In his thirties, Herzl lived in the two main centers of the time – Vienna, where he had lived since he was 18, and Paris, where he worked as the correspondent for the Vienna-based newspaper Neue Freie Presse. Herzl experienced the exciting atmosphere of these two cities, which constituted the spiritual, creative and social center of Europe, and was exposed to global changes that had a profound impact on the situation in both cities.
At the end of the 19th century, the author Hermann Broch defined Vienna, Herzl’s primary residence, as a “merry apocalypse:” The extensive revival of the city in the fields of industry, art, philosophy and science took place alongside the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Thus Vienna, as the capital of the empire, was simultaneously in a state of boom and decline. Inhabitants of the city pursued a hedonistic and wealthy lifestyle, spent their time at ostentatious balls and devoted much attention to social and creative leisure activities, yet the disintegration of the empire hovered in the background, producing a sense of anxiety and threat. The numerous changes in the political, economic and social spheres, and the emergence of nationalist and other ideologies, created a charged atmosphere that carried the vision of security and progress, but also engendered a sense of confusion and fear.
Johannes Brahms’ composition A German Requiem was a powerful expression of the general sentiment that an era was coming to an end. Many artists of the time produced works focusing on the themes of death and profound emotional upheaval, and these seemed to internalize the growing personal and collective obsession with questions relating to sex, death and mental anguish. It was abundantly clear that changes on the political and international map would shake the fabric of both personal and social life, and fear of impending change can clearly be seen in the works of the Expressionist artists. The leaders of the movement – the artists Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka; the literary figures Franz Werfel and Georg Trakl; and the composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg all worked in Vienna, and their creativity was clearly influenced by the spirit of the times, and perhaps influenced the times, as well.
The Viennese Jews were devoted to their city and patriotic to their country. They were thoroughly integrated in the surrounding society, and happily adopted local customs. They spoke and wrote in German, followed the latest cultural fashions, and felt that they were authentically Viennese. Herzl himself, although born in Budapest, was thoroughly Viennese in his character and lifestyle; indeed, the fact that he was not Viennese born and had arrived in the city in his youth may actually have led him to intensify his effort to adopt a Viennese identity.
Like most of the Jews of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Herzl felt he was lucky to be a subject of Emperor Franz-Josef, who adopted an enlightened and reasonable attitude towards the residents of the empire, Jews included. The Jews were involved in all fields of industry, economics and politics, and occupied key positions in the social elite of Budapest, Herzl's birthplace and the city where he spent his childhood. The Jews of Budapest had German cultural leanings, and saw themselves as an integral part of the empire.
Thus Herzl felt thoroughly at home in Austro-Hungary, and his Judaism did not lead to any sense of separation or alienation. As a child, he felt that he belonged to his Hungarian city and to the empire that surrounded it; as he grew older, he moved confidently in his surroundings, with a profound and self-confident sense of belonging. He saw his Judaism as one of the inherent components of his individual identity, but not as bearing any exceptional significance.
Like his fellow Jewish residents in the Viennese Prater, the home of many wealthy Jewish families who contributed to the prosperity of Vienna, Herzl saw himself as an integral and authentic part of the urban landscape. Toward the end of the 19th century, however, the picture changed. Rifts that had remained beneath the surface began to appear in a powerful and ugly manner. To the observer, Vienna seemed to change almost overnight from a stronghold of tolerance, pluralism and openness to a narrow-minded city dominated by racist emotions and anti-Semitic movements – a society that offered security and the hope of advancement only to those who met clear and strict conditions of religion, race and nationality. In fact, however, this process occurred gradually, and its early symptoms could have been identified.
Even while it flourished as a prosperous cultural center, strong tensions could already be sensed in Vienna – the result of the profound gulf between the different classes of society. Alongside the prosperous residents of the city, many lived in intolerable poverty and appalling deprivation. These residents suffered hunger, disease and social ostracism, and the tremendous gaps between the different classes found their _expression as the empire collapsed. The impoverished proletarians faced severe pressure: they were excluded from social and political life, not allowed to vote, prohibited from forming associations and, needless to say, lacked any parliamentary representation. Herzl supported the workers’ rights, which he felt should be secured in an official manner. In his book Der Judenstaat (The Jewish State, 1896), for example, he proposed that the working day be limited to seven hours and argued in favor of easing working conditions for women. But the weaker classes apparently never had the opportunity to read this, and even if they had, it is doubtful that this would soften the anti-Semitic tendencies that were already gaining force on either side of the political map: both the common masses and well-educated capitalists blamed the Jews for the economic crises affecting Europe, and, under the influence of traditional anti-Semitic beliefs, spread malicious rumors against the Jews, claiming that their success reflected a Jewish conspiracy to take control of the world.
The Jews found themselves in a complex situation, subject to pressure from all sides. The traditional forces, seeking to preserve their own status, were threatened by the Jews and feared that, as a minority, they would demand special privileges and rights; the workers and underprivileged sections of society, by contrast, saw the Jews as a wealthy class, thoroughly integrated in elite circles and enjoying great and envious influence over market and social forces. Thus, from every perspective the Jews faced a problematic reality. They were depicted as holding mysterious and ethereal power with ancient roots, yet their prosperous condition also led them to be seen as a modern threat, symbolizing revolutionary and dangerous innovation. Some Socialists made hateful statements based on the emotions of jealousy and revenge, but the more common expressions of anti-Semitism came from conservative right-wing circles, which saw the Jews as a symbol of the disintegration of traditional social order.
The status of the Jews weakened progressively. Many Jews who held senior positions in commerce, the economy and the banking system were deposed, and the previously strong relations between the Jews and key figures in government and public administration were constantly eroded. The Jews were accused of being responsible for economic crises and political corruption, and anti-Jewish propaganda became widespread. The “Berlin Movement,” led by Adolf Stoecker, called for an end to Jewish emancipation, and German newspapers published anti-Semitic cartoons and articles expressing fierce hatred.
The Jews occasionally encountered overt manifestations of anti-Semitism. In his diaries, Herzl describes an incident he experienced in Germany in early 1887. After leaving an inn, people shouted the anti-Semitic slogan “Hep, hep,” at him and he was subjected to mockery. Another time, when traveling in a carriage in the city of Baden in Austria, he was subjected to the epithet “Jewish pig.” However, Herzl considered these incidents to be exceptional, since he was generally treated with respect and sympathy. Despite his classically “Semitic” appearance, he rarely experienced manifestations of hostility. While the rare occasions on which he personally experienced anti-Semitism influenced him and encouraged his reflection on Jewish affairs, he only gradually developed his conclusion that the “Jewish question” required a radical solution in the form of an independent state.
His Zionist philosophy developed in the context of the changes and transformations that occurred in Europe in the mid-19th century, as the religious establishment and the main institutions of power were weakened following the collapse of the major empires and the growing strength of nationalist movements. The nationalist sentiments that emerged in various circles did not themselves present a threat, but their form of _expression quickly assumed a dangerous and violent character, as reflected in the increasing popularity of anti-Jewish writers.
One of the most prominent examples of this trend was The Jewish Question, a book by Eugen Karl Dühring. Dühring, a professor of philosophy and economics at the Berlin University, was dismissed from his post due to his aggressive character, and blamed the Jews for his fate. By way of revenge, he wrote The Jewish Question (Die Judenfrage), in which he employed pseudo-scientific justifications for anti-Semitism. Herzl showed an ambivalent attitude toward this book – since he admired the standard of the author’s writing, he was particularly appalled by the content. “A despicable work, and, tragically, written so well, as if it were not base jealousy that had composed it, using a pen dipped in the poison of personal vengeance,” he wrote in his diary (February 9, 1882). “If an author such as Dühring, with a penetrating mind and an eclectic and global education, can write such things – what then can we expect from the ignorant rabble?... The dismissed professor is motivated solely by feelings of revenge and impotent hatred, and is disgustingly bitter. While at the outset he controls his spirit and cloaks himself in science, that frightened horse called hatred ultimately gallops away with him in a wild frenzy…”
Herzl astutely realized that Dühring drew on partial fragments of the truth in order to create a distorted picture of the world, characterizing the Jewish people as an inferior, base and essentially negative race. “He describes the Jews as the witches of medieval times were described by evil preachers,” Herzl noted, realizing the serious ramifications of this book since its pseudo-scientific character could provide legitimate and pseudo-intellectual justification for anti-Semitic sentiments, which, he feared, would be attracted to Dühring’s depiction of the Jews as greedy usurpers who grew wealthy at the expense of simple workers. Simple people, who were unable to distinguish truth from lies and fact from fiction and to discern wild and base exaggerations might be swept along by such texts.
Unfortunately, Herzl’s concerns were justified. Anti-Semitism indeed flourished, both in writings and in everyday life. At the beginning of 1893, some two years after the Dreyfus affair, Herzl wrote to his friend, author Arthur Schnitzler: “There will be a revolution here this year. If I do not escape in time to Brussels, I will presumably be executed as a German spy, as a Jew or as a capitalist, while I am nothing more than a used and worn-out trapeze artist.” This gloomy prediction accurately reflects a growing trend: Jews were falsely accused of treason, faced trumped-up charges of planning sinister plots, and, in general, Jew became an epithet symbolizing an unappetizing external and mental character. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, one of the harshest anti-Semitic texts, was distributed in tens of thousands of copies, rekindling the perception of Jews as cunning plotters.
Herzl watched the rise of anti-Semitism with a profound sense of concern. He was horrified by Dühring’s book, but began to express his concern in tangible form following the wakes that took place to honor German composer Richard Wagner, which often turned into anti-Semitic displays.
Herzl admired Wagner’s music, but, like many others, abhorred his racist opinions. After his death (1893), Wagner became a symbol of the German spirit and nation, and his admirers praised not only his moving compositions, but also the words of hate he wrote against the Jews. The “Albia”student movement, of which Herzl was a member, held a memorial ceremony for the composer in March 1883, at which fiercely anti-Semitic speeches were made. In response, Herzl asked to be discharged from the association on honorable terms. The members of Albiadecided to expel him, yet despite this step, which was the first time Herzl protested in such manner, he continued to see himself as thoroughly German, and anti-Semitism did not lead him to serious or organized action.
Some two years later, Herzl realized that “the situation cannot improve. It will inevitably get worse – to the point of slaughter. The governments can no longer prevent this, even if they wish to” (diary, June 7, 1895). This gloomy forecast was to prove accurate. During the last decade of the 19th century, Jews were prohibited from joining political parties, workers’ associations and other groups, and found themselves stripped of any influence. Their exclusion was sometimes covert and sometimes overt: Some organizations enacted explicit regulations prohibiting the admission of Jews, while others refrained from doing so officially, while adopting hostile policies in practice. The public administration refrained from employing Jews; they were refused appointments by the courts and universities; and Jewish army officers were not promoted. In Austria, Jewish students were the first to experience hatred towards them, and after a short time the fraternities refused to accept Jews into their ranks. Anti-Jewish incitement grew progressively worse, and extremist nationalist parties gained strength. The book German Writers, published in 1878, described the German nation as embroiled in a violent conflict with the Jews, and claimed that if the German Volk (people) wished to be victorious, it must destroy the Jews as one destroys bacteria. Christian religious motives accelerated the support among the German masses for anti-Semitic parties such as the Christian Social Organization, and, in 1875, Karl Lueger, one of the movement’s leaders, was elected to the Vienna city council. Lueger, who was known for his fierce anti-Jewish attacks, was later elected as mayor of the city, and Hitler would claim that he was one of the people who had the strongest influence on him. In Lueger’s Vienna, “I laid the foundations of my world view, and found my political path. Later I would need only to fill in the details,” commented the Nazi leader.