Richard Melson

September 2006

Max Nordau & Dreyfus Affair

Max Nordau (1849-1923)

Max Simon Nordau (July 29, 1849 - January 23, 1923), born Simon Maximilian Südfeld, Südfeld Simon Miksa in Pest, Hungary, was a Zionist leader, physician, author, and social critic.

He was a co-founder of the World Zionist Organization together with Theodor Herzl, and president or vice president of several Zionist congresses.

As a social critic, he wrote a number of controversial books, including The Conventional Lies of Our Civilisation (1883), Degeneration (1892), and Paradoxes (1896). Although not his most popular or successful work whilst alive, the book most often remembered and cited today is Degeneration.


Nordau was born Simon Maximilian, or Simcha Südfeld on 29 July 1849 in Budapest, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His father was Gabriel Südfeld, a Hebrew poet. His family were religious Orthodox Jews and he attended a Jewish elementary school, then a Catholic grammar school, before achieving a medical degree. He worked as a journalist for small newspapers in Budapest, before heading to Berlin in 1873, and changing his name. He soon moved to Paris as a correspondent for Die Neue Freie Presse and it was in Paris that he spent most of his life.

Nordau was an example of a fully assimilated and acculturated European Jew. He was married to a Protestant Christian woman, despite his Hungarian background, he felt affiliated to German culture, writing in an autobiographical sketch, "When I reached the age of fifteen, I left the Jewish way of life and the study of the Torah... Judaism remained a mere memory and since then I have always felt as a German and as a German only."

Nordau's conversion to Zionism was eventually triggered by the Dreyfus Affair. Many Jews, amongst them Theodor Herzl saw in the Dreyfus Affair evidence of the universality of Anti-Semitism.

Nordau went on to play a major role in the World Zionist Organisation, indeed Nordau's relative fame certainly helped bring attention to the Zionist movement. He can be credited with giving the organisation a democratic character.


Nordau's major work Entartung (Degeneration), is an essentially philistine and moralistic attack on so-called degenerate art, as well as a polemic against the effects of a range of the rising social phenomena of the period, such as rapid urbanization and its perceived effects on the human body.

Nordau begins his work with a 'medical' and social interpretation of what has created this Degeneration in society. Nordau divides his study into five books. In the first book fin-de-siècle, Nordau identifies the phenomenon of fin de siècle in Europe. He sees it as first being recognised, though not originating, in France, 'a contempt for the traditional views of custom and morality.' He sees it as a sort of decadence, a world-weariness, and the wilful rejection of the moral boundaries governing the world. He uses examples from French periodicals and books in French to show how it has affected all elements of society. Nordau accuses also society of becoming more and more inclined to imitate what they see in art. He sees in the fashionable society of Paris and London. 'Every single figure strives visibly by some singularity in outline, set, cut or colour, to startle attention violently, and imperiously to detain it. Each one wishes to create a strong nervous excitement, no matter whether agreeably or disagreeably.'

Nordau establishes the cultural phenomenon of fin de siècle in the opening pages, but he quickly moves to the viewpoint of a physician and identifies what he sees as an illness. 'In the fin-de-siècle disposition, in the tendencies of contemporary art and poetry, in the life and conduct of men who write mystic, symbolic and 'decadent' works and the attitude taken by their admirers in the tastes and aesthetic instincts of fashionable society, the confluence of two well-defined conditions of disease, with which he [the physician] is quite familiar, viz. degeneration and hysteria, of which the minor stages are designated as neurasthenia.'

The book deals with numerous case studies of various artists, writers and thinkers (Wilde, Ibsen, Wagner and Nietzsche to name but a few) but its basic premise remains that society and human beings themselves are degenerating, and this degeneration is both reflected in and influenced by art.

The Politics of Degeneration

Nordau did not himself coin the expression or the idea of Entartung, it had been steadily growing in use in German speaking countries during the 19th Century. The book reflects views on a degenerating society held by many people in Europe at the time, especially throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire. By the early 20th Century, the idea that society was degenerating, and that this degeneration was influenced by art, led to somewhat hysterical backlashes, as evidenced by the conviction of Austrian artist Egon Schiele for "distributing pornography to minors".

This cultural construct, which could be used to describe anything which deviated in any way from accepted norms, was given legitimacy by the pseudo-scientific branch of medicine 'psycho-physiognomy.' Degeneration was accepted as a serious medical term. Not until Sigmund Freud, and the ushering in of a new age of psychoanalysis, was this idea seriously contested. Sigmund Freud remarked rather dryly in 1905 in his Three Essays on Sexuality, "It may well be asked whether an attribution of 'degeneracy' is of any value or adds anything to our knowledge."

It would certainly be a mistake to see the views expressed in Nordau's work as being proto-fascist, despite the obvious similarities between Nordau's view of modern art and that of the Nazis, who also used the expression Entartete Kunst or Degenerate Art. Although Nordau's work certainly reflect a reactionary strain of European thought, he also condemns the rising Anti-Semitism of the late 19th Century as a product of degeneration.

Although it is perhaps fair to see his attitude towards art as philistine, his views of wider social phenomena can be seen in a more sympathetic light when taken in the context of the time. Europe was undergoing unprecedented technological progress and social upheaval.

The rapid industrialisation and accompanying urbanisation was breaking down many of the traditional structures of society.

Nordau's views were in many ways more like those of an 18th Century thinker, a belief in Reason, Progress, and more traditional, classical rules governing art and literature.

The irrationalism and amorality of philosophers such as Nietzsche or the flagrant anti-Semitism of Wagner,

was seen as proof that society was in danger of returning to an era before the Enlightenment.

Nordau the Zionist

The Dreyfus Affair

Nordau's conversion to Zionism is in many ways typical of the rise of Zionism amongst Western European Jewry. As with Theodor Herzl, the Dreyfus Affair beginning in 1893 was central to Nordau's conviction that Zionism was now necessary. Herzl's views were formed during his time in France where he recognised the universality of anti-Semitism; the Dreyfus Affair cemented his belief in the failure of assimilation. Nordau also witnessed the Paris mob outside the École Militaire crying "à morts les juifs!"

His role of friend and advisor to Herzl, who was working as the correspondent for the Vienna Neue Freie Presse, began here in Paris. This trial went beyond a miscarriage of justice and in Herzl's words "contained the wish of the overwhelming majority in France, to damn a Jew, and in this one Jew, all Jews." Whether or not the anti-semitism manifested in France during the Dreyfus Affair was indicative of the majority of the French or simply a very vocal minority is open to debate. However the very fact that such sentiment had manifested itself in France was particularly significant. This was the country often seen as the model of the modern enlightened age, that had given the Europe the Great Revolution and consequently the Jewish Emancipation.

The Failure of Emancipation

Nordau's work as a critic of European civilisation and where it was heading certainly contributed to his eventual role in Zionism. One of the central tenets of Nordau's beliefs was evolution, in all things, and he concluded that Emancipation was not born out of evolution. French rationalism of the 18th century, based on pure logic, demanded that all men be treated equally. Nordau saw in Jewish Emancipation the result of 'a regular equation: Every man is born with certain rights; the Jews are human beings, consequently the Jews are born to own the rights of man.' This Emancipation was written in the statute books of Europe, but contrasted with popular social consciousness. It was this which explained the apparent contradiction of equality before the law, but the existence of anti-Semitism, and in particular 'racial' anti-Semitism, no longer based on old religious bigotry. Nordau cited England as an exception to this continental anti-Semitism that proved the rule. "In England, Emancipation is a truth…It had already been completed in the heart before legislation expressly confirmed it." Only if Emancipation came from changes within society, as opposed to abstract ideas imposed upon society, could it be a reality. This rejection of the accepted idea of Emancipation was not based entirely on the Dreyfus Affair. It had manifested itself much earlier in Die Konventionellen Lügen der Kulturmenschheit and runs through his denouncing of 'degenerate' and 'lunatic' anti-Semitism in Die Entartung.

World Zionist Congress

Nordau was central to the Zionist Congresses which played such a vital part in shaping what Zionism would become. Herzl had favoured the idea of a Jewish newspaper and an elitist "Society of Jews" to spread the ideas of Zionism. It was Nordau, convinced that Zionism had to at least appear democratic, despite the impossibility of representing all Jewish groups, who persuaded Herzl of the need for an assembly. This appearance of democracy certainly helped counter accusations that the "Zionists represented no one but themselves." There would be eleven such Congresses in all, the first, which Nordau organised, was in Basle, 29-31 August 1897. His fame as an intellectual helped draw attention to the project. Indeed the fact that Max Nordau, the trenchant essayist and journalist, was a Jew came as a revelation for many. Herzl obviously took centre stage, making the first speech at the Congress; Nordau followed him with an assessment of the Jewish condition in Europe. Nordau used statistics to paint a portrait of the dire straits of Eastern Jewry and also expressed his belief in the destiny of Jewish people as a democratic nation state, free of what he saw as the constraints of Emancipation.

Nordau's speeches to the World Zionist Congress reexamined the Jewish people, in particular stereotypes of the Jews. He fought against the tradition of seeing the Jews as merchants or business people, arguing that most modern financial innovations such as insurance had been invented by gentiles. He saw the Jewish people as having a unique gift for politics, a calling which they were unable to fulfil without their own nation-state. Whereas Herzl favoured the idea of an elite forming policy, Nordau insisted the Congress have a democratic nature of some sort, calling for votes on key topics.

As the 20th Century progressed, Nordau seemed increasingly irrelevant as a cultural critic. The rise of Modernism, the popularity of very different thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, the huge technological changes and the devastation of the First World War, changed European society enormously. Even within the Zionist movement, other strains of thought were growing in popularity - influenced by Nietzsche, Socialism and other ideas. Nordau, in comparison, seemed very much a creature of the late 19th Century.

Nordau died in Paris, France in 1923.

In 1926 his remains were moved to Tel Aviv.

See also:

Max Nordau was born in Pest, Hungary in 1849, the son of Gabriel Sudfeld, an Orthodox rabbi of Sephardi origin. Although given a good grounding in Jewish tradition, Nordau drifted away from the Jewish community. Initially he worked as a journalist but later decided to study medicine. In 1880 his studies took him to Paris where he opened a practice, even though it was in the literary field that he was to make a name for himself.

Nordau was considered a controversial writer with his attacks on contemporary European art, social and political behavior. His Conventional Lies of Society, written in 1883 was an attack on irrationality, egotism and nihilism which he perceived as the evils of his time. By 1898 his works were translated into some 18 languages.

Nordau's Zionist conversion was an experience not dissimilar to Herzl's and he admitted that the rising tide of anti-Semitism had brought him back to realize his duties toward the Jewish people. When Herzl met with Nordau, it took little persuasion to convince the latter of the worthiness of the Jewish State idea.

Nordau soon became Herzl's partner in the Zionist movement playing a central role in defining the Basle program. At the first Zionist Congress, Nordau gave the opening speech on the condition of the Jewish people, which subsequently became a tradition at later Zionist Congresses.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress, Nordau defended Herzl's Uganda plan arguing that they offered a temporary solution to the Jewish people's sufferings. It was he who coined the term nachtasyl (night shelter) to describe the Uganda plan. Following Herzl's death, Nordau was offered the position of President of the World Zionist Organization but he declined preferring instead to serve as advisor to David Wolffsohn. He opposed the growing trend toward practical Zionism remaining faithful to Herzl's political program.

Nordau distanced himself from the Zionist movement but not from the idea. He last attended a Zionist Congress in 1911 and although resident in Spain during the First World War tried to maintain contact with the movement throughout that period. Weizmann attempted to bring him back into the organization at the end of the War; however, Nordau rejected the overtures, believing that the movement was a shadow of what Herzl had intended it to be.

In 1920 he raised the idea of evacuating half a million Jews from Europe to Eretz-Israel but no one took the idea seriously at that time. By then he had returned to Paris, where despite discussion of his immigration to Eretz-Israel he died after a long illness.

Nordau, Max

(born Simon Maximilian Suedfeld 1849-1923)

Co-founder of the World Zionist Organization,

philosopher, writer, orator and physician.

Max Nordau & Zionist Movement

September 2, 2006