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 while he was alive, the book most often remembered and cited today is Degeneration. At the time of his writing, Europe was undergoing unprecedented technological progress and social upheaval. The rapid industrialization and accompanying urbanization was breaking down many of the traditional structures of society. The concept of degeneration expressed the "dis-ease" that many felt over this upheaval.
Nordau was born Simon Maximilian, or Simcha Südfeld on July 29, 1849 in Budapest, then part of the Austrian 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 went on to play a major role in the World Zionist Organization, indeed Nordau's relative fame certainly helped bring attention to the Zionist movement. He can be credited with giving the organization a democratic character.
Nordau's major work Entartung (Degeneration), is a 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. It was based on the concept of degeneration which had gain currency from the mid-1900s.
The idea of degeneration had significant influence on science, art and politics from the 1850s to the 1950s. The social theory developed consequently from Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Evolution meant that mankind's development was no longer fixed and certain, but could change and evolve or degenerate into an unknown future, possibly a bleak future that clashes with the analogy between evolution and civilization as a progressive positive direction.
As a consequence theorists assumed the human species might be overtaken by a more adaptable species or circumstances might change and suit a more adapted species. Degeneration theory presented a pessimistic outlook for the future of western civilization as it believed the progress of the nineteenth century had begun to work against itself. In 1890, those most concerned by degeneration were progressives unlike the conservatives defenders of the status quo.
Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon (1707-1788) was the first to define "degeneration" as a theory of nature. Buffon incorrectly argued that entire species "degenerated" becoming sterile, weaker, or smaller due to harsh climates. By 1890, there was a growing fear of degeneration sweeping across Europe creating disorders that led to poverty, crime, alcoholism, moral perversion and political violence. Degeneration raised the possibility that Europe may be creating a class of degenerate people who may attack the social norms, this led to support for a strong state which polices degenerates out of existence with the assistance of scientific identification.
In the 1850s, French doctor Bénédict Morel argued more vigorously that certain groups of people were degenerating, going backwards in terms of evolution so each generation became weaker and weaker. This was based on pre-Darwinian ideas of evolution, especially those of Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, who argued that acquired characteristics like drug abuse and sexual perversions, could be inherited. Genetic predispositions have been observed for alcoholism and criminality.
The first scientific criminologist Cesare Lombroso working in the 1880s believed he found evidence of degeneration by studying the corpses of criminals. After completing an autopsy on murderer Villela he found the indentation where the spine meets the neck to be a signal of degeneration and subsequent criminality. Lombroso was convinced he had found the key to degeneration that had concerned liberal circles.
Lombroso claimed that the modern criminal was the savage throwback of "degeneration". Lombroso published The Man of Genius in 1889, a book which argued that artistic genius was a form of hereditary insanity. In order to support this assertion, he began assembling a large collection of "psychiatric art." He published an article on the subject in 1880 in which he isolated thirteen typical features of the "art of the insane."
In the twentieth century, eradicating "degeneration" became a justification for various eugenic programs, mostly in Europe and the United States. Eugenicists adopted the concept, using it to justify the sterilization of the supposedly unfit. The Nazis took up these eugenic efforts as well, including extermination, for those who would corrupt future generations. They also used the concept in art, banning "degenerate" (entartete) art and music: see degenerate art.
Nordau's bestseller, Degeneration, attempted to explain all modern art, music and literature by pointing out the degenerate characteristics of the artists involved. In this fashion a whole biological explanation for social problems was developed.
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, Nordau identifies the phenomenon of fin de siècle in Europe. He argues that degeneratin was first recognized in France, in "a contempt for the traditional views of custom and morality." He sees it in a spirit of decadence, a world-weariness, and the willful 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 also accuses society of becoming more and more inclined to imitate what they see in art, which he sees in the fashionable society of Paris and London. "Every single figure strives visibly by some singularity in outline, set, cut or color, 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, among them (Oscar Wilde, Henrik Ibsen, Richard Wagner and Friedrich 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.
By the early twentieth 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.
Although Nordau's work certainly reflects a reactionary strain of European thought, he also condemns the rising Anti-Semitism of the late nineteenth century as a product of degeneration.
Nordau's views were in many ways more like those of an eighteenth century thinker, a belief in Reason, Progress, and more traditional, classical rules governing art and literature. The irrationalism and amorality of philosophers such as Friedrich 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'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.
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 eighteenth 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.
Nordau was central to the Zionist Congresses which played such a vital part in shaping what Zionism would become. Theodore Herzl had favored 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 organized, was in Basle, August 29–31, 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 center 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 favored 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 twentieth 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 nineteenth century. In the end, the pseudo-scientific basis of the theory of degeneration collapsed, and with it, so did Nordau's theory.
Nordau died in Paris, France in 1923. In 1926, his remains were moved to Tel Aviv.
Nordau's legacy is somewhat difficult to assess. His theories of degenerate are were co-opted by the Nazis and used to serve an anti-Semitic agenda, one that he would certainly have not endorsed. It is a sad irony that the ideas of a Jew who helped to develop Zionism would in the end be appropriated by those who sought to destroy the Jewish race.
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