Seeking Emptiness: Theodor Hertzka's Colonial Utopia Freiland (1890)

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Theodor Herzl once contemptuously remarked that he regards Freiland as a joke. This statement surprises if one compares his novel Altneuland (Oldnewland) to Theodor Hertzka's Freiland. To say the least, both utopias share many themes and narratives structures. While Altneuland (1902) became the world-renowned manifesto of Zionism, Freiland (1890) cherished popularity only at the time of its publication. Both novels are products of Vienna's fin-de-siecle modernism. Herzl's utopia is set in Palestine, Hertzka places Freiland in the empty space of East Africa. His vision of a new civilization in Africa coincided with European colonialism, nationalism and the surge of anti-Semitism in Vienna. In the following, the essay investigates if Hertzka merely criticizes the culture of fin-de-siecle Vienna, or, if he produces a unique alternative?

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[Hertzka's Freiland] is an ingenious bit of fantasy, devised by a thoroughly modern mind schooled in the principles of political economy, but as remote from life as the equatorial mountain on which this dream state is located. And even seeing Freeland associations come into being, I should regard the whole thing as a joke.

--Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl's contemptuous remark may come as a surprise when one compares his novel Altneuland (Oldnewland) to Theodor Hertzka's Freiland (Freeland). To say the least, both utopias are critiques of Vienna's fin-de-siecle decadence and share many themes and narrative structures. While Altneuland (1902) became the world-renowned manifesto of Zionism, Freiland (1890) enjoyed popularity only at the time of its publication. Herzl's utopia is set in Palestine; Hertzka's narrative takes place in the empty space of East Africa. If Altneuland oscillates between a vision of a sparsely populated Near East and a geopolitical action plan, Freiland seeks to inhabit previously unpopulated territory. Hertzka's vision of a new civilization in Africa coincided with European colonialism and the surge of anti-Semitism in Vienna. In the following, I investigate if Hertzka merely posits Freiland as a critique of Vienna's fin-de-siecle culture or if he produces a veritable alternative.

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I

Utopian fiction as a literary genre dramatizes the need for social change; these visions of a better society ought to shatter and overcome society's ideological status quo. Yet narrative utopias are neither literature presenting fictional experiences nor social theory presenting totalities. Paradoxically, utopias achieve their greatest influence because of their inability to represent alternative societies systematically, and their "historical originality ... as a genre thus lies in its capacity to mediate between two different cultural and social realities, between the world that is and that which is coming into being." (1) Hence, what renders Hertzka's utopia productive is not its literal representation of a perfect society but, rather, its contradictions, dislocations, and blind spots.

Unlike Germany in the 1880s, the Austro-Hungarian Empire did not participate in overseas European imperialism. In fact, the Habsburg Empire was the only European imperial power that did not possess overseas colonies and, at least officially, did not seek to obtain some. Some might view the Austrian extension into the Balkans as inner colonialism akin to Russia's expansionist policies in the same region. Hence the absence of Austrian overseas colonies should not deceive us into describing Habsburg as a nonimperialist power. As the Bosnian example illustrates, Austria, at the time others were looking for colonies overseas, was busy promoting Germanic culture, science, and humanism in Eastern Europe. (2) It is precisely in this context of European colonial expansion and the intensification of anti-Semitism in Vienna that one man had his sudden vision of founding a new civilization in eastern Africa: "My intense delight at making this discovery, robbed me of the calm necessary to the prosecution of the abstract investigations upon which I was engaged. …