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A Tale of Religious Angst and Self-Deprecation: The Short Life of Hans Herzl (1890-1930)
Born in 1890, Hans Herzl was the son of Theodor Herzl, a Jewish Austro-Hungarian journalist and one of the main founders of political Zionism at the end of the nineteenth century. Dismayed by antisemitism in Vienna after the election of Karl Lueger as mayor, and by antisemitism in France during the Dreyfus Case, Theodor Herzl concluded that the Jewish people needed to found a nation of their own outside Europe. Theodor Herzl passed away in 1904. In the years that followed, Hans came to disagree with his father’s prognosis. Hans was far more concerned with a search for spiritual rather than political meaning, and believed that a Jewish nation based on politics rather than spirituality was an error for the Jewish people. He believed that for life to have any meaning, it had to be grounded in some sort of metaphysical or religious truth. He spent much of his short life searching for this foundation of truth. It proved to be a forlorn search, and though he had considered the ultimate escape on a number of occasions throughout his life, in 1930, at the age of thirty-nine, he finally decided to commit suicide.
Hans Herzl (circa 1925)
According to Hans Herzl, his mother had a “leaning towards religion,” but his father was influenced more by the “habits of free thought.” He explained that he and his sisters “were only taught two or three simple and short prayers.” Living in England after the death of his father, he “outwardly observed the principal Jewish customs,” whilst losing whatever “inward religion” he possessed. He described his life during this period as “in the main a futile existence,” becoming largely “apathetic in the matter of religion.” In fact, Hans felt himself in desperate need of a faith to sustain him. Ilse Sternberger, in her book about Theodor Herzl’s children, Princes Without a Home (1994), observed that Theodor had regarded the need for God a “passing weakness,” but that Hans needed “the security of a supra-human power to give his life the motive and direction he could not find within himself.” There was, Sternberger convincingly observed, a sense of internal emptiness that Hans was desperate to fill with a “core of certainty, a centre of gravity,” and this led him on quest to find “a religious faith which would totally sustain him.” According to Sternberger, “it was a quest that would leave him disillusioned, drained and desperate.” In his letters and diaries, he frequently recorded his feelings of worthlessness, stated that he despised himself, and expressed thoughts about suicide. As early as 1910, he had written to an uncle explaining that he felt himself “unfit for life,” and that he often thought about putting “an end to so miserable an existence.” In 1919, he wrote a letter to his sister Pauline, informing her that he had come to the conclusion that he had lived too long, that his life had been unsuccessful and sinful, and that his energy had been exhausted. He was extremely self-critical in his diary, condemning his “hankering after distinction” and “greatness,” which he observed had led to his missing “all the realities of life.” According to Sternberger, he recorded that he needed to learn to respect people, that he was full of “all sorts of contempts, spites, hatreds,” and that there was something “warring” within him. “Oh God, I am so ugly!,” Hans declared. His friend and mentor, Father Arthur Day of the Catholic Guild of Israel, had also observed and reported this melancholic side to Hans Herzl’s nature, and his “habitual self-deprecation.” Day observed that Hans was “a continual self-tormentor,” and that he suffered from a “strain of melancholia in his temperament.”
After the First World War, Hans felt completely uncertain about the course of his life. He set out to find a definite religious creed to bolster his sense of identity and to give direction to his existence. During the war he attended the Anglican Church, theosophical meetings, and spiritualist séances, but none of these maintained a lasting hold over him. It was during the early 1920s that he developed his attraction for Catholicism, having been impressed by meetings of the Catholic Evidence Guild in Hyde Park. He did not however immediately convert to Catholicism, which he claimed was partly because he felt “unworthy of being a Catholic.” However, he did embrace Christianity, being baptized by a Baptist community in Vienna. The happiness he gained from joining the Baptist community was short-lived. Before long he doubted his decision, arriving at the conclusion that it was not enough to accept the Christian faith, he must also embrace the “universal” or Catholic Church in order to become a true member of the Christian community. According to Sternberger, after a momentary elation, he “relapsed into darkness,” felt doubt about his conversion into the Baptist community, and doubted “the world as he doubted himself.” Hans returned to England and discussed his feelings of doubt with a cousin, who put him in touch with Father Day, a Jesuit author and the Vice-President of the Catholic Guild of Israel. Father Day provided him with guidance and instruction for joining the Catholic Church. He was received into the Church at the Chapel of Our Lady of Sion, the home of the Catholic Guild of Israel, on 19 October 1924 (link for article in Melilah discussing the Catholic Guild of Israel).
In 1924, the Catholic Guild of Israel was still a relatively new organisation. Whilst it had received the blessing of popes and archbishops, it was finding the actual work of converting English Jews to be difficult and slow. At the annual meeting of the Guild in 1923, Father Day informed the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster that Jews were extremely difficult to convert and that the work was progressing very slowly. He repeated these observations in a booklet entitled Jews and Catholics in 1926. Day even compared the task of bringing the Jews into the Church to that of moving an iceberg. “As with an iceberg the progress is slow. If we were working alone, the process might take 5,000 years; but we are counting on securing the kind and efficient services of the physician Archangel Raphael,” Father Day observed. The securing of Hans Herzl, a Jewish convert with a very distinguished name, was thus a much needed propaganda coup for the Guild. As Day later acknowledged, this “good news” was spread, albeit on a “modest scale,” and Hans was “induced” to “write a short account of his adoption of Catholicism.” This account appeared in two prominent English Catholic newspapers, the Tablet and the Universe, in November 1924. Four months later, in March 1925, Hans published another article in the Universe, discussing Zionism and the Mandate for Palestine, which he believed should be passed from Britain to the Holy See.
In a somewhat ironic twist, Hans Herzl, the son of Theodor Herzl, stood opposed to Zionism, whilst being mentored as a recent convert to Roman Catholicism by Father Arthur Day, an advocate of Zionism. It seems very unlikely that his March 1925 article on Zionism was induced by his mentor Father Day, as in the Catholic Guild of Israel, Day was the voice of support for Zionism. For example, at a Catholic Truth Society meeting in Liverpool in February 1927, Day referred to the “wonderful transformation” of the Jew in Palestine, and he recommended that Zionism should be kept under critical but sympathetic observation. During a debate on the subject of Zionism at a meeting of the Catholic Citizen’s Parliament at Vauxhall, London, in December 1927, Day argued that it is an abnormal state of affairs for a people with a historic past to be without a country to call their own. It is more likely that Father Bede Jarrett, the President of the Guild, encouraged Hans to write it.
Hans Herzl’s self-hating personal remarks sometimes extended to his discourse about Jews. In his March 1925 article in the Universe, Hans observed that from 1881 onwards, the Jews poured out of Russia into Western Europe in order to escape persecution, setting up Jewish colonies in various cities, creating “a minor Jewish problem wherever they appeared, setting up that local irritation which alien bodies produce in living organisms.” In this, Hans Herzl adopted a similar biological vocabulary to his contemporary, the Anglo-French Catholic author, Hilaire Belloc, who had argued in 1911 that the so-called “Jewish Question” was that of “any human organism … which discovers, present and irritant within its tissue, a foreign body.” In 1922, in his antisemitic book entitled The Jews, Belloc rejected both Zionism and Jewish assimilation into Europe as solutions to the so-called Jewish Problem. Instead he argued for a return to the days of the Jewish ghetto. He stated that the ideal solution was to “segregate the alien irritant by an action which takes full account of the thing segregated as well as of the organism segregating it.” Belloc referred to this so-called mutually beneficial segregation of the Jews using the euphemisms of special “privilege” or “recognition” (link for more information on Belloc discussing Jewish segregation). Following suit, Hans Herzl suggested that his father had recognised that these “local irritations” led to a so-called “legitimate anti-Semitism.” Hans believed that his father’s solution, political Zionism and the setting up of a “Jewish National Home in Palestine,” was no longer necessary on the grounds that “there no longer exists a Jewish problem in Eastern Europe.” He rejected the Balfour Declaration, and argued that Jewish money and energy should be channelled to Russia rather than Palestine. Seemingly forgetful of the tribulations of Jews living in “the Pale of Settlement” (the region of Russia to which most Jews were confined) during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, he argued that “if those large sums which wealthy American Jews are now pouring into the Zionist coffers were diverted towards the restoration of Russia,” then “that country which has so long been the national home of the Jewish people in the past could be made habitable for them in the future.” He stated that the only “sort of Mandate in the Middle East” that he could personally conceive of was for “the custody of the Holy places” to be “held by the Holy See.” Significantly, shortly after writing the article for the Universe in 1925, he left the Church.
According to Father Day, Hans Herzl’s “full membership” of the Church cannot have lasted more than six months. This would suggest that he started to abandon the Church around April 1925. Day explained that “H. H. got it into his head that his conversion had been too much boomed by the Catholic Guild of Israel.” He observed that Hans could be over-sensitive, at times morbid, and was hurt by the Guild’s rejoicing at the securing of a distinguished Jewish convert. After he left the Church, Hans accused the Guild of “fanaticism” in his diary on account of being pressured to write about his conversion to Catholicism. According to Day, Hans claimed that his Catholicism collapsed because he felt the Catholic Guild of Israel was more interested in making converts than actually steering souls to God, and because he “had never been convinced of the Divinity of Christ.” Sternberger observes that even though he was no longer admitted to holy communion after his departure from the Church, he still regularly attended mass throughout his life. Sternberger also refers to a number of near reconciliations with the Church. On one occasions, Hans claimed he was considering an offer to help form a special episcopate of Jewish converts to Catholicism in Jerusalem. Towards the end of his life, he talked to a Catholic priest about being reconciled to the Church, though it led to nothing. Father Day also observed that Hans Herzl remained loosely affiliated with the Church. According to Day, whilst his complete membership of the Church only lasted about six months, his falling away from Catholicism was a more gradual process. According to Day, he and Hans continued to be friends after Hans’s departure from the Church, and Hans continued to attend Catholic services. Day observed that Hans often expressed a desire to be reconciled with the Church, but that this was thwarted by his inability to overcome his “pet objections against Catholic theology.”
Hans Herzl’s rejection of Zionism continued after his departure from the Church, and he continued to maintain the belief that the Catholic Church should hold the mandate for the Holy Places in Palestine. After he left the Church, he became friends with a Jewish journalist, Marcel Sternberger. According to Marcel’s wife, Ilse Sternberger, Hans explained to her husband that he believed Zionism had become imperialistic, territorial, and covetous for land, having lost the national idealism which would unite the Jewish people. He argued that Jewish nationalism should be more about a love for the Jewish people, and not tied to territory. According to Sternberger, despite his departure from the Church, he still believed that “the Jewish nation” would be best served by affiliating with “the Papal State,” “the Synagogue” becoming a “constituent member of the World-Church,” with “the Pope, as sovereign of dispersed Jewry.” Hans concluded that the Pope “would be the surest guarantor of Jewish human rights.”
For Hans, the Church proved to be a brief sojourn in a life spent searching for a core belief to sustain him. During his life, he tried Theosophy, Anglicanism, a Baptist community in Vienna, Quakerism and Catholicism. He also spoke to Claude Montefiore about joining the Liberal Synagogue. He embraced Catholicism in 1924 but left the Church in 1925. However, even after he formerly left the Church in 1925, he never entirely turned his back on Catholicism. Ultimately, none of his religious and political commitments brought him lasting happiness, or purged his feelings of angst and uncertainty. In 1930, at the age of thirty-nine, he committed suicide. He shot himself the day before the funeral of his sister Pauline Herzl. He felt guilty for not being able to help Pauline to overcome her emotional problems and addiction to drugs. However, whilst the occasion was his sister’s funeral, the likely cause was his own prolonged depression, exacerbated by his inability to find a lasting faith to give his life a sense of meaning and direction.
Hilaire Belloc, “The Jewish Question: The First Solution,” Eye Witness, 5 October 1911.
Hilaire Belloc, The Jews (London: Constable, 1922).
Arthur Day, “Hans Herzl,” Our Lady of Sion, January-March 1932.
Arthur Day, Jews and Catholics (London: Catholic Truth Society, 1926).
Arthur Day, Our Friends the Jews; or, The Confessions of a Proselytizer (London: Burns Oates and Washbourne, 1943).
Hans Herzl, “How I Became a Catholic,” The Universe, 7 November 1924.
Hans Herzl, “How I Became a Catholic,” The Tablet, 8 November 1924.
Hans Herzl, “National Home for the Jews” and “Jews and Palestine,” The Universe, 20 March 1925.
Ilse Sternberger, Princes Without a Home: Modern Zionism and the Strange Fate of Theodor Herzl’s Children 1900-1945 (San Francisco: International Scholars, 1994).
Minutes of Catholic Guild of Israel meeting, Our Lady of Sion, October-December 1932.
Report of Catholic Guild of Israel Meeting, 27 November 1923, Archives of the Catholic Guild of Israel, Sion Centre for Dialogue and Encounter, London.
Report of debate at the Catholic Citizen’s Parliament at Vauxhall, “Priest’s Defence of Zionism: Fr. Arthur Day, S.J., Advises Catholics to Support it,” Universe, 9 December 1927.
Report of lecture by Arthur Day to the Catholic Truth Society, Liverpool Branch, in “The Church and the Jew,” Catholic Times, 18 February 1927.