I’m currently completing in-depth scholarly research on the social, cultural and political habitats of fin-de-siècle and early-20th-century Vienna, Prague, Budapest, Munich, Berlin and Paris. My objective is to write a scrupulously-researched text arguing that the dramatic influx of Russian and eastern European Jewish immigrants to these particular metropolitan centers — propelled by state-sanctioned pogroms taking place throughout the Russian Empire — further exacerbated an already existing problem of antisemitism in Austria-Hungary, Germany and France.
The alarming escalation of ethnic and religious hostility, and antisemitism in particular, in late-19th and early 20th-century Austria-Hungary, Germany and France — a nightmarish development which we can only view through the prism of the Nazi holocaust — will be explained, in part, as a corollary of the extensive immigration of Russian and eastern European Jewish peoples to these old-world European municipalities.
While calling attention to the dramatic demographic change in the ethnic makeup of these cities, I will emphasize that this transformation is only one small part of a far more complex state of affairs involving the socioeconomic and political relations of Christians, Jews, and Muslims in Europe, the Middle East, Africa, Asia and throughout the world during what scholars in the Global North often periodize as the Middle Ages, Renaissance, Enlightenment, romantic era and modern times. I will discuss this larger historical context in a concise, critical overview, but my main focus will be the periods 1880-1899 and 1900-1929. I have singled out these specific historical periods because contemporary scholarly studies in diverse academic disciplines have made it increasingly clear that these were incredibly tumultuous periods in European history, particularly in the arts.
In order to elucidate the sociohistorical contexts of these periods in European history, I will foreground the radical social and cultural revolutions which distinguish them by examining the cultural production of some particular writers, scholars, artists, architects, dancers, choreographers and composers working in these European hubs of artistic activity. An in-depth consideration of the work of fourteen artists and scholars will provide the main contours of my study, namely: Max Nordau (1849-1923), Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), Gustav Mahler (1860-1911), Lou Andreas-Salomé (1861-1937), Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945), Else Lasker-Schüler (1869-1945), Marcel Proust (1871-1922), Arnold Schoenberg (1874-1951), Martin Buber (1878-1965), Franz Marc (1880-1916), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Franz Kafka (1883-1924) and Vasily Nijinsky (1889-1950). The works of other artists and scholars will appear in the warp and weft of the historical tapestry I analyze, but their predominant themes and motifs will not stand out in the same striking manner as those employed routinely in the works of those named above.
The terms of discourse I employ to describe the predominant themes and motifs of these particular artists and scholars may seem somewhat arbitrary, but I believe they more accurately represent these periods in European art history (including literature) than any others I might choose: Symbolism, Decadence and Jugendstil [or Art Nouveau] for the years 1890-1899 and Expressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Art Deco, Futurism, Dada, Bauhaus, Surrealism, “primitivism,” Suprematism, Constructivism and Die Neue Sachlichkeit [or the New Objectivity] for the years 1900-1929.
In addition to discussing the radical social and cultural revolutions which distinguish these two periods in European art history (1880-1899) and (1900-1929), I will make note of the establishment of Zionism as a international political movement during these same five decades in European history and stress the little-known fact that most Jewish artists and scholars were adamantly opposed — and for good reasons — to the Zionist colonial project being debated at the World Zionist Congresses during the years which that international body met between 1897-1929. One of the focuses of my research, in fact, has been the birth and development of Zionism as a body of concepts, principles and beliefs which can be better understood, I believe, by examining them in this particular sociohistorical context.
As some readers may have already guessed by the list of artists and scholars named above, my analysis of these particular historical periods will call attention to the work of some extraordinarily talented and influential Jewish-born, European-educated, French- and German-speaking artists and scholars. The ultimate objective of my investigation is to better understand the geopolitical and sociocultural context of late 19th- and early 20th-century western and central Europe, the violently nationalistic environment in which the World Zionist Organization (WZO) was emboldened to formulate effective strategies and activities which would eventually lead — over several generations — to the creation of a Jewish State in that part of the Ottoman Empire commonly known as Palestine.
In his futuristic novel, Altneuland [The Old-New-Land] (1902), Theodor Herzl transforms that part of the Ottoman Empire known as Palestine into a modern, social democratic state in which the indigenous peoples have equal rights with the Jewish immigrants. In his political pamphlet, Der Judenstaat [The Jewish State] (1896), by contrast, Herzl characterized the Middle East and Asia of his day as a wellspring of “barbarism” (29) and suggested that the best form of governing the Jewish nation’s “Promised Land” would be a combination of “democratic monarchism” and “aristocratic republicanism” in order to preserve “a true balance of power.” “Nations are . . . not fit for unlimited democracy at present,” he wrote, “and will become less and less fitted for it in the future” (70). “Our people” (the Jews) who colonize Palestine, Herzl suggested, will “accept the new constitution it offers them. Should any opposition manifest itself,” he made clear, “the Society [of Jews] will suppress it” (71).
Herzl made his strategy for the colonization of Palestine quite explicit in the concluding chapter of this political pamphlet in which he suggested that the first colonists must be primarily from the Jewish underclass: “It is precisely the poorest whom we need at first” because “only the desperate make good conquerors” (79). According to Herzl’s carefully-crafted political pamphlet, “Universal brotherhood is not even a beautiful dream” (79). In point of fact, he argued, the Christian humanist, Reform Judaism, Muslim and secular concepts of “universal brotherhood” — as splendid as they may sound in theory — have turned out to be ill-advised in practice. The father of modern political Zionism — Theodor Herzl — specifically rejected the Christian humanist, Reform Judaism, Muslim and secular versions of “universal brotherhood,” claiming that “antagonism [as opposed to cooperation or collaboration] is essential to man’s greatest efforts” (78).
Of course, the mere fact that Theodor Herzl was a believer in European imperialism and colonialism and apparently did not believe in either democracy or the universal rights of all human beings does not mean that Zionism should be consigned to the ash heap of misbegotten European ideologies, one of those xenophobic platforms which promoted the subjugation of “barbaric” and/or “savage” peoples and the “civilizing” mission of Judeo-Christian imperialism. Many Zionists who emigrated to Palestine advocated working with the native population to establish “a modern, social democratic state in which the indigenous peoples [would] have equal rights with the Jewish immigrants” (like Herzl did in his futuristic novel Altneuland). In fact, I will argue that Zionism can be disengaged from the ideology of imperialism, reclaimed as an ideology of emancipation, and redeemed through recognition of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination.