Hans Kohn as a soldier in the Austro-Hungarian army, Prague, 1914. Photograph by American Photo Studio. (Leo Baeck Institute, New York)

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Kohn, Hans

(1891–1971), Zionist activist, journalist, and scholar of modern nationalism. Hans Kohn was born in Prague to a bilingual (Czech and German) Jewish family; his parents came from the Czech regions outside the Bohemian capital. In 1910, upon his graduation from a German high school and just before he was accepted as a student of law at the Karl-Ferdinand German University of Prague, Kohn joined the Zionist students’ Bar Kochba association, which, until the outbreak of World War I, was the center for Zionist activity in Prague. He served as its chair from 1912 to 1913.

In 1913, Kohn edited a collection of essays titled Vom Judentum (On Judaism), to which prominent Jewish intellectuals from the German-speaking world contributed, and which constituted one of the most important manifestations of Jewish national thought in Central Europe at the time. In his introduction, Kohn outlined the main points of his understanding of Zionism. He particularly emphasized his reservations about racial-biological interpretations of Jewish identity, a trend prevalent among his German-speaking Zionist contemporaries.

With the outbreak of World War I, Kohn was conscripted as an officer in the Austrian army, and in 1915 he was captured by the Russians. The next four years, which he spent in captivity in Central Asia, Siberia, and the Russian Far East, became a formative period in his life. It was during this time that he developed a keen interest in modern nationalism generally, and in Zionist thought in particular.

When Kohn observed the nationalist agitation that had taken hold among the various peoples of the Russian state, he joined a few others within the Zionist movement in realizing that what awaited Zionists in Palestine would be the challenge of modern Arab nationalism, rather than an underdeveloped feudal society. Armed with this insight, he proposed to reconcile the “historic right” of the Jews to the land of Israel with the “natural right” of the local Arab inhabitants through the establishment of a joint, binational Jewish–Arab commonwealth. Kohn began to advocate his binational concept within the Zionist Federation shortly after the end of World War I, along with Martin Buber and his close friends from Bar Kochba, Hugo Bergmann and Robert Weltsch.

In 1925, Kohn moved to Palestine and was appointed spokesperson for Keren Hayesod. At the same time, he was involved in establishing the Berit Shalom society, which reflected his binational vision, and became the leader of its radical faction. However, Kohn left the Zionist movement in the aftermath of the 1929 riots in Palestine, as the response of the Jewish Yishuv demonstrated to him the gap that existed between his own views and those of mainstream Zionism. He ultimately left Palestine, though he never denied the significance of the Zionist period of his life, and remained loyal to his Jewish identity for the rest of his life.

Kohn settled in the United States in the 1930s, where he quickly entered the academic world as an expert in nationalism studies. Initially he lectured at the New School for Social Research in New York, but beginning in 1934 he served as a professor of modern history at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. In 1949 he began to teach at City College, New York, from which he retired when he turned 70. Subsequently, he continued his academic work as a guest lecturer at various American universities.

In the course of his academic activity in the United States, Kohn published dozens of studies on nationalism, of which the most famous is his book The Idea of Nationalism, first published in 1944, in which he coined the typological dichotomy between civic-liberal “Western” nationalism and the more tribal-oriented “Eastern” form. After Kohn’s death, this distinction was criticized for its simplicity. But this disapproval in no way undermined Kohn’s stature as a pioneer in the history of nationalism as a discipline.

Suggested Reading

Hillel J. Kieval, The Making of Czech Jewry: National Conflict and Jewish Society in Bohemia, 1870–1918 (New York, 1988); Hans Kohn, Living in a World Revolution: My Encounters with History (New York, 1964); Hagit Lavsky, “Le’umiyut ben ha-te’oryah le-praktikah: Hans Kohn veha-tsiyonut,” Tsiyon 67.2 (2002): 189–212; Ken Wolf, “Hans Kohn’s Liberal Nationalism: The Historian As Prophet,” Journal of the History of Ideas 37.4 (1976): 651–672.



Translated from Hebrew by Rami Hann