Norman Cohn: Unearthed the roots of European barbarism (obit.)

Historians in the News

The distinguished historian Norman Cohn, who has died aged 92, unearthed the roots of European barbarism. His best known study, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (1957), demonstrated convincingly that the totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century, chiefly Marxism and nazism, shared a "common stock of European social mythology" with apocalyptic medieval movements such as the Flagellants and the Anabaptists.
Common to both modern and medieval versions of this ideology was a belief in the end of history, culminating, after much suffering and struggle, in an earthly paradise for an elect, and the destruction of their enemies. Just as the established church, rich landowners and Jews were to be swept away by the poor of medieval Europe, so the "world Jewish conspiracy" was to make way for the Third Reich, or the Marxist proletariat succeed the bourgeoisie. This enduring strain of belief has found more recent echoes in both Islamism and the US evangelical right.

Cohn was born in London to a Jewish father and Roman Catholic mother. He gained a scholarship to Gresham's school in Holt, Norfolk, where he demonstrated talent as a linguist. In 1936, he took a first in medieval and modern languages at Christ Church, Oxford, where he undertook research until the outbreak of the second world war, when he enrolled in the Queen's Royal Regiment. His interest in totalitarian ideologies and their roots in medieval Europe can be traced back to his experiences in postwar Vienna when, as an officer in the Intelligence Corps, he interrogated members of the SS and met refugees fleeing the horrors of Soviet-dominated eastern Europe....
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