The Spread of Anti-Semitism in France and Europe
Anti-Semitic tendencies were also growing stronger in other countries. In Hungary, a blood libel alleged that the Jews had murdered a Christian girl in order to use her blood to bake matzah for Passover. Although this allegation was disproved, anti-Semitic sentiment continued to foment in Hungary. In France, anti-Semitism reached its height with the Dreyfus affair, to which Herzl was directly exposed since he covered the developments in his position as Paris correspondent for the Viennese newspaper.
The situation of the Jews in France seemed much better than that of their coreligionists in Germany and Austria. The French Jews had been the first to secure emancipation, and had reached leading positions in the social elite. Their children attended prestigious schools in Paris, Jewish soldiers were promoted to the ranks of officers, and Jewish businessmen prospered. The Jews of France, and Paris in particular, filled prominent positions in public, economic and commercial life. Despite this, during the latter decades of the 19th century, anti-Semitic tendencies were also evident in France.
The defeat of France in 1870 and the loss of French territories around the world, combined with the economic difficulties faced by the country during this period, led to a resurgence of nationalist sentiments among the masses, which were exploited by racist intellectuals in order to disseminate their anti-Semitic theories. Popular hatred deteriorated into overt hostility toward successful Jews, and Drumont’s book Jewish France met with an alarmingly positive response. Drumont coined the phrase “Jewish invasion,” and heightened the sense among the masses that the Jews were aspiring to seize control of the country and would stop at nothing to achieve this goal.
Growing anti-Semitism led many Jews, both in Austro-Hungary and in France, to intensify their efforts to integrate in their surroundings, and to attempt to cast off any sign that might perpetuate their distinct status as “others.” Herzl himself initially believed that the “Jewish problem” could be solved relatively easily: If the Jews undertook public actions proving their national loyalty to the state, he hoped, the waves of anti-Semitism would die down and the Jews would once again secure their status as an integral part of German nation and culture. “Half a dozen duels might improve the condition of the Jews,” he wrote during this period, and even considered challenging one of the leaders of Austrian anti-Semitism to a duel, in the hope that such a move – whether it ended in his own death or that of his opponent – would provoke a storm and bring the problem of anti-Semitism into the public conscience. Moreover, Herzl believed that complete assimilation, manifested in an act of loyalty to Germany, would ensure the future of the Jews. He even expressed the view that anti-Semitism has a positive component, in that it can educate the Jews and galvanize their character.
However, anti-Semitic winds blew with increasing severity throughout Europe, and in France in particular. The newspapers frequently published cruel caricatures showing the image of the Jew in demonic and scornful terms, as a treacherous enemy “in whom all the injustice and ugliness of the world are channeled.” The French right-wing encouraged mass assemblies whose participants chanted anti-Jewish slogans, and concrete efforts were made to restrict the Jews, to confiscate their property and even to expel them from the country.
The Impact of the Dreyfus Trial on Herzl
As the Paris correspondent for the Neue Freie Presse, Herzl covered events that turned into racist riots. He was exposed to several anti-Semitic incidents and often heard the cry “Death to the Jews!” However, the event that left the deepest impression on him was the Dreyfus affair.
Alfred Dreyfus, a promising French-Jewish officer, was accused of treason, and, after a humiliating public ceremony at which he was stripped of his rank, he was imprisoned on Devil’s Island. The affair was the subject of intense public interest, and inflamed anti-Semitic passions. Anti-Semitic circles exploited the case of the Jewish “criminal” in order to spread hatred against the Jewish people among the French masses. Herzl, who initially believed that Dreyfus had indeed committed treason, began to doubt the veracity of the claims against him following the anti-Semitic outburst that followed the affair. “One Jew is accused of treason, and from every corner we already hear ‘Down with the Jews!’” Herzl wrote, and he began to wonder whether Dreyfus was actually the victim of a widespread anti-Semitic conspiracy designed to inflame anti-Jewish sentiments.
After investigating the subject, Herzl came to believe that the Jewish officer was completely innocent. Two years later, it was indeed revealed that the treacherous spy was not Dreyfus, but a French officer by the name of Esterhazy. After numerous demands to reveal the truth, and growing calls to prosecute the true offenders and acquit those who had done no wrong, it was decided to conduct a retrial. This decision was not taken easily, and was preceded by a public and political storm in France after the writer Emile Zola published an article in which he revealed the distorted way in which the original trial had been managed. Zola was arrested on the grounds that his comments defamed the state. After a protracted struggle, a retrial was eventually held, and it was ultimately decided that Dreyfus should be released; the court did not acquit him, but determined that he was “guilty with mitigating circumstances.” Only seven years later did the authorities agree to restore his army rank, and Dreyfus received an honorary award – but this came only in 1906, two years after Herzl’s death.
“I became a Zionist following the Dreyfus trial, to which I was a witness,” wrote Herzl in his diary. From these words it is clear that the Dreyfus Affair was one more link in the chain of events that led Herzl to Zionism. Although he does not devote much space to the incident in his diaries from that period, we may assume that the Dreyfus trial was more proof for Herzl that the Jews’ attempts to integrate into their European surroundings would not soften the strength of the anti-Semitic threat, and therefore the only solution was the establishment of an independent Jewish state.
Diary Fragments – “The Jewish Matter”
Herzl wrote out his developing Zionist vision and the steps that might be taken to advance it in his personal diaries, which he began to record around the time of the Dreyfus affair and continued until his death. “For some time, I have been engaged in a project of immeasurable scope. I do not know if I shall ever complete it. It has for me the form of a tremendous dream. Yet for some days and weeks it has filled my being to the point of insensibility… What will come of this cannot yet be estimated. But my experience tells me that this is something wonderful, if only as a dream, and that I must put it into writing.” With these words, Herzl began his first diary. “Anti-Semitism has grown and continues to grow - and so do I,” he added. His writings went on to describe his thoughts, hopes and fears regarding the Zionist vision, as well as the political steps to be taken for its realization.
“Writing has reinforced in me the thought that I must do something for the Jews,” Herzl wrote in the early pages of his diary. His writings, indeed, provide a faithful reflection of the manner in which he developed the Zionist vision.
The environment in which Herzl grew up, the atmosphere and culture he absorbed and the works he read – all played a part in developing his worldview. The stormy period with its political transformations, economic crises and social changes were a significant component in the development of his approach. Nationalist tendencies, growing anti-Semitism, increasingly severe racist statements all played a part in his realization that the “Jewish problem” could be ended only through a radical step – the establishment of an independent political entity in which the Jews could live in safety. To this end, Herzl worked fervently both on paper, expressing his beliefs in various writings, and in practical steps enabling the fulfillment of this vision.