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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

Europe Against the Jews, 1880-1945

Götz Aly

Metropolitan Books



Prophets of Future Horrors

Numerous social and political currents were shifting in Europe in the decades before and after 1900. The national-democratic movements weren’t yet victorious, but they were developing and spreading while the large European empires showed the first signs of crumbling. In the nations of Central Europe, Jewish minorities achieved legal equality, encouraging the belief among national majorities that Jews enjoyed superior privileges to everyone else. Communism, which had arisen as a theory in nineteenth-century Western Europe, became a practical reality in Russia in 1917. Although themselves enemies, both socialists and nationalists fought against liberalism, which had been the political force driving the social and economic changes of the nineteenth century. Both were either skeptical of or hostile toward individual liberties, free trade, and the free-market economy. Terms like liberalism and individualism became insults. Nationalist, socialist, and national-socialist concepts of equality were gaining popularity, with their adherents wearing standardized uniforms and brandishing identical symbols. These groups prioritized the internal homogeneity and solidarity of their own particular collectives above everything else, drawing strict distinctions between themselves and other groups, which they defined, in one form or another, as their enemies.

The dawning twentieth century opened up previously unimaginable possibilities, wealth, and opportunities for many of Europe’s underprivileged. Everywhere, governments tackled the problem of illiteracy and hastened to expand school and university systems. Barriers between social classes were lowered, and people were encouraged to better themselves socially. Technological and medical achievements were part of this liberation. The results could be sudden leaps up the social ladder or profound declines. Seen as a whole, Jews in Europe were one of the groups that took advantage of the new possibilities. They not only sang the words of the traditional labor movement hymn: “No saviour from on high delivers / Our own right hand the chains must shiver.” Jews lived them—with great inventiveness and daring.

Every transition from one century to the next gives rise to predictions, and none occasioned more than the year 1900. Despite the Belle Époque’s seeming peace and calm, old certainties were rapidly disappearing, and increasing numbers of people came to feel that the future entailed serious risks. Jews during this period thought critically and realistically about their future, while self-proclaimed adversaries and friends also sought to redefine Jewishness for the modern world. Theodor Herzl turned the anti-Semitic nightmare scenarios of his day into powerfully worded dreams of a Jewish state. “If you really want it,” he told his followers, “then it is no fairy tale.”

Zionism: “We Are One People!”

While working as a newspaper correspondent in Paris in late 1894, Herzl was able to closely observe the Dreyfus trial, in which the Alsatian military captain Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish member of the French general staff, was convicted on false evidence of passing military secrets to Germany and exiled from France for life. “The popular organism has been afflicted with the Dreyfus disease,” Herzl wrote, adding that cries of “Death to the Jews” had echoed in the streets of Paris. Because the case was ostensibly about military secrets, the public was excluded from the trial. Like other reporters, Herzl had to make do with scraps of information gathered outside the military court. He did so in a brilliant, no-frills style that remains exemplary even today. His report about the public degradation of Dreyfus, carried out in the courtyard of the École Militaire on the dreary winter morning of January 5, 1895, appeared that afternoon in the Viennese newspaper Neue Freie Presse.

“Several minutes after nine, Dreyfus was led out,” wrote Herzl. “He wore his captain’s uniform. Four men brought him in front of the general, who said: ‘Alfred Dreyfus, you are unworthy of bearing arms. In the name of the French people, I strip you of your rank. The verdict has been carried out.’ Dreyfus then raised his right hand and said: ‘I swear and declare that you are degrading an innocent man. Vive la France!’ At that very moment, drum rolls began. The military bailiff began to tear off the decorations, which had previously been loosened from Dreyfus’s uniform. Dreyfus maintained his calm demeanor.”1

It shook Herzl to the core that “even in the France of the Great Revolution,” an assimilated Jewish officer who should have been equal under the law and who had been promoted to captain could be stripped of his rank. Herzl empathized with Dreyfus as a disrespected Jew and a defenseless individual victim of a collective defamation.

Working independently of the existing Jewish nationalist associations, Herzl composed his manifesto, The Jewish State, during his final two months in Paris. Intoxicated by his vision for the future, he allowed himself little respite while writing. “My only relaxation in the evening was going to hear to Wagner’s music,” he wrote. “Especially Tannhäuser, an opera that I can listen to as often as it is performed.”

The Jewish State—A Political Manifesto

Viewed from the Zionist perspective, Jews constituted a nationality rather than a religious community. This was a new idea. Instead of civic integration and legal emancipation for individuals, Zionists pushed for the collective emancipation through the creation of a Jewish state. In so doing, Zionism offered an alternative model for how Jews could react to political realities. The Zionist movement founded in Basel in 1897 aimed at bringing Jews together to form an independent nation that would then become a sovereign member of an increasingly nationally organized world of peoples and states.

Coming in the wake of a number of literary predecessors, Herzl’s manifesto, The Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question, established itself as a work of lasting significance. Published in 1896, it examined how Jewish national desires had become dormant, only to reawaken in recent years. In the preface to the German edition of the pamphlet, Herzl had a simple explanation for the reemergence: because “the earth resounds with calls to act against Jews.”2

Herzl began by admitting that he would not be able to describe the state of which he dreamed. He also expressed some self-doubt: “Am I ahead of my time? Is the suffering of Jews not yet great enough? We will see.” Herzl, who would die at the age of forty-four, eight years after the publication of his programmatic work, had no way of suspecting how many doors, borders, and harbors would be closed to Jews and how much horror would descend upon them before the state of Israel was created in 1948.

Given this, two retrospective questions are of particular interest to us today. How did Herzl perceive the anti-Jewish agitation and violence of his day, roughly half a century before the Holocaust? And why did he consider the liberal path of cultural coexistence and progressive assimilation a failure? Prior to the publication of his pamphlet, Herzl himself had long been a believer in assimilation. But by 1896, he stressed that resentment, envy, and hatred toward Jews was not a local but a global threat, wherever Jews “lived in visible numbers.”

“In Russia Jewish villages are burned to the ground,” Herzl wrote. “In Romania, a few Jews are killed. In Germany, they are beaten on occasion. In Austria, the anti-Semites terrorize the entirety of public life. In Algeria, itinerant preachers spew hatred. In Paris, the so-called better society closes ranks to keep Jews out.” Herzl could not see any signs that things could get better. In his view, the culturally nationalist zeitgeist was leading to the creation of more or less homogeneous nations. “Everywhere we have made honest attempts to subsume ourselves in the life of the people around us and to preserve only the faith of our fathers,” Herzl wrote by way of summarizing his own life as well. “But this is not allowed.”

Herzl avoided expressing outrage. He engaged in no tub-thumping about injustice, human rights, equality before the law, or even the worst violations of the simplest commandments of civilization, enlightenment, and humanity. He accepted the challenge of the anti-Semitism all around him and defined it as a question of power versus impotence. From this vantage point, it was imperative for Jews to no longer be subjected to national majorities that could arbitrarily decide who was a foreigner. Herzl considered it a truism that “we” (the pronoun he used when referring to Jews as a collective) could only escape by also regarding “ourselves” as a nation and forming a corresponding state. For this vision to become reality, Jews would need a territory, preferably Palestine, and an effective military. He painted a picture of this modern state with police, tax authorities, statistics, and diplomacy, organized around a rational, secular construct of laws and institutions. Religion did not serve as a constitutional basis. It was the cultural framework that would bring together all Jews, no matter how different their ways of life.

Herzl urgently warned Jews against getting lulled into a false sense of security in times of decreased persecution or economic or social prosperity among what he called the “host peoples,” writing: “The longer anti-Semitism is in coming, the crueler the outbreak will be.” From his experiences in Budapest, Vienna, Berlin, and Paris, Herzl had become only too well acquainted with the main reason hostility toward Jews could quietly grow. “The infiltration of immigrant Jews, attracted by the illusion of security, together with the rise in social class among established Jews proved a potent combination and encourages upheaval,” he wrote. Herzl predicted that there would be nationalist revolutions directed against Jews in precisely those countries where they seemed to have little to fear and to be decently well integrated. As we now know, Herzl was accurately describing the repressed but no less malevolent anti-Semitism that was coming to a boil not just in Germany, but also in France and Hungary.

Herzl understood the project of a Jewish state as the necessary antidote to two millennia of intense suffering that, while horrific, contained a lesson for the future. “Whole branches of Jewishness can die and fall to the ground, but the tree lives,” Herzl wrote. In his view, Zionists and anti-Semites were tacitly working hand in hand, the latter by forcing Jews to gather their strength and take their destinies into their own hands. With good leadership and sufficient force of will, they could succeed in transforming themselves from passive, abused historical objects, who were at best tolerated, into active historical subjects. Herzl believed in historical determinism, prophesying that “the world needs a Jewish state,” which would arise in a “council of the world’s civilized nations.” The reason why was simple: “We are one people.”

Between Revolution and the “Terrible Power of Money”

Socially and economically, The Jewish State picked up on the great misery and opportunities of the industrial age. In Herzl’s eyes, the furious pace of technological progress and the constant development of new commodities were important factors driving the new hostility toward Jews. What had created this hostility, he asked rhetorically. “The entrepreneurial spirit.” What was the opposite of that spirit? “Sedentary” work. What was a typical example of such work? “The farmer in his field who stands on exactly the same spot as his ancestors stood one thousand years ago.” This “historical category,” Herzl believed, would quickly disappear because the “agrarian question” was essentially a “question of machinery,” and ultimately American-style progress would win out over the European cult of the land. Consequently, he approved of the fact that European Jews didn’t allow themselves to be “converted into farmers.”

The anti-Semitic stereotype of rag-trading Eastern European Jews ready to pour across the Prussian border and work their way upward more quickly than sluggish Christian natives was familiar from the political writings of the ultraconservative historian Heinrich von Treitschke. Herzl, however, described such people sympathetically as an incipient Jewish proletariat “thrown to and fro by political pressure and economic need, from place to place, country to country.” Poor Jewish immigrants from Galicia, Western Russia, and Romania were rejected by socially established Jewish citizens who feared that their co-religionists from the east would fan the flames of anti-Semitism anew. The affluent gentlemen of the Friendly Society of German Jews also considered Yiddish, a “German-Jewish jargon,” a “degraded” parody of their own educated language and an offense to the ear.3

This sort of upper-middle-class smugness was foreign to the politician Herzl. His affinities with Marxist thought led him to tailor his Zionist project to the needs of the poorest of the poor and to count on their desire to put their crushing poverty behind them. He promised them upward mobility, a thoroughly modern economy, and a social-welfare state of the first order. Herzl repeatedly put forward the idea of the Jewish nation as a “seven-hour land,” going the unsuccessful demands of the Social Democratic movement for an eight-hour workday one better.4 But Herzl also thought the state should take a hard line toward anyone unwilling to work: “Beggars will not be tolerated. Those who refuse to do anything voluntarily will be sent to the workhouse.”

At the center of the utopia presented in The Jewish State is what Herzl’s Zionist predecessor Leo Pinsker (1821–1891) called a vision of collective “auto-emancipation.” Like Herzl, Pinsker had long placed his faith in assimilation, and because of this conviction he had founded a society to support the advancement and education of Russia’s Jews. But he ultimately changed his mind in the face of increasing Judeophobia, which he came to consider an immutable fact of life that left its victims with no choice but to find a territory of their own where they could happily live independently.5

According to Herzl’s plan, the gradual, controlled emigration of Jews would benefit their former homelands by allowing for the “internal migration of Christian citizens into the posts vacated by Jews” and “an unprecedentedly peaceful rise of the [Christian] masses to prosperity.” State governments would also profit from a slow, controlled exodus of Jews. The Jewish Company, which would administer the assets Jews left behind, would offer large-scale properties to the governments in question at favorable terms. Governments would be able to sell the assets they had acquired so cheaply to private buyers and use the revenues generated for “specific social improvements on a large scale.” This amounted to a redistribution of assets. Herzl combined the Jewish and the social questions so as to solve the former while alleviating the latter. As we will see, the ideas of most anti-Semites ran in similar, if far more militant directions. They, of course, demanded that the Jews disappear sooner rather than later, no matter how, so that jobs and economic opportunities would become available.

Read retrospectively, The Jewish State contains alarming diagnoses and recommendations about how to avoid the impending catastrophe. Herzl compared the potential effects of Jewish emigration on the general (Christian) standard of living to the redistribution of assets during the French Revolution. The difference, he emphasized, was that the latter was the result of a breakdown of law and order, a state of anarchy and rivers of blood. His project, he emphasized, aimed to create peaceful, legal procedures for separating Jews and Christians. He urged his supporters not to equate traditional religious narrow-mindedness with the anti-Semitism of his day, since he understood the latter as the immediate consequence of Jews’ economic and legal emancipation, which had turned them into “terrible competition” for both the traditional and newly ambitious Christian middle classes. Conversely, such anti-Semitism meant that while members of the well-educated Jewish middle class could rise into the capitalist bourgeoisie, they were barred from certain careers, and there were ceilings on their advancement. Jews, for instance, were not allowed to become civil servants or serve in the military. Unable to pursue their ambitions and often living in a materially precarious situation, overeducated Jews formed an “academic proletariat” that tended toward socialism.

Herzl himself distinguished between “money Jews” and “intellect Jews.” Amid the tensions in the decades around 1900, he predicted that Jews would follow the two major ideas of progress at the time, bourgeois liberalism and revolutionary socialism. On the lower end of the wealth spectrum, they provided “the staff sergeants of all the revolutionary parties,” while at the upper end, their “terrible power of money” was shooting to the skies. This pair of insights led Herzl to anticipate anti-Semitic political parties’ later conviction that Jews were the crux of societal turmoil: “The social battle in any case had to be fought on our backs because we occupied the most prominent positions in both the capitalist and socialist camps.”

The extent to which Adolf Hitler was determined to wage exactly this battle can be gauged from a speech he gave twenty-six years after Herzl’s manifesto. From the outset he depicted “the Jew” as doubly threatening, as a simultaneously plutocratic and Bolshevik monster. In Hitler’s view, one arm of this monstrosity was strangling the middle classes and enslaving farmers and workers to big money, while the other arm unleashed communism, destroying every form of social order, ethics, and religion and clutching greedily at all the assets upright, hard-working people had legitimately earned. “Jewry has made a step of political genius,” Hitler said in 1922. “This capitalist people, which created the most unscrupulous form of human exploitation the world has known, understands how to seize the leadership of the fourth estate.” Just as Herzl predicted, Hitler accused Jews to trying to further radicalize the proletariat, the members of this new fourth estate, while simultaneously making capitalism even more inhumane. “While Moses Kohn braces his shareholders so that they react as inflexibly and hostilely as possible to the demands of their workers, his brother, the labor leader Isaak Kohn, is at the factory stirring up the masses.” In the Nazi view, the two worked together to seduce the German people “into destroying their own economy and trapping themselves all the more inevitably in the [Jewish] race’s golden manacles—eternal interest slavery.”6


A man of his era, Herzl assumed there were empty spaces on earth where Europeans could do whatever they wanted. In this spirit, he created the profile of the “land taker” and described the migration to be organized by the Jewish Company as a “replanting.” He titled one section of The Jewish State “Our Human Material.” He was also at ease with the term Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community), which later became a Nazi favorite. At the same time, he hoped that his great project would be realized with a minimum of violence. In his last will and testament, he advised the Jewish people: “Make your state so that the stranger feels at home among you.”

The idea of founding a new state was hardly outlandish at the time. Belgium had only existed since 1830, California, as such, since 1850. Bulgaria, Romania, and Greece were gradually formed in multiple stages of expansion. In 1905 Norway broke away from Sweden, in 1917 Finland split from Russia, and in 1922 Ireland became independent from Great Britain. The list doesn’t even include the many states that would arise from the disintegration of the Hapsburg, Russian, Ottoman, and various other colonial empires. Migrations of large masses of people weren’t unusual either. In 1896 alone, the year The Jewish State was published, 2.3 million Europeans emigrated overseas.

Blinded by the ethos of colonialism, Herzl wasn’t particularly concerned with what would happen to the Arabs who lived in Palestine. The holy sites of Christianity were to be protected, he wrote—he didn’t mention the holy sites of Islam. In fact he hoped that attacks by the great imperial powers on the Ottoman Empire would further his own project, which was very much conceived in a European spirit. “If a portion of the Oriental question is solved by solving the Jewish question,” he proclaimed, “this would certainly be in the interests of all civilized people everywhere.” After visiting Palestine for the first time, Herzl noted: “We will need to expropriate private property in these territories. We’ll try to transport the penniless population across the border by finding work for them in transit countries, but we shall deny them all work in our own country. The propertied population will come over to our side. The job of expropriation as well as the removal of the poor must be carried out gently and carefully. Property owners should be made to believe that they’ve cheated us, that we’ve paid more than the land’s actual value. But we won’t sell anything back to them.”7

Herzl was a strict, though not autocratic, disciplinarian and an obsessive yet pragmatic believer in a utopia that seemed neither attainable nor desirable to the majority of Central European Jews at the time. As the “father of the state,” as he described himself, he was pursuing a mission “given to him by the highest necessity.” When he died in 1904, obituaries referred to him as “our deceased leader,” someone who had been able to give a diasporic people a concrete form and who would go down in history as a “new Moses.”8

Herzl attracted few followers, and not much progress was made toward establishing Jewish settlements in Palestine. Around 1882, some 35,000 Jews lived in Ottoman-ruled Palestine. By 1914, in the wake of pogroms in Russia and thanks to the incipient Zionist movement, that number had grown to 90,000. In 1917, Palestine became a battleground for Turkish-German battles. In 1920, due to war, forced resettlement, and people fleeing hunger and disease, only 58,000 Jews still lived in Palestine, which was now under British mandate.9 The majority of Western European Jews would continue to regard the Zionist idea as a phantasm of a lunatic, blowhard, or swindler. During his lifetime, many rabbis spoke out against Herzl in their synagogues. His editor at the assimilationist Neue Freie Presse forbade him from using the word “Zionism,” and Austrian satirist Karl Kraus made fun of him in a pamphlet titled “A Crown for Zion.” In his later years, Herzl couldn’t enter Vienna’s Burgtheater without people in the audience murmuring sarcastically, “His Majesty has appeared!”10

Among the early anti-Semitic proponents of forced Jewish resettlement in Palestine, Germany’s Paul de Lagarde and Heinrich Class and the Hungarian politician Gyözö Istóczy particularly stand out. In his 1853 essay “Conservative?” Lagarde argued for the relocation of the approximately two million Jews who lived under German and Austrian rule. “It is impossible to tolerate a nation within our nation,” especially since Germans were “a much too delicate material … to withstand these Jews who have been steeled by Talmudic discipline.”11 But because resettlement required “hard work” and a determined leader, Lagarde had doubts about its prospects, writing, “There is no such leader.”

In the summer of 1878, following the recent Russo-Turkish war, representatives of the great European powers came together for the Congress of Berlin to discuss the “Oriental question” and redefine national borders and spheres of influence. At the same time, on June 24, Istóczy, who was a delegate, presented a draft resolution to the Hungarian parliament. “This lofty house,” it read, should declare that the Jewish people’s “cherished original homeland Palestine” would be restored either as an autonomous, “appropriately enlarged” province of the Ottoman Empire or “alternately as an independent Jewish state.” Istóczy had a reputation as a determined and influential anti-Semite. The aim of his initiative was to remove the Jews, “who are so dangerous to Christian civilization,” from Europe so that they could serve as the bearer of culture “amidst the Semitic tribes related to it.” Like Herzl after him, Istóczy defined Jews as a national people.

Istóczy thought it inevitable that Muslims would disappear from Southeastern Europe, leaving only Jews as a “foreign element … one that will be fully isolated” in the Christian Occident. With that, he put his finger upon a point that would prove particularly pivotal for twentieth-century anti-Semitism. The more other national minorities were driven out, the more delicate the position of remaining Jews would become. Policies of resettling or expelling minorities in general were part of the context of growing European anti-Semitism. In societies that had been culturally homogenized, Jews like those in Salonika stood out as a final nonnational group that refused to be integrated, replaced, or driven away.

Copyright © 2021 by Götz Aly