From the Great War to the Cold War

Toward Nationalism’s End: An Intellectual Biography of Hans Kohn 

by Adi Gordon 

Brandeis University Press, 344 pp., $40

That Hans Kohn regularly felt “unfulfilled” after his immigration to the United States in 1934, unable to make up for “lost years” and “constantly preoccupied with missed opportunities,” is a puzzle. For, as Adi Gordon shows in his fine new biography, Toward Nationalism’s End, by the time he reached America the 43-year-old Kohn had done a great deal more than the next guy. 

An active member of the fabled Zionist student association Bar Kokhba in pre–World War I Prague, Kohn had just completed his university courses when the war began. He eagerly joined the Austro-Hungarian infantry and was quickly captured by the Russians, in whose prisons he remained (despite a bold attempt to escape) for more than three years. Kohn didn’t waste his time in jail. Not only did he learn Russian, he also studied Hebrew, Arabic, Turkish, and Italian, and significantly improved his French and English. “With utmost patience,” he wrote home at the time.  “I have taught myself political economy (Nationalökonomie) and [about] the social problems.” (Along with their replies, his family was able to send him books.) When Kohn wasn’t studying, Gordon tells us that he “created a parallel Zionist college of sorts. This college, in which Kohn was the prominent lecturer, catered to several hundred POW-students.” 

Group photo of a Prague Zionist student organization, February 1913.

Prague Zionist student organization, Bar Kokhba, February 1913. Hans Kohn, the chairperson, is in the second row, seated directly behind the table. (Courtesy of the Leo Baeck Institute.)

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About the Author

Allan Arkush is professor of Judaic studies and history at Binghamton University and the senior contributing editor of the Jewish Review of Books.


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