At last week’s conference on “Freud’s Jewish World” at the Center for Jewish History, two scholars talked about journalism. Freud lived an upper middle class life in Vienna, and until he fled Nazism as a dying man, he read the paper that all professionals read: the Neue Freie Presse (pronounced, Noi-a Fry-a Press-a).
The NFP was the NYT of Europe, said Leo Lensing of Wesleyan. It was the most powerful newspaper in the continent, and maybe the world. Holding up a yellowed copy of what he called “the prayer book of cultured people everywhere,” Lensing said that the NFP was written mostly by Jews, and written for Jews, too: the new professional German-speaking class in that great vanished arc of Central Europe, from Berlin to Prague to Vienna to Budapest. Kafka read it, too.
“Very few of us have any idea how powerful its editor was,” Lensing said. Moritz Benedick was thought to be the second most powerful man in Austria after the Kaiser, Franz Josef. Once when the Kaiser couldn’t see Bismarck, he fobbed him off to Benedick.
Fredric Morton, the moderator of the panel, said the paper’s importance could be gauged by the role it had played in the history of Zionism. Theodor Herzl was the cultural editor of the paper, and “he used his position to gain access to the great personages of his day”—Kaiser Franz Josef, the Sultan of Turkey, Baron de Hirsch, and Lord Rothschild—to push his fantasy of the Jewish state.
Lensing chimed in that Herzl’s editor Benedick was so conflicted about Zionism that he “strictly forbade” the mention of it in his newspaper. The word never appeared there. “With one exception,” said Morton: in Herzl’s obituary in 1904, and then in a late paragraph. Wow.
A few comments.
—On-line encyclopeidas say that the Neue Freie Presse ceased publication, merging with another paper, the same year Freud died, 1939. The most powerful newspaper in the world, out of business. Shows why Jews regard their position as precarious.
—Re: the hidden agenda of the paper’s cultural editor. Journalists today would see Herzl’s access-seeking conduct as completely unethical. I’d add that if you read Herzl’s masterpiece, The Jewish State, it seems somewhat sketchy 110 years on. It is a scheme to end the Jewish problem by ethnically cleansing Europe of Jews—taking care to replace the financial capital Europe would lose, and working with the antisemites to perfect a “colonization” scheme, colonization being one of Herzl’s favorite words. The book is glibly written, spends more time considering the problem of wild animals in the territory than it does that of Arabs, in sum is just what you would expect of an important, busy journalist. A vital manifesto for a movement; but not a serious piece of moral or political philosophy. Though of course Theodor Herzl was exalted, tragically, by the Holocaust, which showed him to have great, negative vision.
—The position of the Neue Freie Presse on Jewish questions reminds me of The New York Times. Zionism also made Establishment Reform Jewry in the U.S. uncomfortable; these important men felt, Look, we Jews are not a nation, and we don’t want to leave the U.S., we like it here. Times Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger was opposed to Zionism out of fear that Jews would be charged with dual loyalty. Such a concern was surely part of the reason the Times posted only gentile correspondents in Israel, a policy that I believe ended in the 80s. By then the dual loyalty charge had (it was felt) been laid to rest. Louis D. Brandeis had shown that that you could be a good American and a good Zionist, and there was no conflict of interest.
It’s interesting how much the politics have changed. Today Israel is a fact and Jews are broadly included in the power structure; and if you even mention the old Reform Jews’ universalist concern that Zionism would cause a confusion of American interests with Israel’s, you’re labeled an anti-Semite. These days, realist critics of our Middle East policy have managed to put the issue in our discourse, by saying that the Israel lobby is not acting in America’s best interest; in their landmark paper, Walt and Mearsheimer used as evidence a statement former NYT editor Max Frankel made in his autobio, when he said that he used the Times editorial pages to bang the drum for Israel.
Establishment Jews would seem to feel as conflicted as ever over their place in American life; today the NYT, the most powerful newspaper in the world, basically ignores the issue of the Israel lobby. Not altogether different from the NFP refusing to cover a movement that one of its writers was quietly furthering.