Adi Gordon (with David Briand)

[David Briand]: For the Tauber Institute at Brandeis University I'm David Briand. And joining me for an interview is Adi Gordon, the author of "Toward Nationalism's End: An Intellectual Biography of Hans Kohn." Kohn was a pioneer of nationalism studies and the book is an analysis of his intellectual evolution that uncovers the multiple political and intellectual trends that intersected with and shaped Kohn's theories of nationalism. The book is available now through Brandeis University Press. Adi joins me by phone from Amherst College where he's an assistant professor of history. Adi Gordon, thank you for joining me today.

[Adi Gordon]: Good to be with you, David.

[Briand]: So your book "Towards Nationalism's End" is a biography of Hans Kohn. But it's also an examination and an analysis of different nationalist movements in the 20th century, which you explore through this figure of Hans Kohn. So what drew you to Hans Kohn as a subject for a book?

[Gordon]: Well you know, it's interesting. Originally, many, many moons ago when I just encountered Hans Kohn, it was actually through his break with Zionism. At the time I was thinking about writing something like a collective biography of various central European intellectuals who moved through the Zionist movement, were Zionist for a while and then moved on, or people who arrived in the Zionist society in Palestine (the yishuv) in the 20s and 30s and sort of lived there as exiles, as it were, and then moved on. Hans Kohn was one of those, and sort of stood out in an interesting way. Whereas many of the intellectuals who left Zionism and moved ideologically, but also geographically, tended to go to the left -- and many of them, like you know, Arnold Zwieg, moved to places like East Germany -- he actually moved to the United States.

And his ideology, his break with Jewish nationalism and with the Zionism, actually ended up in Cold War America where he took increasingly right wing positions. So that was my initial interest in the man. And when I read his work -- his earlier work as a zionist, but also his later work in nationalism -- initially, it was sort of a left call, and it took me awhile to take him in and be more appreciative of that intellectual and what he taught us. Kohn was a major scholar of nationalism. A historian by trade, he was among the very first who saw nationalism as something to be explained in a systematic manner rather than just described or praised or criticized.

And he had, I would argue, sort of two major contributions to the way people understood nationalism. So first, he was very early to claim that nationalism that we see around us and within us is a modern construct. So nationalism very often presents itself as sort of self-evident affiliation dating to time immemorial. Kohn, however, insisted that nationalism is nothing self-evident. It is not grounded in say, blood, but rather it's a state of mind and a state of mind that came about only in reaction to specific modern conditions. That is to say, the centralized state, industrialization, the emergence of [inaudible], and so on and so forth.

[Briand]: And his own conception of it went through these different stages as he moved through, as he was experiencing different movements of nationalism, as he moved between Europe and Israel and the United States at the time.

[Gordon]: That is absolutely correct. The two major contributions that he's remembered to, like if you and I were to take university course on theories of nationalism, we would encounter Hans Kohn as the founding father of the field, as it were. So the one thing would be that the definition of nationalism as a modern construct, as a state of mind. In this regard, he sort of anticipated the later notions of imagined communities based on invented national tradition. And the other thing, the second thing which is even, he's even more famous for as a contribution, is his distinction between civic and ethnic nationalism. And this distinction, which framed nationalism studies ever since, is based on his critical historicizing of nationalism as more of a phenomenon. So as far as he's concerned, in places in the West where there was a politically active middle class and a concept of popular representation, nations grew up as unions of citizens. The nation integrated around political ideas, looking towards a kind of a common future. In other places, he would argue, where no such popular representation existed, nationalism was led as the work from above, and instead of being presented as a sort of a rational, political, popular will it was presented as a biological fact. As you mentioned, David, what I'm trying to do in my book is to basically show how his theory of nationalism evolved and changed quite radically over time, and tie this theory or this emerging, evolving theory of nationalism to a geographical, philosophical and draw a sort of context. And what emerges, I believe, is a study of something larger than Kohn himself; it's essentially a study of 20th century perspectives on nationalism.

[Briand]: Can you describe what were some of the significant nationalist movements that Kohn was either involved in, or was writing about or was a public figure in representation of? What were these movements?

[Gordon]: Good, so the interesting thing about his story is that really those things -- his concept of nationalism, but also the nationalism, his encounters or struggles with nationalism -- change and move from one place to another place. I try to sort of summarize his trajectory very briefly for our purposes. You know we can divide his life and his work roughly into six chapters. So Kohn was born in 1891 in Prague. It was then part of the Hapsburg monarchy. Prague of his childhood and of his youth was a multi-ethnic city where Czechs, Germans and Jews lived side by side -- or rather, still lived side. But the ethnic groups did not only live side by side for more than two generations at the time. Czechs and German nationalists in Kohn's home town were engaged in a bitter struggle, a bitter national struggle. And in hindsight, Kohn would proclaim that the very air of Prague, the very air of the city, Prague, made him a scholar of nationalism. Now just to add to this early stage in multi-ethnic Prague, Kohn was born to a Jewish household, but one that he himself called very assimilated, or highly assimilated. The Jewishness over there was very elusive. It wasn't much more than a sort of a social reality, the fact that the colleagues and the friends were all coming from Jewish homes. But there was virtually no positive Jewish cultural or religious aspect in his upbringing. He learned French and Greek and Latin, but no Hebrew, no Yiddish, no Jewish history, no Bible. But there was also no sort of negative definition of his Jewishness. He claimed to have never experienced antisemitism, never experienced exclusion as a Jew in Prague. So on the whole, what we have here is a very minimal, almost insignificant Jewishness, residual, if you will -- which brings us, I think, to the next stage of his life which happened in the summer of 1908 when quite abruptly, 17-year-old Kohn joins the Zionist Students Association, Bar Kochba. And this now became his world for the next years. The drive underlying pre-war Zionism of Bar Kochba was sort of a quest for authentic identity born out of a sense, almost a void or a sense that Jewish identity was either inauthentic or perceived as such. Now Kohn and his friends presented their Jewishness as nationality, comparable to that of the Czechs and the Germans. So at the time, what we see is Kohn discovering, even though he was surrounded with nationalism and its various manifestations, the conflict between Czechs and Germans. He discovers at this early age nationalism as his response to his Jewish question. And when he attributes nationhood to himself, or to the Jew and to fellow Jews, it's interesting that he and his friends in Bar Kochba are especially fascinated with the idea of a nationality grounded in blood and soil. So the next chapter of his life, if I may continue

[Briand]: Please.

[Gordon]: begins with the outbreak of World War I. He is an officer cadet in the Austro-Hungarian Army, and he is captured by the Russians in March of 1915. Now he remains a prisoner of war, a P.O.W., until the end of the war, and then he is trapped in the Russian civil war and could not return home until 1920. So as a P.O.W. in the Russian Far East, he witnessed for the first time colonialism and the colonialism between the Russian settlers and the local population in the Far East, especially, specifically in Samarkand. And this left a very deep mark on him. It became evident to him that a colonial setting gives nationalism an entirely different meaning, and that would very soon reflect on his writing on Zionism, but also on nationalism in general. In addition, Kohn as a prisoner of war, noted with horror his country, Austro-Hungarian Empire, disintegrating into a national component, each demanding a nation-state. And it was in those years as a P.O.W. that Kohn actually begins to write systematically. So his first systematic study of nationalism, of the essence of nationalism, which already presented a dichotomy of sorts between what he called true nationalism on the one the one hand – which was a spiritual bond, self-affirmation, national self-affirmation -- and what he called the objectionable ideology of a nation-state on the other. So we can see, earlier I talked about Kohn as someone who distinguishes between civic and ethnic nationalism. He has these thoughts back earlier on, but then the distinction was between true nationalism as a cultural or spiritual self-affirmation, and the ideology of the nation-state.

[Briand]: Was it his experience of Russian colonialism at the time that is proving this point to him? That is reinforcing this idea of a true nationalism and then a nationalism that is expressed through colonial means?

[Gordon]: I think, you know, it's the distinction between true nationalism of the aspiration for a nation-state is something that he experienced more from the loss of his country, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and not so much what the empire was, but what it promised or could have been. He looks at the collapse of the a Austro-Hungarian Empire and the future of nation-states of all Europe, sort of states that factor into what he would see, in viable competing small nation-states. And he looks at the experience of colonialism, and the first thing that he thinks about Zionism, right, because Zionism early on was very much a fantasy of the mind, a spiritual movement or a response to what his great teacher, Martin Buber, called the personal Jewish question. And certainly, all of the seriousness of the political dimension of nationalism during World War I, and at the end of World War I, sort of hits it. And he knows that as a, first and foremost as a Zionist, you've got to clear up his vocabulary and his understanding of how and what nationalism is and what it does. Though if I follow that a little bit further, you know, the impact of colonialism, his fear, immediate fear regarding what happens to nationalism when you put it in the colonial setting, his worry is primarily regarding Zionism, aspiration to create Zion, to create a Jewish national home.

already there, even before he returns from Russia, is about the encounter and the exchange with the Palestinian Arabs, with the Arabs of Palestine. And the fear, which then for him almost taken for granted that the relation between the Zionist settlers in the land of Israel and the Palestinian Arabs is a relation between the colonizer and the colonized. This sort of leads me to to the next stage because you know from, those insights sort of defined the next, say, 14 years because Kohn does not return to Prague from the Russian captivity. He spent the next 14 years in Paris, in London, in Jerusalem. He moves in the mid 20s and around the Middle East, and at the time he also develops professionally. He finds his professional calling. He is emerging as an important scholar of the modern Middle East, particularly, he's an early historian of Arab nationalism, interestingly.

[Briand]: Yeah.

[Gordon]: But also politically, he emerges as an advocate of what we can call bi-national Zionism. That is to say, the claim that Zionism should not be realized by the creation of a Jewish nation-state in Palestine, but by the creation of a bi-national Arab-Jewish state in Palestine in complete political equality between Arabs and Jews. And you can see, you know, how this is agenda is grounded both on his critique of the nation-state, which he finds both morally wrong anywhere, not only in Palestine in the Zionist case. Also in his home with the creation of Czechoslovakia which he sees as a creation at the expense of the other minorities: the German, the Magyar, the Hungarian. And so he sees this as morally wrong but also as politically dangerous. So that's one side of it, and the other is the colonial dimension. So in 1934 at the age of 43, Kohn left Jerusalem and moved to the U.S. to become a professor of history at Smith College. And the move was motivated first and foremost by his public break with Zionism a few years earlier once he concluded that his fellows Zionists aspire for nothing else than a Jewish nation-state. And the move to the U.S. coincided with the consolidation of Nazi rule over Germany. Also his academic breakthrough came during World War II with his 1944 magnum opus, "The Idea of Nationalism." So what you have at the time is that Nazism transforms the nature and purpose of discussions about the essence of nationalism, and people at the time read Kohn's work, or rather, read his book as a response to the questions of: 1) why did German nationalism deteriorate to Nazism and 2) whether all nationalisms have similar potential. And Kohn's response was his familiar distinction between the civic and the ethnic nationalism. German nationalism is essentially ethnic. Civic nationalism is different. It is only civic nationalism, he asserts, that retains some kind of universal horizon, and it has sort of the innate propensity to form federations or union greater than itself. And I should probably say very briefly something about the final 25 years of his life or his career. So on the face of it, it was a sort of rather happy end. Kohn has established himself as the leading scholar nationalism. His distinctions between sort of this positive civic nationalism of the West and the problematic ethnic nationalism of the rest resonated very well in Cold War America, right, because it was again, this distinction between east and west. And where the West is, as it were, more progressive...

[Briand]: Right, this is the context that he is establishing himself as a Cold Warrior.

[Gordon]: That is correct. He establishes himself as a Cold Warrior and he is recognized very early on from the end of the war as a useful intellectual, and he's -- for example, he's sent to Germany, West Germany, pretty much every summer to lecture to Germans and to foster what was called their Westernization or Democratic Westernization. The final touch or final word about that late stage, as you say, he's recognized as the Cold Warrior. So at the very same time that he's recognized as an important, useful thinker, at the same time and for very, very same reason, more and more scholars both at home and abroad stop taking Kohn very seriously and actually attribute to him some kind of a Cold War conformity. Finally, you know under the status of conformity, pretty much no one is really aware of it, Kohn actually becomes increasingly disillusioned with America, particularly during the Vietnam War. He seems less and less confident in his optimist theory of nationalism. So that was in a few minutes the full arc of Hans Kohn's life, and you can see how his personal experiences, the historical dramas around him, constantly shaped and reshaped also his experience of nationalism and his political allegiances.

[Briand]: I want to bring up something that has to do with Kohn in this time period as a Cold Warrior in America. It's a quote from the introduction to your book. I'll just read it here. "It appears that Kohn wanted to be a conformist in Cold War America. However, he found himself strongly opposed to America's special alliance and American Jewry's unique bond with the state of Israel. Ironically, it was the Jewish question that stood in the way of his full identification with the United States." So in this context, how do you read Kohn and his identification as both a Cold Warrior and a Jew, and trying to fit in into this, what you called conformist in Cold War America? How do you read that?

[Gordon]: So I really see many different ways, you know. On one level, this is somewhat of a discrepancy in Kohn. You know, given his almost full identification with the U.S., with American Jewry and with the U.N. which, afterall, sanctioned the creation of the State of Israel, one would assume that this would not be a point of any discord, but apparently, and obviously, it was. I guess two dimensions to it. One of it is very clearly biographical. You know, he left, and this, you know, you asked me at the beginning of our conversation how my interest in Kohn started. It started with his break with Zionism, and it's like an ugly divorce. You know, there's some things from this break that he never fully, he never fully overcame. There was a personal dimension to it. He invested 20 years of his life to Zionism. He believed that Zionism could be something different. He believed that the Yishuv and Zionist work and life in Palestine could be a model to the rest of the world, rather than follow what he saw as the most objectionable political pattern. And after 20 years at this, trying to do it, he left. 0N:22:43.821 --> 00:22:49.841 Not only did he leave but he was sort of denigrated, ridiculed, ostracized within the movement, and then later on seen as some kind of traitor to the cause almost. So there were a lot of bad blood that he did not overcome and had no interest in overcoming. So that is sort of the emotional dimension of it. But of course there's more. And that relates to his notion of nationalism in what Henry Luce called the American Century. Essentially, the last chapter of his life, after World War II, he describes nationalism -- even though I will show in many parts of the book he did not like nationalism inherently; he had a problem with it -- he tried to sort of tie it, to harness it to a higher goal. And for him in the American Century he saw the idea of America participating in the decolonization of the formerly colonized world. And he saw the most natural allies of the U.S. precisely in what was called at the time the 3rd World. So for example, he had great sympathy, empathy to Nasserite Pan-Arabism with its anti-colonial suppositioning. If you think, for example, of the Suez crisis in 1966, for him it was very alarming that two members of NATO, Great Britain and the French, aligned together with Israel to conduct what he saw as the last Imperial War. So I guess the bottom line is he had a vision of a decolonization led by the West. And in this regard he countered much of the Soviet Bloc's presentation of itself as the liberator of the 3rd World. For him, it was very evident that the ideas of self determination, the creation of sovereign states and the end of the colonial age had to be led, and was indeed led, by the West. So those two things: the bigger understanding of America's role in the world in the context of nationalism and his personal scars from the break with Zionism created this discord between him and American foreign policy.

[Briand]: So Adi, you mentioned Kohn's Jewish identity growing up in Prague in the late 19th and early 20th century, and then his development as a Zionist and his falling out from the movement. How do you view the Jewish dimension of Kohn as a figure and the Jewish perspective of nationalism through him?

[Gordon]: Yes Thanks, you know, it's true. You know, I look at the book not only as a book on nationalism or about, you know, public intellectuals in politics, but also as a book about Jewish history and Zionist history seen from the prism or the angle of nationalism because as I mentioned, as a teenager Kohn discovered nationalism or nationhood as responses to his Jewish question. There was a Jewish generational drama over there, you know. Kohn and his young friends saw the identity formula of past Jewish generations who, you know, would define themselves as, say, Austrian citizens of the Jewish faith as an inauthentic identity, as an insincere one, as only something that is intended to simplify Jewish integration into the non-Jewish state by denying the national character of the Jews. So they saw themselves as re-nationalizing the Jews, or reclaiming Jewish nationhood. Now there was another sort of interesting feature of Jewish nationalism, which was present in Kohn's case from the very beginning. There's a certain ambivalence regarding how Jewish nationalism looks. I mean there was always an awareness that the ostensible standards of genuine, if you will, bona fide nationalism -- territoriality, blood, distinctive culture, national language -- that all of those actually came from an alien culture. And in Kohn's case, you know, he learned the language of nationhood from German thinkers or from Czech thinkers. And Kohn and his Prague friends desired those ostensibly necessary constituents of a genuine nationalism. But at the very same time, they also knew that it's not really applicable to Jewish realities. Jews afterall lived in many different lands. They spoke many different languages, and so on and so forth. Many of those those attributes just did not fit in. But interestingly, this Jewish dimension, or this tension between Jewish history, the inner logic of Jewish history and the models of nationhood, continue to manifest itself throughout his life. You know, this idea of a distinction of Zionism or of Jewish nationalism emerges again in the 1920s when Kohn is already in Palestine advocating for the creation not of a Jewish nation-state, but of a bi-national state in Palestine, an Arab-Jewish Federation or a bi-national state. And again, here he returns to the question of the distinctiveness of Jewish history. But now this distinctiveness is not seen as something problematic or, but rather it becomes a new model, an alternative model. Jewish nationalism in Palestine would manifest itself politically in a way he hoped that would serve as a model for peaceful nationalism for all over the world. You know, he would stress that, you know, Jewish history had seen more than 2000 years of what he called spiritualization, stripping itself of states or territoriality. And given this history, it seemed to him only logical that what Zionism would aspire would not be yet another small nation-state but something else, some kind of a light unto the nation. And in this regard he was sort of similar to Buber who also saw Zionism, in a way, as a nationalism that would help the rest of the world overcome the negative element of nationalism, and an ideal nationalism as a light unto the nations. So you know, I think that, you know, readers of this book would learn about the variety of Jewish and Zionist understandings of nationalism, but also of the nation-state multiplicity of voices that was there. But you know, with the state of Israel as a fait accompli in the last 69 years this variety of Jewish voices no longer exists. And this may in turn distort or simplify the way we look at both Jewish history and then Zionist history. So I think that is yet another contribution that Hans Kohn's biography could make.

[Briand]: So I want to broaden our scope of inquiry here and talk about nationalism today. So it's a significant time to be putting a book out about nationalism. We're in May of 2017 now, and in the fallout of the Trump election and Brexit, this is a unique time in nationalist movements, both here in the U.S. and abroad in Europe and elsewhere. What do you hope that the readers in this time and age will take from this book?

[Gordon]: Yeah, no, I absolutely share your feeling, your sense because even if we hear the news and we are very concerned, as far as this book is concerned, you know, it definitely is situated as a very topical one indeed. I think, you know, 2017 is a fantastic year to revisit Hans Kohn not only for his lifelong struggle with nationalism, but also as a man committed to theorizing nationalism because Kohn knew, and I think he was right, that the only chance to control or to tame nationalism is by explaining it and by defending it in a persuasive manner. So in many regards, you know, you look at Kohn's story. He seems to be very wrong, as if he's the guy who got everything wrong at all times. So for example, his notion of Western nationalism being somewhat more advanced and more superior, and then I guess let's reckon the word superior, but that Western nationalism is less ethnic and more civic. And you look at all the examples that you've given, you know, the Brexit vote, the ,Trump campaign and it's a very clear indication of ethnic nationalism in the West. So in this one regard you can look at them and say well, we can learn nothing from this guy. He got it all wrong. But I would beg to differ. I think what we can learn here is from the experience of a person who over time was forced by historical development to re-theorize again and again what nationalism is, the essence of nationalism, the history of nationalism and the future of nationalism. And I think the readers will learn from the book how virtually all political ideologies of the 20th century theorized nationalism in order to legitimize themselves, and I can only hope that the readers would also critically reflect on their own assumptions on nationalism. And with the changing definition of the meaning of nationalism we all see unfolding in front of our very eyes, I think there's a possibility for us to reflect. And I think Hans Kohn can help us with that.

[Briand]: Ok. Well, Adi Gordon, thank you very much.

[Gordon]: My pleasure, David. Have a good day.

[Briand]: Adi Gordon's book "Toward Nationalism's End" is published by the Tauber Institute through Brandeis University Press and is the latest addition to the Tauber Institute Series for the Study of European Jewry. The editors of the series have this to say about "Toward Nationalism's End": Adi Gordon unpacks the story of the dramatic ruptures and surprising continuities in Kohn's intellectual development and charged political commitment from his youthful Central European Zionism to his Cold Warrior ideology in the United States. Kohn's staunch support of western style civic nationalism over eastern ethnic nationalism became viewed with increasing disdain by the field he founded, and yet his view of nationalism as that of a distinctively modern construct anticipates those same critiques. For upcoming events and publications from the Tauber Institute, go to our website at I'm David Briand Thanks for tuning in.