Max Nordau: A Man of Vision and Obscure Legacy
Every city in Israel has a Nordau Street, and it’s usually a main one. If you Google Max Nordau, you’re likely to find something about “Muscular Judaism,” or the degeneration of art. But Max Nordau was also one of the prominent pioneers of modern Zionism – he co-founded the Zionist Organization with Theodor Herzl and his prestige as an author and psychiatrist gave the fledgling Zionist movement some gravitas. While Herzl was and remains a Zionist icon, Nordau has largely been relegated to the past. Why is this?
Max Nordau’s path to Zionism was winding and complex. He was born Simon Maximillian Südfeld in 1849 in Pest (Budapest, Hungary), like Herzl, who was born there eleven years later.  Unlike Herzl, who came from an assimilated Jewish family, Simon, or Simha, as Nordau was then known, was the only son in an observant family; his father was a rabbi, and young Max was given a religious Jewish education. When Max was fifteen, he abandoned Jewish practice, and when his father died, he changed his name from Südfeld (southern field) to Nordau (northern meadow). As a first-generation assimilationist, Nordau’s name change reflected his desire to move away from his Jewish heritage to a more Germanic or “northern” culture.  His later marriage to a Danish Protestant woman, Anna Dons-Kaufmann, furthered his assimilation.
In 1872, Nordau completed his medical degree from the University of Pest, travelled around Europe for a few years, and settled in Paris in 1880, where he worked as a correspondent for Die Neue Freie Presse, a Viennese newspaper. Nordau’s breakthrough work, The Conventional Lies of Our Civilization, was published in 1883. His critique of religion, as well as of the aristocracy, made him a household name. The book was translated to over fifteen languages, ran through at least seven editions, was banned in Austria and Germany, and was denounced by Pope Leo XIII.
Shortly thereafter, Nordau published Paradoxes, in which he explored optimism, pessimism, prejudice, passion, and other powerful undercurrents of society. This 1885 work eerily presaged the two Word Wars: “It is not probable that the Twentieth Century will pass away without having witnessed the conclusion of this grand historical drama. Until then a large part of Europe will see much distress and blood-shed, many crimes and deeds of violence; peoples will rage against each other, and whole races will be pitilessly crushed out of existence.”  Though this and many other observations Nordau shared in Paradoxes were prescient, this work is overshadowed by his most famous work, Degeneration.
In 1892, Nordau published Degeneration, a scathing denunciation of the excesses of modern art, explicitly mentioning such artists and writers as Richard Wagner, Friedrich Nietzsche, Emile Zola, and Oscar Wilde. Degeneration was such a popular work and concept that it has been immortalized in both Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Oscar Wilde’s plea for clemency after being convicted for “indecency” (sodomy).  Ironically, in its cataloguing of contemporary art’s failures, Degeneration essentially functions as an anthology of modernist art.
The same year that Degeneration was published, Nordau met Theodor Herzl, another event that changed his life and legacy. Nordau had been working for Die Neue Freie Presse since the 1870s, and Herzl had become the paper’s Paris correspondent in 1891. The two remained colleagues until 1895, when Herzl was referred to Nordau in the capacity of a psychiatrist. Herzl’s obsession with anti-Semitism and his proposed solutions of Jewish self-determination and autonomy, was considered so outlandish that Herzl felt compelled to seek professional psychological help.
Nordau, who had detached from his Jewish identity but who had experienced a horrifying rise of personal and general anti-Semitism, was eventually swayed by Herzl’s position. Both men had covered the Dreyfus trial and were quite shaken by the blatant anti-Semitism in the French Republic. Nordau reportedly embraced Herzl after the latter had pitched his ideas about a Jewish State, and exclaimed “If you are insane, we are insane together! Count on me!” Within two years, Herzl and Nordau had established the Zionist Organization, and the first Zionist Congress took place that year.
Returning to the question of the two men’s very different legacies, perhaps the reason for Herzl’s fame and Nordau’s obscurity is the issue of nuance. Herzl was a Political Zionist, as opposed to a Cultural Zionist. Political Zionism sought to solve the problem of Jewish persecution, whereas Cultural Zionists were not necessarily concerned with Jewish autonomy but rather with the rebirth of Jewish culture. The East Africa Scheme (in which Britain was to establish a Jewish homeland in present day Kenya) illustrates the difference between these movements: Political Zionists accepted it as a practical and useful solution to getting the Jews out of Europe and away from persecution (albeit as a rest stop before inhabiting the land of Israel), and cultural Zionists rejected it outright, as Africa was not the ancient homeland of the Jewish people.
But this is more than an example. Nordau nearly paid for this with his life. Though Nordau himself was not in favor of a Jewish colony in East Africa, as a member of the establishment Zionist Organization and a close friend of Herzl, he defended the scheme, as a temporary solution to the rising anti-Semitism and violent pogroms plaguing Eastern Europe. At a Hanukkah party in Paris in 1903, a mentally ill Jewish student attempted to assassinate Nordau, firing two shots at point blank range, screaming “Death to Nordau, the East African!” Nordau emerged unscathed, and a bystander was shot in the leg. Charges were not pressed against the Russian student, and the East Africa scheme was abandoned within two years.
Nordau had been one of the most public intellectuals of his time, and his conversion to Zionism was a watershed moment not only for him, but for the rest of the Jewish assimilationists. To say people were surprised was an understatement; many people did not even realize that Nordau was Jewish. But perhaps the real answer to why Nordau’s popularity has diminished whilst Herzl’s continues to rise (a new biography on Herzl was released in 2020) is because the bulk of Nordau’s work was pseudoscience, and makes for uncomfortable reading in the twenty-first century.
Nordau’s interest in racial theories and racial Zionism, though de rigueur and part of turn-of-the-century Europe, would be considered racist by the mores of our time, especially in light of the Nazi’s popularization and adherence to racial theories. In that sense, much of Nordau’s work has been rejected and debunked. As for Nordau’s critique of modern art, the “cultural diagnosis” of a Jewish “psychiatrist who wrote about degenerate art forty years before Hitler” is not a good look. 
However, when Nordau addressed the tenth Zionist Congress in 1911, his words were tragically prescient. In criticizing Europe for emancipating Jews essentially only on paper, he conveyed an urgency to get Jews out of Europe that when read after the Holocaust, is chilling:
“The virtuous Governments, which work with such noble zeal for the spread of eternal peace acquiesce in the downfall of six million creatures–acquiesce, and no-one, except the victims raises a voice against it…The administration of hero funds and the distribution of the interest is laid in the hands of the authorities who favor the massacre of the Jews even if they themselves do not directly instigate them.”
Between the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the 1919 pogroms at Kishinev, Nordau agitated for Jewish autonomy in Palestine, advocating for the immediate transfer of thousands of Jews out of Europe and into their ancestral homeland in Palestine. In 1921, Nordau retired from public Zionist activities, dying two years later. In 1926, he was reinterred in Tel Aviv. Nordau, who was prophetic on a number of occasions and issues, faded away from the cultural and Zionist consciousness. Perhaps his legacy deserves another look.
- Baldwin, P. M. “Liberalism, Nationalism, and Degeneration: The Case of Max Nordau.” Central European History, vol. 13, no. 2, Cambridge University Press, Central European History Society, 1980, pp. 99–120, https://www.jstor.org/stable/4545891, p. 101
- Golomb, Jacob. Nietzsche and Zion. Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2004, p. 49
- Max Simon Nordau. Paradoxes. From the German of Max Nordau. Chicago, L. Schick, 1886, p. 365
- van der Laarse, Robert. “Masking the Other: Max Nordau’s Representation of Hidden Jewishness.” Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 25, no. 1, Berghahn Books, 1999, pp. 1–31, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41299131, p. 1