly because of the death of Herzl’s sister Pauline from typhoid fever at age 19, Herzl and his parents moved to Vienna. Herzl was 18.

In Budapest Herzl had tried to make a name for himself as a playwright and as a writer – of articles, stories, and poems – and even at 18 he was already feeling rejected because his works were not being appreciated or published to any great extent.

While Budapest was a capital, it was provincial in comparison to Vienna. And so Herzl, who was gifted in languages and could speak German and Hungarian, French and English, took to Vienna like a duck to water.

He was at home with the cosmopolitan atmosphere, the culture, and moreover it gave him a greater opportunity to succeed as a writer.

It was said that if Vienna outshone Budapest, it did not play second fiddle to Berlin either. Berlin was described as the workhorse; Vienna was the aristocrat of culture – gay and lighthearted.

It was the most cosmopolitan city in the Austro-Hungarian Empire; populated by Bavarians, Czechs, Croatians, Italians, Magyars, Poles, Serbs, Swabians, and Jews. By 1880, ten percent of the population were Jewish.

But behind the facade of its newly constructed avenues and buildings, were the tenements that housed the poverty-ridden population that kept the gaiety going. And when Herzl and his parents moved to Vienna the gaiety was already creaking and showing signs of age.


Herzl and his parents were assimilated Jews at a time when, and in a place where, most avenues to social acceptance were open to Jews.

A career in the universities or civil service was barred to Jews but there were the arts, medicine. law and the sciences. There was a sense that Jews were more or less accepted.

Or so it seemed. Ten years after they arrived, the greatest wave of anti-semitism to sweep Western Europe would erupt Paris and travel throughout Europe to Vienna. The seeds of that were already being sown within a short time of Herzl’s arrival there.

In Vienna Herzl studied law at university, and there is some evidence he contracted a venereal disease, for he swapped remedies with his close friend Kana. As a student, Herzl wanted to engage with the majority German culture at the university and he joined a Teutonic student fraternity.

He adopted the culture of the student society even so far as to train for and take part in the ritual of the Mensur – fencing bouts entered into with the intention of getting and giving facial scars. He duly received his scar and retired with his fellow members to drink and celebrate his initiation.

Over the months that followed however, the attractions of the student society did not hold his attention and he found himself alienated from his fellow fraternity members. This came to a head as a result of the events that followed the publication in 1882 of Eugen During’s ‘The Jewish Question as a Radical, Ethical and Cultural Question’.

Eugen During was a renowned German scholar given to arguments, who had quarreled with his university colleagues, and because of his argumentative stance, was forced to resign. In 1882 he wrote his antisemitic treatise, which demanded the withdrawal of civil rights from Jews, and it quickly found an audience.

Herzl was so incensed by the book that he wrote long notes to himself about it in which he makes clear that, while he believed that the descrimination was abhorrent and unjustified, there were elements in the description of the ‘crookedness of Jewish morality… and lack of ethical seriousness” that all Jews should read.

Herzl was still the observer. Even when he resigned from his student society on principle when it declared its ‘Wagnerian antisemitism’ and identification with the views of During, he did so as a benevolent onlooker with only loose ties to the Jews whose rights he sought to defend.

He was anyway bound to lose friends in his student society, for he was said in those years to have affected a haughty, world-weary demeanour and found it difficult or impossible to throw that off even among his friends.

He affected German manners and attitudes and disdained provincial things and provincial types. If he thought of his Jewishness it was in terms of how far it fell from his ideal. He kept a diary throughout his life and wrote in 1885, after attending a party, about who he had seen there: “Some thirty or forty ugly little Jews and Jewesses and no consoling sight”.

This was the Herzl who would transform himself into the man who more than any other can be said to have willed the creation of a Jewish State into being.

Marriage, Family and Friends

At 26 he married a woman eight years his junior. She was the daughter of a successful industrialist and she was Jewish. Considering the distance that Herzl placed between himself and things Jewish, it is interesting that he married a Jewish woman.

They had three children but their marriage was difficult and Herzl took extended trips in Europe to avoid the complete breakdown of his marriage.

Above all, Herzl was a private man with very few friends; though very close to his parents, even when he was married. And the desire to be successful was of great importance to him. So he took pride that by age 30 he had plays in performance in theatres throughout Germany.

It all changed though when after one disastrous play on the subject of marital relations (one that reflected on the wreck of his own married life), he was suddenly out of fashion. Failure after success hit him hard, as did the death by suicide at this time of his friend Heinrich Kana.

Although Herzl was a private man, he confided more or less all his thoughts to Kana. So it shook him when his friend committed suicide.

At that time he viewed the death of his friend as a loss to himself and to the world. Some years later, when his ideas on the emancipation of the Jewish people was developing, he saw his friend’s death in another light – as an indulgence at a time when the world needed men of capacity and vision.

But in 1890, at age 30 and faced with the possibility of divorce, he embarked on another of the tours of Europe that he took whenever life was becoming difficult, and he continued to write travel articles for various newspapers.

His observations on life that chararcterised his articles had matured, and on account of that he was plucked from wondering about what he was going to do with his life when he was offered the position of Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse.

Herzl the Successful Journalist

With a comparatively small readership of some 35,000, the Neue Freie Presse was however a bellwether of bourgeois taste and aspirations in Europe.

Paris and France were enormously influential in forming those tastes and aspirations. But the Paris that Herzl came to was in the throes of great change. It was the great artistic capital of Europe but there was a sense of the ‘end of things’ as the belle epoque slid into fin de siecle. There was also mass poverty and there were anarchist bomb plots, political assassinations, and financial scandals.

And there was rising anti-semitism. In 1885, Edouart Drumont had written a pseudo-scientific, anti-semitic book “La France Juive” (Judaized France), which blamed all the ills of France on the Jews. By 1890 it had sold over one million copies and was said to be the biggest best-seller of the 19th century.

Amid the financial scandals, the Panama Canal scandal more than any other, rocked France in 1891.

Over 100 politicians were discovered to have been bribed to keep quiet about the financial difficulties the Panama Canal Company was suffering, and through it France’s national coffers lost over one million francs.

Two of the speculators among the many who invested in and profited from the Panama Canal Company and its business methods, were Jewish. And although they were only two among many, they were singled out as the root cause of the scandal.


And then in 1894, Alfred Dreyfus, a young Jewish cavalry officer, was accused of passing defence papers to German spies. The issue gripped France and he was tried and convicted by a military court-marshal at what his champions believed was a show trial before a kangeroo court. He was stripped of his rank and sentenced to life imprisonment on Devil’s Island.

The writer Émile Zola wrote an open letter to the then President, Félix Faure; a letter to which the journalist and politician Georges Clemenceau had attached the headline “J’accuse”.

The letter caused a furore and exposed the divisions in French society – a country where a Jew could rise as an officer in the army but where at the same time he could be tried and convicted principally because he was a Jew, and not on the evidence.

     In 1899 Dreyfus’s conviction was quashed following the uncovering of exonerating evidence and of evidence that he had been denied due process during his court-martial.

He was retried but despite the new evidence, he was convicted again and sentenced to 10 years in prison. He was subsequently pardoned by the then President of France and freed, but was not exonerated until 1906, when his second conviction was quashed.

The Dreyfus Affair and the polarized attitudes of the population to Jews in France, galvanised Herzl as nothing before had done. He changed from a detached observer to an intensely involved man of his time. And he started to do what he knew best, which was to write.

The Development of Herzl’s Ideas

Herzl first wrote a speech. It was the speech he would give following the duel he would fight in a challenge to one of those who had written antisemitic books.

e would win the duel and be prosecuted. He would stand before the court and make such an empassioned plea on behalf of reason and the Jewish people that he would be aquitted and his speech would turn the mass of the population in friendship towards the Jews. Or he would lose the duel and his speech would be read after his death and achieve the same objective.

He soon abandoned that idea and turned to the idea of encouraging Jews to a mass conversion before the Pope. He contacted influential people and was roundly disabused of the wisdom of his plan by Moritz Benedikt, one of the publishers of the Neue Freie Presse, who pointed out that for hundreds of generations Jews had preserved themselves along the path of Judaism and that Herzl had no right to set himself up as the terminus.

Herzl thought again and concluded that if Jews could not become Christians then what they needed in order not to be apologists for themselves, was a State of their own.

For the first time he saw clearly that in the main they would not convert or assimilate, and that acceptance and emancipation was held in place by a slender thread that might break at any time – as witness the antisemitism that was occuring in Europe at this time.

The Jewish State

Herzl set about writing what would become ‘The Jewish State’ – a pamphlet, a manifesto, a rallying call, a description of the State that could become a reality rather than remain a utopian dream.

Herzl was not the first to write along these lines. In 1882, Leo Pinsker, a doctor from Odessa, was moved by the 1882 Russian pogroms to write ‘Auto-Emancipation: An appeal to his people by a Russian Jew’.

In 1893 Nathan Birnbaum, wrote a pamplet entitled ‘The National rebirth of the Jewish People in Its Own Country, as a Means to Resolve the Jewish Question’, and in that pamphlet, Birnbaum coined the term ‘Zionism’.

There is every indication that when Herzl wrote ‘The Jewish State’ he had no idea that either of these tracts had been published.


In Europe Herzl’s work was met with a mixture of uncertainty, derision, and hope. In the Pale of Settlement Herzl was hailed as the coming Messiah even though very few people had access to his book because of Czarist censorship.

News of his opinions passed by word of mouth and on Herzl’s journey to meet with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire (to negotiate a lease of land in Palestine), he was astounded to find crowds of people standing at stations along the route in the Pale of Settlement waiting to catch a glimpse of Herzl and be part of what he heralded.

The Pale of Settlement comprised an area roughly coverning present day Romania, Ukraine, Byelorussia, Latvia and Lithuania.

The Jews of the Pale of Settlement overall lived a miserable exisitence economically, in little towns and villages where they were often the majority of the population.

But while their lives were miserable in economic terms, their Jewish identification and knowledge of their heritiage was strong.

All of this was unknown to Herzl hitherto, who viewed the Jews of the East as an uncultured mass to be herded and brought along with the vision of the Jews of the cultured West.

In fact it was the seizmic reception given to Herzl’s ideas in the East that lit the fire in the West, first with the Jewish radicals in the universities and then to others.

Of course the poverty experienced by Jews in the East was reason enough for them to want a Jewish State, whereas the chance of upsetting a hard-won and somewhat precarious liberty and success was reason enough for the Jews of the West to be worried at the spread of Herzl’s views and hopes.

In the coming years, in meetings with diplomats and political leaders Herzl would promote the idea of the Jewish State as on the one hand removing or diverting Jews from more radical paths, and on the other hand allowing those Jews who were not moved by the idea of that State, to be quietly assimilated.

Which still begs the question of why Herzl’s book captured the imagination of so many people, where those others before him had not done so. One of the reasons may be Herzl’s background as a playwright. He dreamed, directed and wrote in dramatic terms. He drew a detailed picture of the new State and offered his audience an idea to grasp that they could visualise.

As he had commented some years before, it was the very amorphous quality of grand ideas that, properly presented, captures the imagination of people – as evidenced he said, by the fact that people would sit uncomfortably and still in their seats in theatres in order to drink in the ideas being portrayed on stage.

And Herzl was a minor celebrity – a sometime famous playwright, the Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse. When he wrote or spoke, people were inclined to listen – at least to listen, if not to be swept along by his ideas.

But more than than this, Herzl’s greatest production was himself.

As Chaim Weizman, the first President of Israel later wrote, he and his fellow Russian Zionist students of the the University of Berlin sensed that behind the tract that Herzl wrote, there was Herzl the historic personality.

To David Wolffson, a self-man millionaire, who would carry on Herzl’s work after his death, Herzl was a man of ‘majestic appearance’ who impressed him to the extent that he declared he would place himself at Herzl’s disposal unreservedly.

And so it is possible to see that the world-weary affectation of the young Herzl transformed itself into the historic personality, as the idea of Jewish emancipation clarified itself in Herzl’s mind.

Establishing contacts

Herzl was now a man with a mission, and his approach was to try to bring about the realization of the dream with a top-down approach.

While he saw, and tried to convince others to see that the unstoppable historical force was the collective will of the Jewish people and its desire to throw off poverty and discrimination, he believed that it was through personal intervention at the highest level of government and power that the State would be given to the Jews or bought or bartered by them.

His idea was simple. The Ottoman empire was badly in debt to Western interests. It had, however, the power to grant nationhood or Protectorate status to the Jews over an area of Palestine. Jewish philanthropists and financiers would provide the funds and a deal would be struck to pay off the debt in return for the land.

Two things stood in Herzl’s way. The Sultan would not give up land to the Jews because his subjects would object (particularly in the case of Jerusalem), and the philanthropists of Europe were wary of creating a Jewish State with their money because they feared doing so would create a distrust of all Jews in the minds of the host nations in Europe.

In their view, the Jews who had prospered in Europe had won a hard battle, and there was little incentive to them to create a nation on a patch of sand in the furthest reaches of the Mediterranean.

For Herzl, it was a time of intense diplomatic contacts. He travelled to istanbul to meet with the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. He met with Lord Montague in England and with Edmund de Rothschild in Paris. He was rebuffed by the Sultan and by the rich Jews of Europe.

But he would not be stopped and he spent endless hours in his apartments at number 9 Berggasse in Vienna, writing and meeting people. Sigmund Freud was meanwhile working on his theories at number 16 Berggasse.

The First Zionist Congress

In 1897 he began to draft the agenda for the first Zionist Congress. From the wording of the agenda it was clear to see that what this amounted to was the agenda of a government in exile. A government without a country but intent on obtaining one.

It echoed other political nationalist movements and in Herzl’s vision heralded not a romantic peasant return to the land of their forefathers, but a modern, industrialised State.

The Congress was to be held in Munich, but after the elders of the Jewish community there voiced their opposition on the grounds that it endangered their safety and the common perception of their German patriotism, Herzl moved the venue for the Congress to Basel, in Switzerland.

Herzl stage-managed everything, from the hall in which the delgegates met, to the formal dress they wore, to the agenda and the speeches. The Congress attracted delgates from all over the world and was a huge success.

Of it, Herzl wrote in his diary that the Jewish State was born in that Congress for there the delegates came to believe it themselves, and to believe that they were the founders and government of that State that lacked only a homeland.

At the Congress, Herzl met delegates from the Pale of Settlement and Russia and was deeply impressed with them. In his revised estimation he wrote in his diary that they were honest and filled with a soul and sense of being that eluded the Jews of Western Europe.

The rich Jews of Europe who could be the philanthropists, backers and financiers, stayed away from the Congress and were cool in the reception they gave Herzl later. They did not come forward to help and in 1897 Herzl decided to found a bank subscribed to by the Jewish people as a whole.

He needed underwriters as well as subscribers, and after a round of bitter meetings with Jewish financiers he became convinced that the Rothschilds had spread the word and were barring his chance of establishing the bank.

He wrote a scathing and damning article in Die Welt, the weekly Jewish newspaper he had started that year, accusing those rich Jews of being Mauschel (Kikes) – having characteristics precisely as dscribed by the antisemites.

A year later Die Welt had a readership of ten thousand, and the significance of the Zionist Movement was clear and undeniable to more and more people in Europe.

German intervention in Palestine

Herzl’s negotiations with the Turkish Vizier moved forward haltingly. Meanwhile a new player entered the arena. Kaizer Wilhelm of Germany wished to visit Jerusalem ‘as a pilgrim’. Actually he also wanted to have access to the railway to Basra and the oilfields of Mesopotamia, and thereby counter English and French designs on the region.

Herzl approached him via his advisors and asked for an audience. He finally had his audience in Palestine, but he achieved nothing other than further experience of dealing with people in high places.

Further Zionist Congresses came and went. Herzl made renewed and positive contacts with the Rothschilds. Meanwhile he himself grew desperate for a homeland for his people. He could see that antisemitism was getting worse and he opted to pursue several solutions at the same time.

Alternative solutions

One solution included a Protectorate in Sinai, under Egyptian sovereignty, with British influence in the background. Another proposed a Protectorate in Uganda under British authority.

That proposal almost caused a split and an end to the Zionist movement, for the Russian delegation would have no other solution but settlement in Palestine.

Herzl’s position was simple – he felt that while there were poor and downtrodden Jews in desperate need of a secure haven, he did not have the right to insist on a homeland in Palestine.

But in his lifetime none of the solutions he pursued bore fruit. But what he started did bear fruit for it was his contacts with British politicians and leaders that led to the Balfour Declaration in 1917 – a declaration that there would and should be a Jewish State in Palestine.

The end

Theodor Herzl died of heart failure in 1904, aged 44. In the final years of his life people said of him that he looked many years older than his actual age. He gave his life to Judaism and he gave it willingly. He impressed person after person, both friends and oponents, with the integrity of his mission.

He entered the political stage as a mildly amusing Don Quixote and he overcame everyone to establish for Jews a belief in the possibility, nay the unstoppable certainty, of having a homeland for themselves.

By his effort and vision he brought Jews from Russia, North Africa, and further afield to congresses in Western Europe. He taught Jews of that period more about themselves than they knew before. He brought people together under a banner that offered all of them opportunity in the new land, and excluded no-one.

May his soul rest in peace.