The Journalist as a Messiah: Journalism, Mass-Circulation, and Theodor Herzl’s Zionist Vision

Asaf Shamis. Israel Affairs. Volume 21, Issue 4. October 2015.

Zionist historiography and the history of mass media are two fields typically not found together. Nonetheless, Theodor Herzl (1860-1904)—the ‘visionary of the Jewish state’—serves as an exceptional example in which a well-known journalist evolved into a leader of an international movement. As such, Herzl offers an intriguing case for anyone whose interests lie in the historical intersections between mass media and political ideas. Yet much of the research literature on Herzl tends to downplay the influence of Herzl’s career as a journalist on his Zionism. The common assumption is that Herzl’s post in the Neue Freie Presse was unrelated to his Zionist vision, and that once Herzl embraced the Zionist cause he operated in two separate channels: one, as a journalist, and the other as the visionary of the Jewish state.

What follows is an attempt to challenge this commonly held view and contend that Herzl’s journalistic career played a key role in the development of his Zionist vision and that once Herzl took up the Zionist cause, it served as one of his greatest assets in his Zionist activities. This proposition is put forward in the following steps. The first section sketches in broad strokes the emergence of European mass-circulation newspapers in the last decades of the nineteenth century. The second section narrows the discussion to the media settings in Vienna and Paris of the 1890s in which Herzl was operating. This section focuses particularly on the transformation of the Neue Freie Presse into one of the most respected publications in Europe as well as on the French anti-Semitic ‘gutter press’ which was gaining immense popularity—especially during the time Herzl spent in Paris. Next, the spotlight shifts to Herzl’s Zionist awakening in the mid-1890s. The discussion calls attention to the role Herzl’s daily routine as a journalist in Paris had in politicizing his views and leading him to take up the Zionist cause. The next two sections—which present the crux of the argument -trace Herzl’s sophisticated use of mass-circulation newspapers and his personal connections as a journalist to advance his Zionist enterprise.

Mass Media Technologies and Mass-Circulation Newspapers

From the 1870s, reading spread across all social classes in most Western and Central European countries at an unprecedented rate. Thanks to the establishment of compulsory primary education (following, for example, the ‘Elementary Education Act’ in England in 1870 and the ‘Jule Ferry Laws’ of 1882 in France), by the end of the century literacy rates in Western Europe reached 80-90%. Furthermore, during that period the shortening of the working day led to the creation of leisure time which more and more people were using to read. Whereas in the mid-nineteenth century the average working day extended up to 15 hours, by the 1880s it did not exceed 10. In Germany, for example, a 10-hour working day became the norm after 1880. At the same time, a nine-hour working day became the rule in England. Following the shortening of the working day, in the last two decades of the century reading became a widespread social practice engrained in the everyday life of the public at large. This, in turn, prepared the ground for the transformation of the newspaper industry into a ‘preeminent institution’, as Jürgen Habermas puts it.

The changing nature of reading led, in turn, to a set of technological advancements introduced in the printing industry which aimed at satisfying the mass demand for reading materials. One such advancement was the stereotype—a cast-metal plate which allowed printers to cast a whole page of type in a single mould. Although the stereotype was invented as early as the 1730s, it entered into commercial use only in the mid-nineteenth century following the inventions of the stereotype printer (1803) and later the ‘Papier Mache’ (1828). Whereas before the invention of stereotypes reprints required setting the type each time from scratch, the stereotype metal plates allowed printers to make consecutive print runs without having to change the type. The repetitive use of a single printing plate increased the number of copies which could be reproduced and lowered their cost. Stereotypes also allowed printers to send stereotypes to other print shops. The mobility of stereotypes especially contributed to the development of mass-circulation newspapers as it allowed them to be formatted according to a single stereotype plate and to produce numerous copies from it.

Another invention which was changing the face of printing was lithography. Although the technique was already developed in the early nineteenth century, it only entered commercial use in the 1850s thanks to the introduction of ‘offset printing’. Basically, lithography involves transferring either text or images from a flat surface onto a sheet of paper. Since the surface is covered by a greasy substance which repels water while retaining ink, the ink applied to the paper adheres only to the treated parts while keeping the blank ones clear. Until the commercial use of lithography, printers used metal type which was expensive to produce, deteriorated fast and limited the fonts and images which could be printed. ‘Offset printing’, which incorporated the technique of lithography into mass printers, overcame all these shortcomings. First, because the lithographic plate underwent only minimal wear, a single text or image could be used to create almost unlimited numbers of copies. In addition, contrary to the metal type which was based on an extremely limited range of fonts and images, ‘offset printing’ enabled printers to use the technique of lithography to print any image that was drawn on the lithographic plate. When Walter Benjamin famously noted that in the age of mechanical reproduction the work of art is detached from its place in tradition and loses its authenticity, he most probably had in mind the commercial use of lithography which was removing any clear distinction between the original image and its reproduced copy and allowing printers to prepare unlimited numbers of copies from any single image.

Whereas stereotypes and the industrialized use of lithography were improving the human ability to reproduce the visible world on paper, the telegraph, developed in the 1830s, revolutionized the spread of information over time and space. Called by one historian ‘The Victorian Internet’, the telegraph was the first technology harnessing electricity to transmit information without an object-bearing message. Thanks to the findings of Heinrich Hertz (1857-1894), Édouard Branly (1844-1940), and others, the wireless telegraph, introduced in the 1880s and 1890s, allowed transmission of electronic signals by means of radio waves and electromagnetic induction.

In the last two decades of the nineteenth century all these technological advancements were channelled to the production of mass-circulation newspapers. Stereotype plates were used by newspapers to produce numerous copies from a single mould at a low cost. ‘Offset printing’ enabled newspapers to reproduce and circulate, on a mass scale, images of people, places and events of the day. Thanks to the wireless telegraph, journalists could transmit their reports in a matter of minutes from almost every location around the globe.

In turn, mass-circulation newspapers were revolutionizing the relationship between society and print. The enhanced ability of mass-circulation newspapers to serve as true-to-life representations of the visible world turned them into a major medium through which people met their physical, social and political surroundings. Towards the end of the century the print-dazed public turned more and more to journalists as opinion leaders who in turn were producing simplified and accessible accounts of the increasingly complex social and political realities. The newspaper industry became a public realm in itself, where journalists were producing sense-stimulating and thought-provoking typographical accounts of the social and political world. By the end of the century mass-circulation newspapers became a vehicle through which men of letters such as Émile Zola, Georges Clemenceau, Williams Thomas Stead, Mark Twain and one Theodor Herzl gained direct access to the public at large.

The Neue Freie Presse and the French Anti-Semitic ‘Gutter Press’

Mass-circulation newspapers had a distinctive impact on turn-of-the-century Vienna and Paris. Before the 1848 Revolution, only three daily newspapers were published in Vienna. Following the departure of Metternich the number of newspapers in the Austro-Hungarian empire grew from 79 in 1848 to a little over 800 in 1873. Nonetheless, in light of the vast gaps in literacy rates between the eastern rural areas and the western industrialized parts of the empire, the circulation of Austrian newspapers in the latter part of the nineteenth century remained relatively low and they continued to target mostly the Viennese cultural and financial elite.

From the 1870s on, two Viennese daily newspapers were above all the rest in terms of both circulation and prestige: The Wiener Tagblatt and the Neue Freie Presse. The history of the Neue Freie Presse is of particular interest to our discussion here. Called early on Die Presse, the newspaper first appeared immediately following the 1848 Revolution. Contrary to most of the other publications which appeared after 1848 that were closed soon after, Die Presse managed to stay afloat thanks to the high quality of journalism mainly by the two men who were running it: August Zang (1807-1888) and Hieronymus Lorm (1821-1902). In the early 1860s a new editorial team took over the newspaper, changed its name to the Neue Freie Presse and gave it a liberal bent intended to appeal to the Viennese bourgeois elite. This proved to be a smart tactic when two years later the Austrian liberals took control of government. In the nine years that followed, the circulation of the Neue Freie Presse increased nearly nine-fold from 4000 in 1864 to 35,000 in 1873. In 1872 Eduard Bacher (1846-1908) and Moritz Benedikt (1835-1920)—two Germanized Jews—took over the Neue Freie Presse. In the following years, the two talented publishers/editors further increased the circulation and reputation of the Neue Freie Presse, which by the 1880s became widely known as one of the most respected publications in Europe. By the end of the century, the circulation of the Neue Freie Presse reached 114,000.

From the 1880s up to the First World War, the Neue Freie Presse became one of the most powerful establishments in the Hapsburg Empire. During that time, Bacher and Benedikt became so influential that it was said that the Emperor nominated candidates for ministerial posts only after consulting with them. The Viennese bourgeois readers of the newspaper held it in such high esteem that some of them added ‘Subscriber to the Neue Freie Presse‘ to their visiting cards. The newspaper attained such a prominent status that on various occasions it even allowed itself to openly criticize the Austrian government in the name of the liberal Viennese bourgeois values it stood for.

In 1891 Bacher and Benedikt made a bold move and hired a relatively unknown Viennese playwright—Theodor Herzl—to serve in the important post of the Paris correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse. Soon it turned out that Herzl’s elegant writing style and sharp reports were a perfect fit for the Neue Freie Presse. In the years that followed, Herzl became one of the most valuable assets of the newspaper and his reports and feuilletons helped to further boost its circulation and prestige.

Unlike in Austro-Hungary, where the leading newspapers were closely affiliated with the Viennese liberal elites in power, from the time of the French Revolution, the French newspapers were known for their biting critique of government. This was more so since the 1870s, when French newspapers began to enjoy high circulation rates which served as a solid financial basis allowing them to operate in relative independence from pressures exerted by government.

As the century progressed French newspapers became increasingly popular. James Smith Allen notes that between 1820 and 1936 the number of newspapers in Paris increased more than 60 times. Whereas the circulation of Le Figaro was a little over 60,000 in 1870, 10 years later it had reached nearly 105,000. The circulation of Le Petit Journal almost doubled from 320,000 in 1870, to over 580,000 in 1880. The overall circulation of Parisian daily newspapers in 1858 amounted to around 200,000. By 1880, that circulation had risen to over 2 million and by 1910 was over 5 million. Compared to the limited circulation of the leading Viennese newspapers, by the end of the century the French newspaper became a true mass medium.

The golden age of French mass-circulation newspapers came in the period of time leading up to the Dreyfus Affair (which first became public in October of 1894). Whereas in Jewish history the Dreyfus Affair is considered a defining moment in the rise of European anti-Semitism, in media history it is known as the first true modern media hype generated by mass-circulation newspapers. During the time of the ‘Affair’ La Revue BlancheL’AuroreLa Libre Parole and many other smaller publications turned into battlegrounds in which the new media technologies were put to use to produce storylines and political imagery which were tearing apart the Third Republic.

The power of French newspapers during the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ is captured by the cover of the weekly journal Le Cri de Paris published on 13 January 1898. The cover, displaying a woodcut by the painter Fèlix Valloton (1865-1925) under the title ‘L’Age du Papaier’ (The Age of Paper), was published 10 days after L’Aurore published Zola’s famous article ‘J’acuse’. The image shows newspapers as turn-of-the-century tablets in which the print-hungry Parisians bury their faces while completely detached from the actual setting of the café. The image is a parody of the growing capacity of the French press to overshadow the actual social realities.

Yet during the time of the Dreyfus Affair most French mass-circulation newspapers did not utilize their popularity to promote progressive political views; rather, they breathed new life into an old prejudice. During the time of the ‘Affair’ the new media technologies mentioned earlier led to the creation of the notorious French anti-Semitic ‘gutter press’. These publications were making use of the enhanced capacity of the printing industry to produce unlimited numbers of copies at a low cost to conjure up grotesque portrayals of Jews as a biologically inferior group and spread these throughout French society. Robert Byrnes points out that whereas the annual average of anti-Semitic publications in the first half of the 1880s was less than one, by 1889 it had reached 20. Michael Marrus notes that by October of 1894 (when Alfred Dreyfus was first arrested) the circulation of Edouard Drumount’s (1844-1917) notorious ‘La Libre Parole’ reached a peak circulation of 200,000. This was a large circulation even compared to mainstream newspapers. By the mid-1890s publications such as ‘La Croix’ and ‘La Libre Parole’ began publishing anti-Semitic materials in almost every edition.

During the time of the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ the French ‘gutter press’ utilized the new mass media technologies to shape the loads of electronic signals transmitted through the telegraph lines into oversimplified storylines and monstrous images of Jews. The widespread use of mechanical stereotypes produced social stereotypes. The ability of printers to cast a whole page of type in a single mould and produce from it unlimited numbers of copies allowed the anti-Semitic press to gloss over the compound social realities of the Third Republic and to produce and spread accounts depicting Jews as an anti-social predatory group that was using the French laissez-faire economy to take control of French society. Thanks to ‘offset printing’, which enabled the immediate reproduction of any image drawn on a piece of paper, the anti-Semitic ‘gutter press’ produced twisted images of Jews at a low cost and propagated them across all social classes. The commercialization of lithography led to the explosion of a new ‘iconography of hatred’ against Jews which was permeating French society.

Drumont’s La Libre Parole Illustrée made the most sophisticated use of the reproduced image to put forward an anti-Semitic worldview. It was thanks to this publication—which came as an illustrated supplement with the daily La Libre Parole—that Jews were ‘profiled’ on a mass scale as having hunched backs, enlarged noses and deceitful eyes peeking from behind bushy eyebrows.

Since at that time newspapers became a main medium through which people from all walks of life learned about their social and political surroundings, anti-Semitic newspapers were highly successful in disseminating the popular image of the Jew as the ultimate villain who is to blame for the widespread fin-de-siècle malaise. Unfortunately, the still very naïve French reading public, suffering as it did from fin-de-siècle vertigo, was taking these crude accounts of Jews at their face value.

Journalism and Zionism

What kind of influence did these two media environments in Vienna and Paris have on Herzl? Herzl arrived in Paris as the foreign correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse in October 1891—just before the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ exploded—when the impact of mass-circulation newspapers was already felt across French society. As we saw in the last section, the foreign correspondent of the Neue Freie Presse in Paris was not just another journalist. In the case of Herzl, this was more so in light of the popularity of his reports and feuilletons which soon enough made him a household name among European journalists and a familiar face to top European officials and politicians.

A piece Herzl wrote for the Neue Freie Presse in July of 1895 gives us a clue about the changes he was going through following his daily experience as a journalist reporting from the political capital of Europe:

When a man sits here for four years, up there, in the place reserved for foreign reporters, in the stand between the last two poles, one learns some important things and many insignificant ones—like in any school. There is value not to every piece of news but to adapting. One learns here to listen and see.

The passage suggests that in Paris Herzl was learning to relate to his surroundings in ways which served his craft of reporting about the political happenings of the day for the Neue Freie Presse‘s readers. It indicates that thanks to his new post Herzl was developing sharp political senses which had remained dormant as long as he was a playwright back in Vienna. In a letter to his friend Heinrich Teweles (1856-1927) of 19 May 1895, Herzl describes how his journalistic career pulled him away from the world of belles-lettres, and moved him closer to politics: ‘in Spain I had before me the plan of a Jewish novel… The Paris correspondence interrupted me. Here I got involved in politics and learned unintentionally to look differently at the things of this world’.

Herzl’s growing political awareness led him to acknowledge early on the power he now had at his disposal in his new position. In mid-1892, only a few months after arriving in Paris, Herzl began to contemplate ways to utilize his newly acquired power to fight anti-Semitism—all of which involved in some shape or other either mass-circulation newspapers or Herzl’s own post on the Neue Freie Presse. In July 1892—three years before Herzl began his Zionist activities, he presented to Barron Leitenberger (1837-1899), a leading industrialist from Vienna, a plan for a newspaper dedicated exclusively to the fight against Austrian anti-Semitism. The plan came to nothing. About a year later, in July of 1893, Herzl approached Moritz Benedikt, one of the publishers/editors of the Neue Freie Presse, and asked for his assistance in putting before the pope his plan for the mass conversion of Jews, which Herzl thought would put to rest the ‘Jewish Question’. Herzl’s reaction to Benedikt’s outright rejection of his plan clearly shows the important role he attributed to the Neue Freie Presse in his early efforts to fight anti-Semitism: ‘Naturally, I could not do anything without my newspaper. Where would I have got the authority from? What would I have been able to offer in exchange?’ A few months later Herzl approached the other publisher/editor of the newspaper, Eduard Bacher, and offered to write an article calling for instituting universal suffrage in Austro-Hungary in an attempt to strengthen the liberals against the rising Austrian anti-Semitic party. As in the case of Benedikt, Bacher rejected Herzl’s idea.

From Herzl’s diary we learn that the first thoughts about establishing a Jewish national movement came to him around May of 1895. As in all previous cases, Herzl saved a special role for mass-circulation newspapers and for himself as a senior journalist in his new and groundbreaking plan.

Publishing the ‘Jewish State’

The publishing record of the ‘Jewish State’—Herzl’s key Zionist treatise—gives us a clue about the role he had in mind for newspapers and for himself as a senior journalist. Herzl finished writing the ‘Jewish State’ (based on the ‘Address to the Rothschilds’ he had prepared earlier) between 25 December 1895 and 17 January 1896. The pamphlet was published in a slim 22-page volume bearing the title: The Jewish State: Proposal for a Modern Solution to the Jewish Question (Der Judenstaat: Versuch einer modernen Lösung der Judenfrage). Herzl first tried to interest two fairly major German-based publishers in his work: Siegfried Cronbach, based in Berlin, and the Leipzig-based Duncker & Humbolt (which had just published Herzl’s Bourbon Palace, in October 1895). They both rejected the manuscript. Yet less than a month later, on 19 January 1896, Herzl signed a contract with the small Viennese publisher Max Breitenstein (1855-1926). Since Breitenstein and Herzl did not expect the publication to be a commercial success, the two agreed that Herzl would not receive any royalties and that the first edition would consist of only 3000 copies. Just for the sake of comparison, 10 years earlier the bulky two volumes of Drumont’s France’s Jews (La France Juive) sold about 100,000 copies just in its first year of publication. From the exchange between Herzl and Breitenstein found in the Central Zionist Archive in Jerusalem, we also learn that despite the small number of copies of the Jewish State that were printed, not all of them were sold. In March 1896 Breitenstein informed Herzl that many copies of the Jewish State were returned and therefore for the time being he would not prepare another edition. Nonetheless, during 1896 Breitenstein printed four more editions. Although we do not know the print runs of these editions, there is no indication that they were significantly larger than the first one. In July 1896 Breitenstein informed Herzl that just enough copies were sold of the text to cover the publication expenses.

Herzl’s plans for publishing the Jewish State raise the question whether he intended to spread the word of his international Jewish enterprise through a few thousand copies of a slim, low-budget pamphlet. The publication date of the Jewish State provides a clue to the answer by showing that Herzl’s Zionist plan did not in fact make its public debut in Breitenstein’s edition. Two weeks before the pamphlet was sent to print and about a month before it appeared in Breitenstein’s bookstore in Vienna, Herzl’s Zionist plan appeared in an article in the London-based newspaper the Jewish Chronicle. The article, published on 17 January 1896, and titled ‘A Solution to the Jewish Question’, gave a synopsis of Herzl’s forthcoming work. Thus, contrary to what one may think, Herzl’s Zionist plan did not make its first appearance in a German pamphlet published in Vienna, but in an English newspaper published in London. The first readers of Herzl’s Zionist plan were not Viennese book readers, but English newspaper readers.

The Jewish Chronicle piece explains why the public stir Herzl’s plan caused began around three weeks before the Jewish State was published. From the reactions Herzl began to receive at the end of January, we learn that most people learned about his plan not by reading the Jewish State, but from reading about it in the newspaper. The first reaction came from Theodor Lieben (1843-1917), who was one of the leading figures in the Viennese Jewish community. Lieben came to see Herzl in the offices of the Neue Freie Presse in Vienna on 25 January 1896, about three weeks before the Jewish State was published, following inquiries he began to receive after the appearance of the article in the Jewish Chronicle. Five days later the journal of the Viennese branch of the Lovers of Zion (‘Hovevei Zion’) ran a piece on Herzl’s plan based on the article in the Jewish Chronicle. About two weeks before the book was published, Herzl began to receive word about the negative reactions to his plan from his colleagues in the Neue Freie Presse. On 1 February 1896 he learned that one of his colleagues, Joseph Oppenheim (1839-1900), who had read the piece in the Jewish Chronicle, was mocking him by calling him the ‘The Jewish Jules Verne’. In his diary Herzl mentioned another unnamed colleague who read the article in the Chronicle and found his plan absurd. Herzl’s reaction upon learning of his colleagues’ unfavourable reception of his plan indicates the importance he attributed to newspapers and journalists in his plan: ‘Journalists making fun of the whole thing are the most immediate danger now’.

Two weeks before the Jewish State was published, Herzl’s Zionist public relations campaign was already in full swing. On 2 February 1896, Joseph Samuel Bloch (1850-1923), a Viennese Jewish journalist, asked Herzl for a few copies of the Jewish State so he could write about it in the Viennese newspaper Oesterreichische Wochenshrift. Four days later Alexander Scharf (1834-1904), publisher of the Viennese monthly journal Wiener Sonn- und Montagszeitung, who had heard from Bloch about Herzl’s treatise, asked for a copy so he could publish an article about it before the daily newspapers did. Herzl was more than happy to provide him with one. A day before the Jewish State appeared in Breitenstein’s bookshop Herzl himself approached Juluis Gans von Ludassy (1858-1922), another journalist who was working at the time for the Allgemeine Zeitung—one of the leading liberal daily newspapers in Germany at the time—and tried to convince him to publish a piece on his treatise. In his diary Herzl explained that he decided to approach Ludassy since he considered it of the utmost importance that the Allgemeine Zeitung bring his plan to the German newspaper reading public.

Once the Jewish State was published, the public debate between anti-Semites, liberals and Zionists continued to wage in the pages of the leading European newspapers. Four days after the book’s publication, the leading editorial in the German anti-Semitic newspaper Deutsche Zeitung was dedicated to Herzl’s plan. While the writer of the article viewed favourably the fact that a Jew of Herzl’s stature admitted the existence of a Jewish Question, he doubted the ability of the Jews to establish a state. Once Herzl heard about the article, his reaction revealed yet again the importance he attributed to the debate over his plan in newspapers: ‘In the evening, however, I heard at the office that the “Deutsche Zeitung” (anti-Semitic) is going to publish an editorial on the subject tomorrow. Presumably abuse. But important in any case, because of the attitude the other papers will take in reply’. The public debate about Herzl’s plan shifted gear when at the end of February the English Daily Chronicle published an interview with a Member of Parliament Samuel Montagu (1832-1911) about Herzl’s plan. In the interview Montague expressed his view that offering the Ottomans £2 million for Palestine was a feasible course of action. The interview was a milestone in the development of Herzl’s Zionist idea. It marked its move from the realm of ink and paper to that of actual politics. With its publication Herzl blasted out from the pages of the Neue Freie Presse and landed in the midst of international politics.

From Journalism to Statesmanship

Herzl’s ability to capture the attention of politicians and the newspaper reading public alike demonstrates the power journalists had gained in Europe by the end of the nineteenth century. Thanks to mass-circulation newspapers Herzl was able to use his position in the ‘Gutenberg Galaxy’ to enter the world of international politics. And indeed, when Herzl first appeared on the stage of world politics he did so not as the would-be leader of the Zionist movement but as the ambassador of the Neue Freie Presse. When Herzl began meeting with prominent individuals to discuss his Zionist plan in mid-1895, he presented himself as a senior journalist working for the Neue Freie Presse. The reason Baron Maurice Hirsch (1831-1896) agreed to meet Herzl in May 1895—a meeting which launched Herzl’s Zionist career—was most probably that Herzl made sure to sign the letter to Hirsch, ‘Reporter, Neue Freie Presse‘. By the same token, Herzl opened his letter to Bismarck on 19 June 1895 not by introducing his Zionist plan, but by presenting his journalistic persona:

Your Highness,

Perhaps one or another of my writings has had the good fortune to come to your highness’ attention, possibly my essays about French Parliamentarianism which appeared in the literary section of the Neue Freie Presse under the title ‘Election Sketches from France’ and ‘The Palais Bourbon’. On the basis of this questionable and meagre authority I am asking Your Highness to receive me for a political discourse.

Bismarck never got back to Herzl.

On numerous future occasions, Herzl used his title first as the ‘Paris Correspondent’ and later as a ‘Literary Editor’ of the Neue Freie Presse when introducing himself to individuals he thought might help him to carry out his Zionist plan. This was the case with Max Nordau (1849-1923), Israel Zangwill (1864-1926) and Count Badeni (1846-1909). Herzl describes in his diary the first meeting he managed to get with a prominent public figure, Ernst Ludwig the Grossherzog of Hessen (1868-1937), whom he tried to convince to arrange an interview for him with the German Kaiser, in the following manner:

In response to the first polite questions about what kind of a trip I had had and where I lived, I told him what my profession was and also mentioned my former position in Paris. The Grand Duke said: ‘I get the Neue Freie Presse‘.

Yet the Neue Freie Presse did not only serve Herzl as a ‘visiting card’, granting him access to world leaders, but also served him as a power-base which he attempted to use in order to bring about his envisioned Jewish state. Herzl’s 11-day visit to Constantinople in June 1896 illustrates how in the early days of mass-circulation newspapers, ink and paper could be used as bargaining chips in high international politics.

During that month Herzl travelled to Constantinople in the hope of meeting with Sultan Abdul Hamid and convincing him to grant his approval for establishing a Jewish state in Palestine. As on previous occasions, Herzl requested to meet the Sultan not as a private person but as the Literary Editor of the Neue Freie Presse. His initial plan was to offer the Sultan the assistance of the Jewish bankers in alleviating the financial difficulties of the crumbling Ottoman Empire. Yet early on in his visit Herzl learned that the Ottoman officials were not so much interested in his financial offer as they were in what he could offer them as a journalist. Since at the time the Ottomans were concerned with the unfavourable coverage they had been receiving in European newspapers (following their policies in Armenia), Herzl realized early on that the most powerful tool he had in his hands was not the backing of the Jewish bankers (which he did not actually have), but his pen.

When Herzl met Hir A-din Bei, the chief of staff of the Grand Vizier (the Ottoman Prime Minister), he immediately laid his cards on the table: ‘The Neue Freie Presse had always had friendly sentiments toward Turkey and would always be happy when it could report something favourable about the Empire’. Shortly after, Herzl was informed that the Sultan himself would not meet with him. Herzl eventually learned that the reason for that was not the Sultan’s unfavourable view of his plan, but the critical tone of an interview with the Sultan published earlier in the Neue Freie Presse. Upon learning this, Herzl contacted one of the Ottoman top officials he had been in touch with and stressed how his position at the Neue Freie Presse could be of use to the Sultan: ‘I should be very pleased if I succeeded through my newspaper, in imparting to others the favourable impressions I was carrying away from Constantinople’. Two days later, on 2 June 1896, Herzl followed up on his word and telegraphed to Vienna an article which he described as ‘friendly to the Ottoman government’. Sure enough, a day later Herzl received word from the Sultan that he was reconsidering his decision not to grant him an interview. Although eventually the interview did not take place, the only positive signals Herzl did manage to get from the Sultan were after the publication of his ‘friendly’ article.

In Constantinople Herzl became a double-agent of sorts. He was working for the Neue Freie Presse—a symbol of Jewish assimilationist culture—yet using his position to promote, of all things, a Jewish state. From this point onwards, Herzl continued to feed the Viennese readership of the Neue Freie Presse elegant pieces suited to their high-brow taste, while using his position in the newspaper to strike a deal to establish a Jewish state. Since the editors of the Neue Freie Presse wanted nothing to do with Herzl’s Zionist plan, he had to navigate carefully between his two careers. Despite the many frictions along the way, over the years Herzl managed to juggle his commitments to the Neue Freie Presse and to the Zionist movement. It seems that the mutual need underpinning this relationship was stronger than the obvious conflict of interest between the two sides. Whereas Benedikt and Bacher were very much interested in continuing and benefiting from Herzl’s skilful reporting, Herzl knew that as long as he clung to his post, he would have a chance to bring about his envisioned Jewish state.


The episode in Constantinople shows us that the position Herzl occupied in the industry of mass news production allowed him to override the dividing lines between ‘writing’ and ‘acting’ and turn himself from a private man of letters into a leader of an international movement. Thanks to the spread and speed of mass media technologies—as they were put to use in mass-circulation newspapers—Herzl was able to use his post at the Neue Freie Presse to break out from the confines of the typographical realm of the newspaper, and enter the front stage of international politics.

To conclude, one can identify two particular roles Herzl had in mind for mass-circulation newspapers and for himself as a journalist in his Zionist enterprise. The first and perhaps the most important, was to counter-balance the anti-Semitic press. Although the extent to which the ‘Dreyfus Affair’ influenced Herzl’s Zionism continues to be a matter of scholarly debate, the discussion here suggests that when considering this issue one must also take into account the possible influence the coverage of the affair by the French anti-Semitic press had on Herzl. On 12 June 1895, Herzl writes in his diary the puzzling remark: ‘I owe to Drumont a great deal of the present freedom of my concepts, because he is an artist‘. Obviously, Herzl did not admire Drumont’s politics. Nonetheless, the discussion here suggests that Herzl saw Drumont as an artist of sorts since he appreciated his ability to use mass media, first in his book and later in his newspaper, to mould the confusing realities of the Third Republic into a coherent political worldview which was gripping the hearts and minds of ordinary Frenchmen. It seems that what Herzl found liberating in Drumont’s ‘art’ was his use of the newspaper industry to create a typographical representation of Jews which was overriding the actual social realities. Herzl seems to thank Drumont for leading him to realize the potential of using mass-circulation and his position as an influential journalist to turn his Zionist vision into a practical political programme. Thus, the analysis here suggests that what Herzl did take from the ‘Dreyfus Affair’, among other things, was the capacity of the French ‘gutter press’ to brand a political movement aimed at solving the Jewish Question.

The second role Herzl seems to have had in mind for mass-circulation newspapers and for himself as a journalist was consolidating his leadership over the Zionist Movement. From Herzl’s writings we learn that he saw mass-circulation newspapers as a key tool by which he could overturn the power structure of the materialist Jewish bourgeois society he was critical of. Since Herzl knew very well that he could not match the resources or the influence of the Jewish philanthropists, such as Baron Hirsch or the Rothschild family—who were considered to be the most powerful men in the Jewish assimilated society of the time—he thought to use mass-circulation newspapers and his position as an influential journalist to reach over their heads and establish his leadership among the Jewish masses. In the third letter Herzl sent Hirsch, on 3 June 1895, he clearly states this intention:

True, for the sake of speed I would have liked to use you as an available force and a known quantity. But you would have been only the power I would have started with. There are others. There are, ultimately and above all, the Jewish masses, and I shall know how to get across to them. This pen is a power. You will be convinced of it if I stay alive and healthy… You are the Jew of money, I am the Jew of the spirit.

In the age when the ‘people of the book became the people of newspapers’, as one author had put it, Herzl was able to use his position as a well-known journalist committed to the Zionist cause to forge his leadership of the Zionist Movement. The discussion here suggests that Herzl knew very well that as long as he held his post at the Neue Freie Presse he could make use of it to establish and maintain his leadership of the Zionist Movement. And indeed, Herzl continued in his position at the Neue Freie Presse long after he took up the Zionist cause, when the conflict of interest between his two endeavours was more than obvious. Thus, ironically enough, Herzl’s initial leadership of the Zionist Movement was based to a large extent on the Neue Freie Presse—one of the major symbols of Jewish assimilation.

For Jews who always saw texts as a source of spirituality and collective identity, Herzl utilized mass-circulation newspapers and his position as an influential journalist to conjure up a national movement which offered redemption not by divine will but by a political deed. Thanks to his sophisticated use of turn-of-the-century mass-circulation newspapers and of his post as an influential journalist working in Paris and Vienna, Herzl was able to detach Jewish collectivity from the past Jewish tradition and the assimilated culture of his time, and land it in the midst of world politics. Just like the electronic signals, stereotypes and offset printers which it was made of, this Jewish identity was no longer fixed by the traditional religious texts, nor was it shackled to the financial power of the Jewish philanthropists, but it oscillated according to the shifts of power in international politics. Yet, although this new form of Jewish collectivity was removed from the traditional bases of Jewish identity, it nevertheless was initially fastened to the prominent position Herzl held as a leading journalist operating in the up-and-coming world of mass media.

In the age of mass-circulation newspapers, Herzl managed to do what political writers in previous ages could only dream about—he translated his typographical authority as a writer into a concrete authority as a statesman. As the episode in Constantinople shows us, Herzl’s novelty was in realizing that thanks to the speed, immediacy and spread of newspapers of his time, ink and paper were equal in power to territory and gunpowder. Based on this analysis it seems safe to conclude that the essence of Herzl’s Zionism—advocating for the establishment of a sovereign Jewish state by striking a deal with the world powers—was very much a product of Herzl’s position as a well-connected journalist operating in the early days of mass-circulation newspapers. In that respect, Herzl’s political Zionism was indeed a product of mass-circulation newspapers.