Max Nordau's 'Inferiority' Complex

Recent views about African and Asian migrants 'flooding' Europe recall the racist writings of Herzl's right-hand man at the first Zionist Congress.

Getty Images

Among the graves in Tel Aviv’s fabled Trumpeldor Cemetery, one particular mausoleum – much larger than the other tombs around it – stands out. It contains the remains of Max Nordau (1849-1923), Theodor Herzl’s deputy at the first few Zionist Congresses. Nordau is not very well known these days. He’s sometimes mentioned as the visionary thinker behind the idea of “muscular Judaism” (muskel Judenthum), but a perusal of the writings of the Hungarian-German physician-essayist turns up far more disturbing content.

Nordau was a social Darwinist, an avid supporter of European colonialism and a devotee of race theory. True, many thinkers at the time invoked racist terminology, but Nordau set forth his views in a particularly crass manner. According to his 1885 book “Paradoxes,” the main problem facing the nations of Europe was a dearth of territory. They would, therefore, have to expand beyond their own countries. Nordau rejected the notion of territorial war between the nations of Europe. “Wars between nations are a thing of the past,” he wrote, but brotherhood between nations is reserved solely for the Europeans.

What about the other races? They are “destined to be first driven back by the sons of the white race, and finally exterminated.” Nordau presents the annihilation of the races as a prophecy for the future, an inevitable process. But he is far from being appalled at the thought of the eradication of the “inferior races.” In his view, “Each generation will produce in Europe a new swarm of human beings who will be obliged to emigrate The inferior races will soon become entirely extinct The individuals of the black, red or yellow races will then be his [the Caucasian’s] enemies, as it is to their interest to render his existence more difficult or impossible, and he will proceed to treat them as he has treated the animals as he has treated the great felines of Africa and India.”

The historian Benzion Netanyahu, the late father of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, devoted a chapter to Nordau in his book “The Founding Fathers of Zionism.” In reference to Nordau’s political doctrine, Netanyahu observed that his moral conception elevated him to the heights of universality achieved by the prophets of Israel.

This is a rather astonishing assessment of a person who justified genocide. Still, this approach was not rare in Europe at Nordau’s time. Many Europeans believed that the peoples of Africa, Asia and South America were destined to disappear, to be erased from the world by waves of European migration, a modern wandering of nations. Essays like Nordau’s legitimized exploitation and genocide in Africa, atrocities that their perpetrators viewed as an inevitable consequence of “natural development.”

Paramount issue

And now, 130 years after Nordau’s book appeared, our era, too, is marked by a wandering of nations – a modern incarnation, from the European perspective, of Völkerwanderung (or barbarian invasions). Contrary to Nordau’s prediction, the wanderers are members of those very “races” whose extinction he foresaw. Hundreds of thousands of people are uprooting themselves from Africa and Asia, and crashing onto the shores of Europe. The “refugee crisis,” as it’s known, is becoming the paramount issue on the European agenda, of greater concern than even the economic crisis.

The increasingly stringent restrictions and dirty methods being employed by the European Union to send the refugees back to their countries of origin cannot stop tens of thousands of desperate people from grasping for the continent. Refugees are pressing up against the fence between Greece and Macedonia, and attempting to breach the Channel Tunnel between France and Britain. The countries of Europe blame one another for the situation, and demand that others accept the responsibility.

Some 800,000 refugees are expected to reach Germany this year – four times last year’s number. Demagogues and xenophobes are describing the situation as a life-and-death struggle between the peoples of Europe and “invaders” seeking to overrun the continent. It’s no surprise that this mass migration is a cause of concern and uncertainty. But when one reads the words of the xenophobes – whether in Europe or Israel – warning that the African migrants’ ambition is to eradicate the indigenous populations, it’s clear they are attributing to the wretched migrants the same extinction fantasies that resonated in European culture itself – as expressed, for example, in Nordau’s writings. Even today, many Americans, Europeans and Israelis believe the population of the African continent is destined to perish in epidemics and wars.

Of course, the migrants aren’t seeking revenge on Europe. Most of them want only to live a reasonable life. And setting aside the fears and extermination fantasies, it’s clear that the migrants have the potential to solve as many problems as they may create. Ultimately, Europe needs migrants – particularly in those countries, such as Germany, Japan and Italy, where the population is shrinking because of a low birth rate.

Last month, the British daily The Guardian reported on a growing phenomenon: Young, educated people in Britain, among them architects and high-tech workers, have been abandoning London for Berlin. London has become too expensive. That’s because of the thousands of multimillionaires from around the world who have settled in this center of international financial capital. There are an estimated 140 billionaires in London, and tens of thousands of wealthy individuals who earn millions of pounds every month. People earning average incomes are being pushed out of the city altogether; London’s young are being ousted by migrants.

But these are not migrants from Africa – they are the world’s super-rich. They are changing London, and other Western cities, even more than poor refugees are. A similar process is underway in Tel Aviv, where young people are being forced to leave the city center and move to the southern neighborhoods – Florentin, Shapira and others – where African asylum seekers also live. The center of Tel Aviv has become a rich-folks-only zone.

Money floods into the cities and it changes them. Africa is a garden that’s drying up, while parts of the West look like a potted plant that’s received too much water. Too much money, too little life. In places like the ghost neighborhood of Mamilla in Jerusalem, money excludes even people. At best, the home owners visit for a few months a year. For the rest of the time, the money lives alone with the gardener and security guard. These are neighborhoods in which there is no place for life.

In our capitalist era, capital has no borders. Only people have – especially if they have no capital. But as long as money is concentrated in one region, people will follow in its wake. In the absence of any another mechanism for equalizing disparities, migration can only be expected to intensify. It’s fitting to end with Max Nordau’s words: “These are gloomy prospects that are opening before us, but they have no terrors for those who have become reconciled to the universal law of life.”