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Max Nordau

(1849 - 1923)

Max Nordau was a Hungarian philosopher, writer, orator, physician, and Zionist leader who co-founded the World Zionist Congress and was instrumental in raising the “Uganda Plan” for a Jewish national home.

Nordau was born on July 29, 1849, Simon Maximilian Südfeld in Pest, Hungary, 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 when he was 18 and became a militant naturalist and evolutionist.

In 1867, he joined the staff of the Pester Lloyd, and in time he became a correspondent for leading newspapers in the Western world, including the Vossische Zeitung in Berlin, the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna, and La Nación in Buenos Aires.

He later decided to study medicine, and, in 1880, his studies took him to Paris, where he opened a practice. It was in the literary field, however, that he was to make a name for himself.

Considered a controversial author due to his attacks on contemporary European art, social and political behavior, Nordau’s Conventional Lies of Society (Die Conventionellen Luegen der Kulturmenschheit), written in 1883, was an attack on irrationality, egotism, and nihilism which he perceived as the evils of his time. He sharply criticized “the religious lie,” the corruption and oppression of monarchical and aristocratic regimes, the deceptions of political and economic establishments, and the hypocritical adherence to outworn sex mores.

He set forth as an alternative what has been called his “philosophy of human solidarity.” Nordau’s “solidaritarianism” signifies the unity of mind and love. It insists on the intimate connection between free institutions and free inquiry in all areas of human concern. The Lies was translated into fifteen languages, including Chinese and Japanese. It raised a storm of controversy and was banned in Austria and Russia. It was followed by Paradoxe der Conventionellen Luegen (1885; Paradoxes, 1896), which discussed such topics as optimism and pessimism, passion and prejudice, social pressure and the power of love, sham, and genuine success. This work also went through several editions and translations.

Even more controversial was Entartung (1892; Degeneration, 1895), in which Nordau subjected major figures and trends in European art and literature to scathing denunciation. Applying Cesare Lombroso’s term “degeneracy” to the works of such men as Nietzsche, Tolstoy, Wagner, Zola, Ibsen, and such phenomena as symbolism, spiritualism, egomania, mysticism, Parnassianism, and diabolism,

Nordau predicted the coming of a human catastrophe of unprecedented proportions. An entire literature developed over Degeneration, including a rebuttal in book form by George Bernard Shaw. More than 60 years after its first publication, Degeneration continued to be the subject of doctoral dissertations accepted by American universities; the book was republished in New York in 1968.

Three other works merit perhaps even greater attention than Lies and Degeneration. The first is Der Sinn der Geschichte (1909; The Interpretation of History, 1910), which examines man’s advance from parasitism through supernaturalist illusion to knowledge and human solidarity. To Nordau, the purpose of man’s history was to achieve a lessening of human suffering and to actualize “the ideal of goodness and selfless love.” The second, Biologie der Ethik (1921; Morals and the Evolution of Man, 1922), is a treatise on the natural roots of ethics, the relations between the legal and the moral, and the meaning of “scientific ethics,” which aims at the improvement of human life through the cultivation of the twin “solidaritarian” powers of intelligence and compassion. The third, Der Sinn der Gesittung; “The Essence of Civilization” (written in 1920), was published in 1932 in an unsatisfactory Spanish version. In this last, fragmentary work, Nordau advocated “the elevation of the independent local community, the free city-republic, to the general type of community” as the best means of redeeming the individual from his bondage. Nordau argued the case of “solidaritarian socialism,” which assigns to private property its proper limits without, however, abolishing it. Nordau regarded Communism as entirely unacceptable and, in its Bolshevik form, as “socialism gone mad.”

In the field of belles lettres, Nordau’s major works are Der Krieg der Millionen (1882), Die Krankheit des Jahrhunderts (1888; The Malady of the Century, 1896), Seelenanalysen (1892), Das Recht zu Lieben (1894; The Right to Love, 1895), Drohnenschlacht (1898; The Drones Must Die, 1899); Doktor Kohn (1899; A Question of Honor, 1907); Morganatisch (1904; Morganatic, 1904), The Dwarf’s Spectacles, and Other Fairy Tales (1905), and an unpublished biblical tragedy in four acts, Rahab (c. 1922).

The Jewish problem was never foreign to Nordau’s thoughts, and his Zionist conversion was similar to Theodor Herzl’s. He admitted that the rising tide of anti-Semitism had brought him back to realize his duties toward the Jewish people.  His revulsion against anti-Semitism is reflected in his essay on Jacques Offenbach entitled “The Political Hep! Hep!” included in Aus dem wahren Milliardenlande (an abridged translation entitled Paris Sketches that appeared in 1884). In the Lies, Nordau condemned hatred of the Jew as a symptom of the malady of the age.

Nordau’s upbringing, his piety toward his Orthodox parents (his observant mother lived in his house in Paris until her death in 1900), and the references to Jewish destiny in his general writings all show that the frequent charge of Nordau’s alienation from Judaism in his pre-Zionist period is exaggerated.

Nordau met Herzl in 1892. As Paris correspondents for German-language newspapers, they witnessed the manifestations of anti-Semitism in the French capital. In November 1895, Herzl discussed his idea of a Jewish state with Nordau, after Emil Schiff, a friend concerned over his mental condition, advised him to see a psychiatrist. Far from declaring Herzl insane, however, Nordau concluded the consultation by saying: “If you are insane, we are insane together. Count on me!” To Nordau, the idea of a Jewish state appeared as a most welcome means for the implementation of his “solidaritarian” philosophy by Jews in the land of the Jews.

Nordau soon became Herzl’s partner in the Zionist movement. He served as vice president of the First to the Sixth Zionist Congresses and, as president of the Seventh to the Tenth Congresses. At the First Zionist Congress, Nordau drafted the famed  Basle Program. He gave the opening speech on the condition of the Jewish people, which subsequently became a tradition at later Zionist Congresses. In these addresses, he surveyed the Jewish situation in the world and described and analyzed the physical and material plight of the Jews in Eastern Europe, as well as the moral plight of the emancipated and assimilated Western Jew, who had lost his contact with his fellow-Jews and faced political and social anti-Semitism, which excluded him from non-Jewish society. These addresses, together with his other Zionist pronouncements, became classics of Zionist literature.

At the Congress of 1911, he warned that if current political trends persisted, six million Jews, i.e., those living in the Russian Empire and other East-European countries, were doomed. He was convinced that only political Zionism could forestall the tragedy. Nordau passionately defended Herzl’s political Zionism against Ahad Ha’Am’s cultural Zionism, which he regarded as being pre-Zionist. He believed that his opponent’s idea of a “spiritual center” would only obstruct the Zionist effort to rescue large masses of Jews in Ereẓ Israel. Citing a statement of the “cultural Zionists” – that “we are not concerned with Jews but with Judaism” – Nordau told the Sixth Zionist Congress, “‘Judaism without Jews’ – we know you, beautiful mask! Go with this phrase and join a meeting of spiritualists!”

His opposition to the cultural Zionism espoused by Ahad Ha-Am was only matched by his opposition to the practical Zionists led by Chaim Weizmann. Nordau believed in political action rather than in small-scale, gradual agricultural colonization.

At the Sixth Zionist Congress, Nordau defended Herzl’s “Uganda Proposal,” arguing that they offered a temporary solution to the Jewish people’s sufferings. He coined the term nachtasyl (night shelter) to describe the plan. Nevertheless, he was convinced the idea of a charter for Uganda was a grave error because Jews who could not go to Palestine would prefer America or Australia.

On December 19, 1903, Chaim Selig Luban, a critic of the Uganda plan, attempted to assassinate Nordau in Paris. Nordau later defended Luban before the investigating judge.

In his last conversation with Nissan Katzenelson, Herzl stated that Nordau should be his successor as president of the Zionist Organization, adding, “I can assure you that he will lead the cause at least as well as I did or better.” Nordau, however, declined to serve as president when he was offered the post after Herzl’s death; he chose to remain outside the organizational hierarchy and instead serve as an advisor to David Wolffsohn.

Nordau distanced himself from the Zionist movement but not from the idea. He last attended a Zionist Congress in 1911 and, although resident in neutral Spain during the First World War, tried to maintain contact with the movement throughout that period. He favored Vladimir Jabotinsky’s idea of a Jewish Legion but felt that the Zionist movement should remain neutral since Zionists lived in countries on both sides of the international conflict.

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 delivered his celebrated Albert Hall address in London, in which he told British statesmen and Zionist leaders that if the Balfour Declaration of 1917 was to have meaning, that meaning must be made manifest by the swift creation of a Jewish majority and ensuing Jewish political independence in Palestine.

In 1919, when a wave of pogroms swept Ukraine and other parts of Russia, he began advocating the speedy transfer of 600,000 Jews to Palestine within a matter of months. The Zionist leadership rejected his proposal as unrealistic, and, in 1921, Nordau retired from active Zionist work.

He died in Paris in 1923 after a long illness on January 23, 1923, and was interred in the Old Cemetery in Tel Aviv in 1926.

In the late 1930s, Jabotinsky was to name his own program for the speedy creation of a Jewish majority in Palestine through the mass transfer of Jews from the Diaspora “The Max Nordau Plan.”


N. Sokolow, History of Zionism, 2 vols. (1919), index; A. and M. Nordau, Max Nordau (Eng., 1943); S. Schwartz, Max Nordau be-Iggerotav (1944); Ch. Weizmann, Trial and Error, (1949), index; M.P. Foster, "Reception of Max Nordau's 'Degeneration' in England and America" (Ph.D. diss., University of Michigan, 1954); M. Ben Horin, Max Nordau, Philosopher of Human Solidarity (1956); idem, Common FaithUncommon People (1970); M. Gold, "Nordau on Degeneration; A Study of the Book and Its Cultural Significance" (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1957); T. Herzl, Complete Diaries, ed. and tr. by R. Patai, 5 (1960), index; M. Heyman, The Minutes of the Zionist Council, The Uganda Controversy, 1 (1970).

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.
Jewish Encyclopedia.