As a social critic, he wrote a number of controversial books, including The Conventional Lies of Our Civilisation (1883), Degeneration (1892), and Paradoxes (1896). Although not his most popular or successful work whilst alive, Degeneration is the book most often remembered and cited today.
Nordau was born Simon Maximilian, or Simcha Südfeld, on 29 July 1849 in Pest, then part of the Austrian Empire. His father was Gabriel Südfeld, a Hebrew poet. His family were religious Orthodox Jews and he attended a Jewish elementary school, then a Catholic grammar school, before receiving a medical degree from the University of Budapest in 1872. He then traveled for six years, visiting the principal countries of Europe. He changed his name before going to Berlin in 1873. In 1878, he began the practice of medicine in Budapest. In 1880 he went to Paris. He worked in Paris as a correspondent for Die Neue Freie Presse, and it was in Paris that he spent most of his life.
Before entering the university, he had begun his literary career at Budapest as contributor and dramatic critic for Der Zwischenact. Subsequently, he was an editorial writer and correspondent for several other newspapers. His newspaper writings were collected and furnished the material for his earlier books. He was a disciple of Cesare Lombroso.
Nordau was an example of a fully assimilated and acculturated European Jew. Despite being raised religious, Nordau was an agnostic. He was married to a Protestant Christian woman and, despite his Hungarian background, he felt affiliated to German culture, writing in an autobiographical sketch, "When I reached the age of fifteen, I left the Jewish way of life and the study of the Torah... Judaism remained a mere memory and since then I have always felt as a German and as a German only." Max Nordau was the father of painter Maxa Nordau (1897–1991).
Nordau went on to play a major role in the World Zionist Organisation; indeed Nordau's relative fame certainly helped bring attention to the Zionist movement. He can be credited with giving the organisation a democratic character.
After the outbreak of the World War I, he was, being a native of Hungary, accused of German sympathies. He denied the charge, and afterward went to reside in Madrid. An attempt to assassinate him was made in the latter part of 1903.
Nordau's major work Entartung (Degeneration) is a moralistic attack on what he believed to be degenerate art, as well as a polemic against the effects of a range of the rising social phenomena of the period, such as rapid urbanization and its perceived effects on the human body.
In Réflexions sur la question gay (translated into English as Insult and the Making of the Gay Self ), Didier Eribon refers to a whole section in Nordau’s book targeting Oscar Wilde in aggressive terms: «Wilde loves immorality, sin, and crime». According to Eribon, the two volumes of Degeneration are centred around a description of the artistic and literary currents of an «end-of-century» that was leading society to «ruin». Nordau attacks symbolists, mystics, Pre-Raphaelites, Wagnerism, Aestheticism, Decadentism. Huysmans and Zola are also targeted by him as «neurotics» and «the worst kind of enemies of society», against whom the latter had «a duty to defend itself». He sustained that society was «at the highest of a serious intellectual epidemic, some kind of Black Death of degeneration and hysteria, such that it is only natural to hear a generalized, anguished questioning: ‘What is going to happen?’» Therefore, he called upon judges, teachers, politicians, all those who wished to protect civilization, to organize repression and censorship. As for psychiatrists, their role would be predominant in such academia of «honest people» in charge of condemning «works that speculate on immorality». Any artist whom this small cluster of «the most qualified men of the people» might dislike would be doomed, because in such case «both the man and his work would be annihilated».
Nordau’s Degeneration is cited by William James in his lecture on Neurology and Religion at the beginning of The Varieties of Religious Experience. James mocks the author for his «bulky book» on the grounds that he exemplifies the then-current school of medical materialism, stating that Nordau «has striven to impugn the value of works of genius in a wholesale way (such works of contemporary art, namely, as he himself is unable to enjoy, and they are many) by using medical arguments».
Nordau's conversion to Zionism is in many ways typical of the rise of Zionism amongst Western European Jewry. The Dreyfus affair was central to Theodor Herzl's conviction that Zionism was now necessary. Herzl's views were formed during his time in France where he recognised the universality of antisemitism; the Dreyfus Affair cemented his belief in the failure of assimilation. Nordau also witnessed the Paris mob outside the École Militaire crying "à morts les juifs!".
His role of friend and advisor to Herzl, who was working as the correspondent for the Viennese Neue Freie Presse, began here in Paris. This trial went beyond a miscarriage of justice and in Herzl's words "contained the wish of the overwhelming majority in France, to damn a Jew, and in this one Jew, all Jews." Whether or not the antisemitism manifested in France during the Dreyfus Affair was indicative of the majority of the French or simply a very vocal minority is open to debate. However the very fact that such sentiment had manifested itself in France was particularly significant. This was the country often seen as the model of the modern enlightened age, that had given Europe the Great Revolution and beginnings of Jewish Emancipation.
Failure of emancipation
Nordau's work as a critic of european civilisation and where it was heading certainly contributed to his eventual role in Zionism. One of the central tenets of Nordau's beliefs was evolution, in all things, and he concluded that emancipation was not born out of evolution. French rationalism of the 18th century, based on pure logic, demanded that all men be treated equally. Nordau perceived Jewish Emancipation the result of 'a regular equation: Every man is born with certain rights; the Jews are human beings, consequently the Jews are born to own the rights of man.' This Emancipation was written in the statute books of Europe, but contrasted with popular social consciousness. It was this which explained the apparent contradiction of equality before the law. Yet the existence of antisemitism, and in particular 'racial' antisemitism, was no longer based on old religious bigotry. Nordau cited England as an exception to this continental antisemitism that proved the rule. "In England, Emancipation is a truth…It had already been completed in the heart before legislation expressly confirmed it." Only if Emancipation came from changes within society, as opposed to abstract ideas imposed upon society, could it be a reality. This rejection of the accepted idea of Emancipation was not based entirely on the Dreyfus Affair. It had manifested itself much earlier in Die Konventionellen Lügen der Kulturmenschheit reviling 'degenerate' and 'lunatic' antisemitism in Die Entartung.
Nordau also, at the 1898 Zionist Congress, coined the term "muscular Judaism" (muskel-Judenthum) as a descriptor of a Jewish culture and religion which directed its adherents to reach for certain moral and corporeal ideals which, through discipline, agility and strength, would result in a stronger, more physically assured Jew who would outshine the long-held stereotype of the weak, intellectually sustained Jew. He would further explore the concept of the "muscle Jew" in a 1900 article of the Jewish Gymnastics Journal.
World Zionist Congress
Nordau was central to the Zionist Congresses which played such a vital part in shaping what Zionism would become. Herzl had favoured the idea of a Jewish newspaper and an elitist "Society of Jews" to spread the ideas of Zionism. It was Nordau, convinced that Zionism had to at least appear democratic, despite the impossibility of representing all Jewish groups, who persuaded Herzl of the need for an assembly. This appearance of democracy certainly helped counter accusations that the "Zionists represented no one but themselves." There would be eleven such Congresses in all. The first, which Nordau organised, was in Basle, 29–31 August 1897. His fame as an intellectual helped draw attention to the project. Indeed the fact that Max Nordau, the trenchant essayist and journalist, was a Jew came as a revelation for many. Herzl obviously took centre stage, making the first speech at the Congress; Nordau followed him with an assessment of the Jewish condition in Europe. Nordau used statistics to paint a portrait of the dire straits of Eastern Jewry and also expressed his belief in the destiny of Jewish people as a democratic nation state, free of what he saw as the constraints of Emancipation.
Nordau's speeches to the World Zionist Congress reexamined the Jewish people, in particular stereotypes of the Jews. He fought against the tradition of seeing the Jews as merchants or business people, arguing that most modern financial innovations such as insurance had been invented by gentiles. He saw the Jewish people as having a unique gift for politics, a calling which they were unable to fulfil without their own nation-state. Whereas Herzl favoured the idea of an elite forming policy, Nordau insisted the Congress have a democratic nature of some sort, calling for votes on key topics. Nordau was also a staunch eugenicist. 
As the 20th century progressed, Nordau seemed increasingly irrelevant as a cultural critic. The rise of Modernism, the popularity of very different thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche, and the huge technological changes and the devastation of the First World War, changed European society enormously. Even within the Zionist movement, other strains of thought were growing in popularity—influenced by Nietzsche, Socialism and other ideas. Nordau, in comparison, seemed very much a creature of the late 19th Century.
- Pariser Studien und Bilder (Paris studies and sketches, 1878)
- Seifenblasen (Soap bubbles, 1879)
- Vom Kreml zur Alhambra (From the Kremlin to the Alhambra, 1880)
- Paris unter der dritten Republik (Paris under the Third Republic, 1881)
- Die konventionelle Lügen der Kulturmenschheit, in which he shows what he believes to be the essential falsity of some of the social, ethical and religious standards of modern civilization (Conventional Lies of Society, 1883)
- Entartung (Degeneration, 1892)
- Paradoxe (Paradoxes, 1885)
- Die Krankheit des Jahrhunderts (The Malady of the Century, 1887)
- Seelen Analysen (Analysis of souls, 1892)
- Die Drohnenschlacht (Battle of the drones, 1897)
- Gefühlskomödie, a novel (A Comedy of Sentiment, 1891)
- Der Krieg der Millionen, a drama (The war of the millions, 1882)
- Das Recht zu lieben, a drama (The right to live, 1893)
- Die Kugel, a drama (The ball, 1894)
- Dr. Kuhn, a drama (1898)
- The Drones Must Die (1899)
- Zeitgenossiche Franzosen (Contemporary French people, 1901)
- Morganatic (1904)
- On Art and Artists (1907)
- Die Sinn der Geschichte (The sense of history, 1909)
- Zionistische Schriften (Zionist writings, 1909)
- Mörchen (Crumbs of ruins, 1910)
- Der Lebenssport (The sport of life, 1912)
- Gustave Le Bon
- Ruben Brainin
- Ferdinand Gross
- Theodor Herzl
- Israel Zangwill
- New Era Illustrated Magazine
- Basel Program
- One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Rines, George Edwin, ed. (1920). "Nordau, Max Simon". Encyclopedia Americana.
- Berel Wein (1990). Triumph of Survival: The Story of the Jews in the Modern Era 1650-1990. Mesorah Publications. p. 238. ISBN 9780899064987.
Like Herzl, Nordau was an agnostic, if not an atheist.
- "Dictionnaire des peintres juifs" [Dictionary of Jewish painters]. ArtCult. Retrieved 16 September 2014.
- Insult and the Making of the Gay Self (originally Réflexions sur la question gay (1999)). Translated by Michael Lucey. Duke University Press, 440 pages. July 2004
- Eribon, Didier (1999). Réflexions sur la question gay. Fayard.
- James, William (1902). The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. Longmans, Green & Co.
- Presner, Todd Samuel (2007). Muscular Judaism: the Jewish Body and the Politics of Regeneration. Routledge. ISBN 9780415771788.
-  in Future Human Evolution, p. 85
- "Nordaunian AZA #22 official website". Nordaunian AZA #22.
- Melanie A. Murphy (2007). Max Nordau's fin-de-siècle romance of race 4. NY: Studies in German History. ISBN 978-0-8204-4185-6.
- Stanislawski, Michael (2001). Zionism and the Fin de Siècle: Cosmopolitanism and Nationalism from Nordau to Jabotinsky. University of California Press.
- Schulte, Christoph (1997). Psychopathologie des Fin de Siècle. Der Kulturkritiker, Arzt und Zionist Max Nordau. Frankfurt am Main: Fischer. ISBN 3-596-13611-3.
- Anna und Maxa Nordau (1943). Max Nordau. A Biography. New York.
- Lombroso, Cesare (1896). "La Degenerazione del genio e l'opera di Max Nordau". In Nordau, Max. Degenerazione [Texte imprimé]. Biblioteca antropologico-giuridica. Serie III, 8 (in French) (2a edizione ed.). Torino: fratelli Bocca. pp. XXXIX–568. OCLC 660973767.
- Mason, P.H. (2010). "Degeneracy at multiple levels of complexity". Biological Theory: Integrating Development, Evolution and Cognition 5(3).
- Karola Agnes Franziska Dahmen (2006). Spurensuche. Der Mediziner, Romancier, Kulturkritiker und Journalist Max Nordau. seiner Rolle als Kunstkritiker der Neuen Freien Presse (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang).
|Wikisource has original works written by or about:
- The personal papers of Max Nordau are kept at the Central Zionist Archives in Jerusalem
- Max Nordau Original Letters and Manuscripts Shapell Manuscript Foundation
- Max Nordau page at the Jewish Encyclopedia
- Works by Max Nordau at Project Gutenberg
- Works by or about Max Nordau at Internet Archive
- "Max Nordau". The complete guide to Israeli postage stamps from 1948 onward. Boeliem.