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Norman Rufus Colin Cohn
25 January 1915
Died 31 July 2007 (aged 92)
Norman Rufus Colin Cohn FBA (12 January 1915 – 31 July 2007) was a British academic, historian and writer who spent fourteen years as a professorial fellow and as Astor-Wolfson Professor at the University of Sussex.
Born into a mixed Jewish-Catholic family in London, Cohn was educated at Gresham's School and Christ Church, Oxford. He was a scholar and research student at Christ Church between 1933 and 1939, taking a first-class degree in Modern Languages in 1936. He served for six years in the British Army, being commissioned into the Queen's Royal Regiment in 1939 and transferring to the Intelligence Corps in 1944, where his knowledge of modern languages found employment. In 1941 he married Vera Broido, with whom he had a son, the writer Nik Cohn. In the immediate post-war period, he was stationed in Vienna, ostensibly to interrogate Nazis, but he also encountered many refugees from Stalinism, and the similarities in persecutorial obsessions evinced both by Nazism and Stalinism fueled his interest in the historical background for these ideologically opposed, yet functionally similar movements. After his discharge, he taught successively in universities in Scotland, Ireland, England, the United States and Canada.
In 1966 he was appointed a Professorial Fellow at the University of Sussex and became the director of a research project on the preconditions for persecutions and genocides. From 1973 to 1980, Cohn was Astor-Wolfson Professor at Sussex.
Norman Cohn died on 31 July 2007, in Cambridge, England, at age 92, of degenerative heart condition.
Cohn's work as a historian focused on the problem of the roots of that persecutorial fanaticism which became resurgent in modern Europe at a time when industrial progress and the spread of democracy had convinced many that modern civilisation had stepped out forever from the savageries of earlier historical societies. In his The Pursuit of the Millennium, an influential work translated into more than eleven languages, he traced back to the distant past the pattern of chiliastic upheaval which marred the revolutionary movements of the 20th century. Likewise, in Europe's Inner Demons he tracked the historical sources of the mania for scapegoating minorities which, within Christendom, culminated in the Great European witchhunt.
His book Warrant for Genocide is on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, the anti-semitic forgery purporting to describe a Jewish conspiracy for world domination. He argued that this conspiracy theory motivated its supporters to seek the massacre of the Jewish people and became a major psychological factor in the Nazi Holocaust.
In "Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith" (1993), he sought to trace the source of millennial religious themes in ancient civilisations. Cohn, with his background in dealing with totalitarian regimes and the sufferings of his relatives during the Holocaust, described all his work as studies on the phenomena that sought:
"to purify the world through the annihilation of some category of human beings imagined as agents of corruption and incarnations of evil".
His work was honoured by his election as a Fellow of the British Academy, for which he was nominated by Isaiah Berlin. His The Pursuit of the Millennium was ranked as one of the 100 most influential books of the 20th century in a survey conducted by the Times Literary Supplement.
The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957)
Warrant for Genocide: The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" (1966), a scholarly study on the myth of the Jewish world domination conspiracy, especially as evidenced in the fabricated The Protocols of the Elders of Zion document
Europe's Inner Demons (1975) rev.edition Europe's Inner Demons: The Demonization of Christians in Medieval Christendom (2000)
Cosmos, Chaos and the World to Come: The Ancient Roots of Apocalyptic Faith (1993, revised edition 2001)
Noah's Flood: The Genesis Story in Western Thought (1996)
The Horns of Moses Commentary vol. 3 (September 1958)
The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy: A Case Study in Collective Psychopathology Commentary vol. 41 no. 6 (June 1966) 35
Monsters of Chaos Horizon: Magazine of the Arts no. 4 (1972) 42
Permanence de Millénarismes Le Contrat Social: revue historique et critique des faits et des idées vol. 6 no. 5 (September 1962) 289
Adamo: the Distinguished Savage The Twentieth Century vol. 155 (January 1954) 263
The Saint-Simonian Extravaganza The Twentieth Century vol. 154 (July 1953) 354
The Magus of the North The Twentieth Century vol. 153 (January 1953) 283
The Saint-Simonian Portent The Twentieth Century vol. 152 (July 1952)
How Time Acquired a Consummation Apocalypse Theory and the End of the World (1995) 21-37 (compilation)