Hans Kohn

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Hans Kohn (Hebrew: הַנְס כֹּהן, or קוהן‎, September 15, 1891 – March 16, 1971) was an American philosopher and historian of Czech-Jewish origin. He pioneered the academic study of nationalism, and is considered "the most influential theorist of nationalism".[1]


He was born into the German-speaking Jewish family in Prague, Bohemia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After graduating from local German Gymnasium (1909), he studied philosophy, political science and law at the German part of Charles-Ferdinand University in Prague.

Shortly after graduation, in late 1914 Kohn was called into the infantry of the Austro-Hungarian Army. Following training he was sent to the Eastern Front in the Carpathian Mountains, facing the Imperial Russian Army. He was captured in 1915 and taken by the Russians to a prison camp in Central Asia (in present-day Turkmenistan). During the civil war following the Bolshevik revolution, the pro-western Czechoslovak Legions came into Central Asia and he was set free. With them he traveled further east (called by Czechs the "Siberian Anabasis"), until stopping at Irkutsk. The political situation then allowed him to return to Europe, arriving in 1920.

Kohn then lived in Paris, where he married Jetty Wahl in 1921.

The couple moved to London, where Kohn worked for Zionist organizations and wrote articles for newspapers. He moved to Palestine in 1925. From there he would frequently visit the United States. His writings began to generate books, where he discussed current geopolitics and nationalism. Eventually the couple immigrated to America in 1934.


Kohn was a prominent leader of Brit Shalom, which promoted a binational state in Palestine.[2]

In 1929, Kohn wrote his condemnation of Zionism and Jewish settlers' practices:

"The means determine the goal. If lies and violence are the means, the results cannot be good.... We have been in Palestine for twelve years [since the 1917 Balfour Declaration] without having even once made a serious attempt at seeking through negotiations the consent of the indigenous people.... I believe that it will be possible for us to hold Palestine and continue to grow for a long time. This will be done first with British aid and then later with the help of our own bayonets – shamefully called Haganah ('defense') – clearly because we have no faith in our own policy. But by that time we will not be able to do without the bayonets. The means will have determined the goal. Jewish Palestine will no longer have anything of that Zion for which I once put myself on the line."[3]

Academic career[edit]

Kohn taught modern history at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. From 1948 to 1961, he taught at City College of New York. He also taught at the New School for Social Research, Harvard Summer School.

He wrote numerous books on nationalism, Pan-Slavism, German thought, and Judaism. He was an early contributor to the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, where he died.

In 1944, he published his major work, The Idea of Nationalism, on the dichotomy between western and eastern Nationalism. Kohn sought to understand the emergence of nationalism through the development of western civilization and the rise of liberalism.[4] He also published a biography of Martin Buber. His autobiography, published in 1964, includes reflections on his times and his personal life.

Selected works[edit]

  • A History of Nationalism in the East, 1929
  • Nationalism and Imperialism in the Hither East, 1932
  • Nationalism in the Soviet Union, 1932 [1966]
  • Western Civilization in the Near East, 1936
  • Force Or Reason: Issues of the Twentieth Century, 1938
  • The Idea of Nationalism: A Study in Its Origins and Background, 1944
  • The Twentieth Century: A Midway Account of the Western World, 1950
  • Pan-Slavism: Its History and Ideology, 1953
  • African Nationalism in the Twentieth Century, 1953, co-author
  • Nationalism and Liberty: The Swiss Example, George Allen and Unwin, London, 1956
  • American Nationalism: An Interpretative Essay, Macmillan, New York, 1957
  • Zion and the Jewish National Idea, Menorah, 1958, 63 p.
  • Heinrich Heine: The Man and the Myth, Leo Baeck Institute, New York, 1959
  • The Mind of Germany, Charles Scribner's Sons 1960, Harper Torchbooks 1965
  • The Habsburg Empire, 1804–1918, 1961
  • Living in a World Revolution: My Encounters with History, Simon and Schuster, New York, 1964
  • Nationalism: Its Meaning & History, 1965, reprint/revised, 1982
  • Absolutism and Democracy 1814-1852, D. Van Nostrand, Princeton, New Jersey, 1965
  • Prelude to Nation-States: The French and German Experiences, 1789-1815 D. Van Nostrand, 1967.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ (John Hall, McGill University)
  2. ^ Zohar Maor (2010). "Hans Kohn and the Dialectics of Colonialism: Insights on Nationalism and Colonialism from Within". Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook. 55 (1): 255–271. doi:10.1093/lbyb/ybq038.
  3. ^ Kohn's letter is quoted in Israeli Pacifist, The Life of Joseph Abileah, by Anthony G. Bing, with a foreword by Yehudi Menuhin, p. 69. Bing calls it "Kohn's letter of farewell to Zionism."
  4. ^ James Kennedy (University of Edinburgh) and Maarten Van Ginderachter (Antwerp University). "Nations and Nationalism from the margins: A research agenda". University of Antwerp. Retrieved 17 November 2017.

Further reading[edit]

  • Gordon, Adi. Towards Nationalism's End: An Intellectual Biography of Hans Kohn, Brandeis (2017).
  • Gordon, Adi. "The Need for West: Hans Kohn and the North Atlantic Community." Journal of Contemporary History 46#1 (2011): 33-57.
  • Kohn, Hans. Living in a World Revolution: My Encounters with History (1964), Autobiography, a primary source.
  • Liebich, Andre. "Searching for the perfect nation: the itinerary of Hans Kohn (1891–1971)." Nations and Nationalism 12.4 (2006): 579-596.
  • Maor, Zohar. "Hans Kohn and the Dialectics of Colonialism: Insights on Nationalism and Colonialism from Within". Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook 55 (1): 255–271. doi:10.1093/lbyb/ybq038.
  • Wolf, Ken. "Hans Kohn's liberal nationalism: the historian as prophet." Journal of the History of Ideas 37#4 (1976): 651-672. in JSTOR

External links[edit]