The Centennial of the First Zionist Congress at Basel reminds us of just how much one talented man could do in the late Victorian world. This era has come down to us as a time of rigid social hierarchy and little influence by the masses. Theodor Herzl’s career proves, however, that his background as both a man of the theater and a Jew proved no barrier to access at the highest levels. He was able, on the strength of an idea, to hold important conversations with the leading men and rulers of all the major states in Europe, including the pope.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his early death, his fame persisted. He was, in his way, a forerunner of modern celebrity but, of course, his ideas were more serious than those we have come to expect from Hollywood or for that matter, from leading journalists.
Herzl broke new ground in another respect. He was a forerunner of the modern geopolitician. Karl Haushofer, the leading German expert of geopolitical strategies, was born in 1870. Many of his ideas can be discerned in Herzl, especially when one reads the astonishingly frank Diaries, unfortunately long out of print, that give the reader a lively account of late-nineteenth-century high society and government.
It is worth reminding ourselves that geopolitics is not a theory of power politics, as these terms were understood in the nineteenth century. International relations and even wars before 1914 were conducted within a framework of a balance of power, in reference to a common civilization and a willingness to pursue national ends without destroying the whole.
Geopoliticians, however, argued that a new epoch was at hand. The rise of non-European powers, especially in Asia, the breakdown of the balance of power system even before World War I, and the dissolution of the Western social model were creating a new world. Rival power blocs, dominated by strong nations and free of any supranational, religious, social, or economic values, would force nations back to the bedrock of ethnic and even racial conformity. Borders and morality would be undermined by the accelerating changes of modern technology. The geopoliticians concluded that stable order could not be expected, only an everlasting struggle. The task of strategists was therefore to develop a master plan of what to do and why in the name of survival alone.
Echoes of these ideas can be found in Herzl. He must have imbibed some of them during his stay in France where many were developed even before Haushofer. He detected there, in the home of the Enlightenment and the rationality of balance and adjustment, the coming furies, a glimpse of which was provided by the Dreyfus Affair. His Zionism was not an ideology of Judaism in its essence; instead, it was a plan for survival. In the coming contest of extremisms that he foresaw, or at least felt, the Jews would be victims unless they had their own space and power— a Jewish state.
Herzl therefore tried to extract from the Old World balance of power a safe haven for the Jews against the coming world of disorder. Like the France of his day, he saw that technology could transform the destinies of people and states as never before. The French had cut the Suez Canal and very nearly the Panama Canal. Could not the Jews cut a canal from the Mediterranean to the Dead Sea? Swamps could be drained, illnesses cured, a “sick land” reclaimed for agriculture and cities. All of this was possible and the proof is with us today, not only in the modern state of Israel, but in other places, such as Japan, where the lack of natural resources has proven no barrier to the creation of wealth.
A last word is in order. Let us not forget that Herzl, although he foresaw the breakdown of the old order, still hoped its essence could be preserved. In this, he was still a nineteenth-century figure, not a ruthless geopolitical adventurer bent on conquest. He sought international approval of Zionism in order to protect the Jewish state against the dangers that are the destiny of small peoples and small states. Is there not a lesson here for us? Since 1914, the United States and the West have been seeking an international order that allows for changes but binds it to supranational virtues: peaceful settlements of disputes, free trade, the free exchange of ideas, freedom of conscience and speech. The measure of our success then is not only the defeat of Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union, but in our ability to extend as best we can the “system” that distinguishes the relations among the members of NATO: a system in which the national interest is regulated by the well-being of the whole. For it is only through this Concert of Powers, as Herzl would have called it, that small peoples can be safe and civilization advance.