Between Nationalism and Cosmopolitan Universalism: A Study of the Work of Hans Kohn

(Last modified September 2009)

This study centers on the work of historian Hans Kohn (1891–1971) on theories of nationalism. Kohn’s name is most frequently associated with the typological categorization of national phenomena within large-scale political and geographical spaces and with concepts of nationalism derived from these categories. Such perspectives on Kohn’s work tend to overlook the importance of his specific approach to the phenomena of the nation and nationalism, an approach founded in Jewish-universalist traditions.

In the early twentieth century, Zionism, as a modern Jewish national movement, underwent a process of differentiation that followed divergent political and theoretical orientations. One of the strains to emerge in this process was cultural Zionism, a movement that was quite influential despite its relatively small number of supporters, many of whom were post-assimilatory, German-speaking Jews. Cultural Zionism not only sought ways to overcome Jewish identity conflicts in the diaspora but also advocated an all-encompassing religious as well as spiritual and cultural renewal of Judaism. Hans Kohn, born 1891 in Prague, was one of its most active proponents. In contrast to European ideas on nationalism that postulated homogeneity, Kohn formulated a concept of the national that was free of territorial determinants and rejected the seemingly natural interdependence of the nation with the state and with a specific territory of dominion. As an active Zionist in Palestine in the 1920s, he worked towards achieving acceptance for the establishment of a binational state founded on an understanding of nationalism legitimated by universalistic principles. However, only a small minority shared Kohn’s objectives. To escape political isolation, Kohn immigrated to the United States, where he became a recognized historian and published extensively on nationalism and related issues until his death in 1971.

In this study, Hans Kohn’s scholarship will be examined from the perspective of cultural sociology:
First, Kohn’s work will be analyzed in order to reconstruct this new school of thought within its historical context as a form of Zionism that sought to distance itself from purely political notions of sovereignty by incorporating Messianic and Chassidic elements of Judaism. Advocates of cultural Zionism perceived themselves as closely linked to Jewish traditions but were also shaped by their engagement with the European Enlightenment, German idealism, and libertarian socialism. The influence of cultural Zionism remained perceptible in the
Middle East until the establishment of the Israeli state and beyond, but in Germany and, more generally, in Europe, it was almost completely eradicated by the Shoah. Later, as Kohn noted in retrospect, cultural Zionism seemed to be nothing more than an isolated, now extinct phenomenon.

Besides considering Kohn’s writings on the backdrop of his role as a protagonist within the Zionist movement, the study will investigate, secondly, his body of work as a historian and sociologically-informed observer. In the course of his decades-long preoccupation with nationalism, Kohn approached the phenomenon from a variety of perspectives and accentuated different aspects of the problem. His work thus reflects the development of concepts and controversies within research on nationalism, some of which continue to echo in today’s discussions.

This study (scheduled for completion in 2010) will elucidate Kohn’s key theoretical standpoints and his universalistic-cosmopolitan concept of nationalism, its specific structure, and its theoretical development and, finally, discuss this concept in the light of recently revived debates about cosmopolitanism.