Zohar Maor. Nations & Nationalism. Volume 23, Issue 4. October 2017.
More than seventy years after its publication, Hans Kohn’s The Idea of Nationalism is still regarded as a ground‐breaking contribution to the study of nationalism. Beyond the influential ‘Kohn’s Dichotomy’, his distinction between Eastern and Western forms of nationalism, contemporary scholarship refers to Kohn as a forerunner of the modernist and constructivist approach to nationalism (Smith, viii). In his recent study, Azar Gat even states that ‘All modernist writings can be regarded as footnotes to Hans Kohn’s seminal work’ (Gat, 7). On the other hand, Kohn also anticipated theories of primordial nationalism (like those of Anthony D. Smith and Adrian Hastings) in locating the ancient roots of nationalism and pinpointing the key role that biblical national images play in modern nationalism (Smith; Hastings).
Intellectual historians have been intrigued by the thrilling life Kohn led before embarking on his academic career and becoming a leading scholar of nationalism. Born in Prague in 1891, Kohn witnessed the national turbulence in the Habsburg Empire, ‘the great laboratory and observation field for [national] conflicts’ (Kohn: viii). ‘The very air of Prague made me a student of history and of nationalism’, he stated (Kohn: 11). He became a zealous Zionist, a member (and later chairman) of the student fraternity Bar Kochba and a devotee of Martin Buber, adopting Buber’s unique blend of Nietzschean völkisch ideology, cult of religious renewal and demand for moralistic nationalism.
Kohn served as an officer in the Great War, was captured by the Russians and held in Siberia until, witnessing the Russian Revolution and the ensuing civil war. He penned his first analysis of nationalism in Siberian captivity. Kohn later worked for the Jewish National Fund and in immigrated to Palestine, where he was among the leading activists of Brit Shalom (Covenant of Peace), working towards Jewish-Arab cooperation and bi‐nationalism. Starting in 1919 and over the ensuing decade, he initiated what would become a lifelong interest in nationalism as a historical and moral phenomenon. While his books dealt with Zionist themes (his most outstanding project in that period was a first comprehensive biography of his mentor Buber), he published extensively in the Hebrew and Jewish-German press on political developments around the world and on the burgeoning Arab and Asian nationalisms. The outbreak of the Arab riots in 1929 dashed his hopes that Zionism could live up to his (and Brit Shalom’s) strict moral demands. He left his position in the Zionist establishment and began publishing comprehensive studies of Eastern—and especially Arab—nationalism, criticizing Western colonialism and what he deemed its hazardous influence on Judaism. His growing disillusionment with Zionism (along with, presumably, his failure to secure an academic position at the Hebrew University) drove him to emigrate from Palestine in 1933 and set out for a new dreamland—the United States.
Adi Gordon and Andre Liebich have stressed the discontinuities in Kohn’s intellectual life. His early career as a Central/Eastern European nationalist, hostile to liberalism and sympathetic to the Central European paradigm of ‘the crisis of modernity’, made him sensitive to the dichotomy of Eastern-Western nationalism. But his judgment of the two models was completely reversed after his immigration to America, where he renounced his hitherto adored ethnic‐cultural ‘Eastern’ model in favour of the ‘Western’ liberal model of nationalism, which until then he had despised. Noam Pianko, on the other hand, underlines the continuity in Kohn’s conceptualization of nationalism, centred on his ongoing struggle against disengaging nationalism from morality. He underscores the moral and anti‐particularist dimensions of Kohn’s early, ‘Eastern’ idea of nationalism, at the price of playing down his early Nietzschean and völkisch motives. Pianko, however, rightly avers that to read Kohn through the prism of his rigid dichotomy of ethnic vs. liberal approaches is to overlook his complexity and the moral pros and cons of both approaches.
Kohn’s early familiarity with Eastern and Western modes of nationalism was indeed crucial for his later ability to theorize and assess them. Furthermore, his youthful engagement in nationalism as a moral, rather than strictly political, phenomenon was undoubtedly instrumental in shaping the moral sensitivities manifest in The Idea of Nationalism. Nevertheless, I find another theme from Kohn’s early life to be pivotal in his later work: namely, the argument that nationalism is rooted in religious values, institutions and ideas, on the one hand; and that the process of secularization is essential for the formation of the varieties of modern nationalism, on the other. Buber’s critique of Western secularization, while championing another brand of secularization which discerns between ‘authentic’ and ‘degenerated’ layers of religion, deeply informed Kohn’s worldview. Thus, the compound and multifaceted relationship between nationalism and religion stands at the core of his Idea of Nationalism. Liebich, Pianko and Romy Langeheine (in her intellectual biography of Kohn) highlight Kohn’s persistent struggle for a ‘perfect’ or ‘ethical’ nationalism, but overlook the crucial role of religion in its (shifting) conceptualization and justification. This paper aims to fill that gap. It is important to note that Kohn, deeply informed by Buber, used the terms ‘religion’ and ‘secularization’ ambiguously. The former refers to institutionalized religions but also to religiosity, that is, religious feelings, ethical dictums imbued with divine authority, and free adaption of religious sources. The latter designates both the modern process of the weakening of religion and its loss of public sway, and the use of relevant components of religion by secular agents like the state, national movements and artists.
I will examine Kohn’s conception—and personal experience—of the relationship between nationalism and religion, starting with his early Buberian thoughts on religion, secularization and nationalism. At that stage, Kohn was still an ‘Eastern’ nationalist, and his treatment of nationalism was normative rather than descriptive. I will then examine the relationship between religion and nationalism in Kohn’s journalistic writing in the 1920s and in his first theoretical works on nationalism in the years 1929-1939. (Arguably, Kohn turned to the study of nationalism after a personal break with it, when he concluded that moral refinement and national struggle were mutually exclusive.) I will demonstrate the profound influence that Kohn’s nascent disillusionment with Zionism, and his horror at the rise of Fascism and Nazism, had on his analysis. Finally, I will revisit Kohn’s more mature and crystallized account of nationalism in his 1944 book from the perspective of the nationalism‐religion relationship.
Buber’s Inspiration: Nationality and Religiosity
Kohn’s religious sensitivity did not emanate from his upbringing. As he indicates in his autobiography, he grew up in an almost completely secularized and non‐traditional home (Kohn: 37-9). Jewish Prague in general, as Wilma Iggers has asserted, was characterized by religious indifference (Iggers, 20-2). It was Martin Buber who swept the young Kohn into a deep involvement with religiosity. Theirs was a profoundly non‐, even anti‐traditional Jewish religiosity, and it stood at the core of Kohn’s first prototype of ‘perfect nationalism’, modelled after what he would later term ‘Eastern’ nationalism.
Visiting Prague in 1909 and 1910, Buber presented Zionism in a völkisch key to an impassioned audience. Its substance was the trans‐historical people and its goal was its regeneration. At the same time, Buber deviated from some of the common traits of völkisch ideologists in his assertion that nationalism’s foundations, meaning and implications relate mainly to the individual, and in his aspiration to recover not only a lost naturality but also a lost spirituality. The most outstanding characteristic of his Zionism was its religious colour. Buber taught Kohn (and others) about the two faces of secularism, which both negates religion and co‐opts it, transporting it into the ‘secular’ realms. He supported the second aspect with the same enthusiasm with which he discarded the first.
Nationalism, for Buber, was not a political struggle for a nation state but rather an individual identification with the people, man’s true nurturing stratum. His Zionism was extremely de‐politicized, in contrast to mainstream Herzlian Zionism and even Ahad Ha’am’s ‘spiritual Zionism’.
The essence of Jewish nationalism, to him, was an existential struggle for eternity. In his first address in Prague, Buber portrayed the desirable feelings of a true Zionist: ‘The people are now for him a community of men who were, are and will be—a community of the dead, the living and the yet unborn—who together constitute a unity. It is this unity that, to him, is the ground of his I’ (Buber 1967, 16). In his next address in Prague, Buber stressed that the struggle for inner and outer unity was the Jewish historical challenge, the foundation of Jewish religion and Judaism’s unique contribution to humanity. Buber emphasized that the unification of the individual with his people was not the final objective of the struggle for unity, but rather ‘unity…between nations… unity between mankind and every living thing… unity between God and the world’ (Buber 1967, 25, 27). Among all peoples, the Jew suffers to the greatest extent from inner conflict and schisms. That deficiency, however, catalyses an acute aspiration for unity which shapes his monotheism and his universal vocation as the great synthesizer. Buber argued that his Zionism aspires to a redemption that begins with the coalescing of the individual’s fragmented self, goes on to settle the disputes within the nation and culminates in the reestablishment of divine unity.
Yet, Buber did not champion the accepted religious tradition (‘official Judaism’), but rather ‘underground Judaism’—Jesus, the Essenes, the Cabbalists and the Hasidim (Buber 1967 : 28, 30). In his third address in Prague, he elaborated on the difference between the traditional Jewish concept of religion and his ‘renewed’ religion by contrasting the ‘immanent’, Spinozist character of his God with His ‘transcendent’ character in ‘formal Judaism’. In that address, he added another catchword as a title for another Zionist goal—‘renewal’, which is the reactivation of the three great religious ideals of Judaism: unity (as discussed above); total, free and authentic (i.e. sanctified) life; and the craving and struggle for a perfected world.
In his 1913 address ‘Jewish Religiosity’, Buber distinguished between ‘religiosity’—a longing for the absolute and an endeavour to realize it in human life—and the more formal and ritual ‘religion’, and argued that ‘Renewal of Judaism means in reality renewal of Jewish religiosity’ (Buber 1967: 79). In his 1912 address ‘The Spirit of the Orient and Judaism’, Buber identified the abovementioned characteristics of Judaism with ‘the Orient’ according to the Fin de siècle oriental romanticism. He highlighted the Jews’ mission to redeem the sick West as the standard bearers of the sublime Eastern culture.
In 22 September 1911, the twenty‐year‐old Kohn wrote to Buber, ‘You know, sir, what your addresses meant to us in Bar Kochba. But I think I may say that they meant more for me than to any of the others, for in many respects they constituted a turning point in all my views’ (Buber 1991: 130). Over the next three years, he would relentlessly write and lecture about Buber and his ideas, championing his tenets of a cultural‐(de‐traditionalized) religious, anti‐liberal and anti‐‘Western’ Zionism (Kohn: 64-7). Kohn also followed Buber in rendering Zionism in a cultural rather than a political key and in channelling Zionism towards individual religious regeneration. Zionism must engender mystical‐religious renewal, suffusing the withered Western world with new vitality and a fullness of life. Religion will be transformed, from a transcendent enslavement of man to divine decrees into an immanent deification of man as a creator of values (Kohn).
Kohn, however, differed from Buber in the accent he placed on the universal makeup of his ideal Zionism. In the abovementioned letter, he claimed that Buber’s ideals were universal in nature and thus inapt for the establishment of clear national boundaries. He added, ‘The unity I have in mind is something the individual experiences only in a state of ecstasy, the mystic experience which is as remote from his folk as it is from this whole world of samsara’ (Buber 1991: 130). In a lecture at a Bar Kochba meeting, Kohn averred that the Jewish aspiration for unity is indeed greater than other peoples’, but that the content of that unity is universal, as expressed by mystics from all nations and generations (Kohn: 6-7). Thus, Kohn derived from Buber’s creed a universalist concept of nationalism, inter alia, by downplaying Buber’s ethnic vocabulary (Kohn, Kohn: viii). In a letter to his friend Robert Weltsch, he confessed:
I believe that in every man the seed of the mystic is concealed. …It dwells in our soul, the most universal element, which is simultaneously the most personal element in us; in our soul are the means for uplifting our personality to infinity. …The complete humanity = the complete Judaism = the complete personality (Kohn: 2; see also Kohn: 51).
This mysticism, which enables the unity of individual, nation and humanity, is the core of Kohn’s Jewish religiosity, the essence of Zionism.
His experiences in the Great War and his long years of captivity in Siberia did not alter his idea of nationalism; as he wrote to Buber on 21 November 1917, they sharpened his conviction that the great historical events are part of a messianic drama in which the Jewish people plays a key role. The world, he maintained, was ripe for a religious outlook on life (Buber: 510-2, see also Kohn). His first composition on nationalism, a 1919 lecture in Krasnoyarsk, Siberia, was imbued with an idealist, religious outlook. He contended that the German defeat in the War resulted from egoism; that is, from preferring one’s own good over others’, the temporal over the eternal, the real over the ideal (Kohn: 3). True nationalism is the continuity of generations that conveys man to eternity and thus should not be viewed from a narrow political perspective. It is built on the unity of spiritual and corporeal, as in authentic religion (Kohn: 7, 9, 18-19). Kohn emphasized the cosmopolitan and non‐statist character of the nationalism he advocated and considered the engagement of nation and state, and the fading of ethical considerations, as the root of the Great War and the devastation it wreaked (21-3; see Langeheine: 95-103).
That religious and messianic concept of nationalism found voice in Kohn’s first publication on nationalism, his ‘Nationalismus’, which appeared in the 1921-2 volume of Buber’s Der Jude and was dedicated to him. In the essay, Kohn introduced the genealogy of nationalism as a process of bifurcated secularization—a struggle against and a transformation of religion—and stressed the (non‐traditional) religious character of the ‘perfect’ nationalism he envisioned, as opposed to the dangerous (and prevailing) statist nationalism, which he condemned.
Kohn argued that each era has its ‘ordering principle’ (Kohn 1980: 21, Kohn: 7-8); in the case of modernity, religion is substituted by nationalism. The Enlightenment, and especially French scepticism, undermined religion, and the collapse of the feudal decentralized order allowed for a hitherto blocked national unity. Thus, ‘the faith of the nineteenth century was its nationalism, more precisely, its state nationalism’. The ideology of nationalism is thus a product of secularization. In a draft on Buber, Kohn lamented this historical process, imbuing nationalism with the hazardous aura of totality (Kohn).
Kohn linked nationalism to religion not only in his genealogy of the former but also in viewing nationalism as a ‘faith’, rather than merely a social function. Kohn relied on Georg Simmel’s assertion that life goals are determined by ‘materials of the spirit’, by different faiths (20-1). But only ‘true’ nationalism is a material of the spirit. Kohn defined it by paraphrasing the distinction made by Buber (and Simmel, Buber’s teacher of sociology) between (inner, authentic) religiosity and (outer, institutionalized) religion. ‘True’, ‘good’ nationalism (‘anchored in the eternal depths of the human soul’) is based on a concept of nation as ‘inwardly experienced’, ‘a group of people held together through a common descent and common or similar historical destinies’. To make the ethnic character of this definition even clearer, Kohn borrowed Gustav Landauer term ‘blood community’. To him state nationalism, conversely, was a product of the secularization of the dictum ‘cuius regio eius religio’, likewise transforming a natural and spiritual reality into an artificial framework ‘attached to territories and constructed on conditions of power and authoritarian violence’. Like religion, ‘true’ nationalism is spiritual and thus corrupted when associated with the mechanisms of state power (22-23, see Kohn).
The tragic history of nationalism is its degeneration, from its Enlightenment heyday, when it still enjoyed a religious, universal, messianic and individualistic character (as exemplified by Fichte), to the nineteenth century, when it became a divisive and belligerent factor. ‘Connection with the state once meant the fall of the religion, and the same was now true of the nation’ (See also Kohn, Kohn: 165-6), he stated. The Great War, seemingly a sweeping victory for the nation state (marked by national awakening in Asia, the last remaining bastion of religious devotion), turned out to have been its swan song. The technological and cultural progress of humanity had rendered nationalism an outdated ‘ordering principle’; the lives of individuals and peoples were becoming more and more interrelated, so that the ruling principle of independent sovereignty was doomed to irrelevance. Kohn prophesied that national wars would soon become unthinkable, just like medieval religious wars (see also Kohn). That did not, however, mean the replacement of nationalism with a new ‘ordering principle’ in the foreseeable future. It appears that Kohn envisioned the disappearance of state nationalism but found promising signs for a regeneration of his ‘authentic’, ‘perfect’ nationalism: communal, non‐statist, individualistic and humanistic. His two forerunners of national renovation were Nietzsche and Buber. Kohn paraphrased the latter’s distinction between ‘official’ and ‘underground’ religion to point to the prospects of ‘underground’ nationalism: ‘Nationalism reaches to the stars here. It redeems the world. And redemption of the world is possible only by way of self‐sacrifice… the Jewish notion of the servant of God’. Presumably, religious self‐sacrifice is needed so as to overcome the prevalent enchantments of a nationalism of power. Again, nationalism is reinfused with religious fervour; religion is both its point of departure and its messianic end.
Kohn’s ‘Nationalismus’ reflected accurately his youthful adoption of and reaction to Buber, interwoven with arbitrary historical and sociological reflections. Kohn’s ‘perfect’ or ‘ethical’ nationalism, at that stage, was (non‐traditional) religious, communal, individual‐oriented and universal. Kohn used the two meanings of secularization: he emphasized that nationalism replaces religion, but at the same time maintained that it must carry on religion’s mission in a secular setting. Nationalism’s task it to salvage the world; as Fichte put it, ‘to weld the everlasting to earthly work, to plant and nurture the permanent in the ephemeral, connected with the eternal’.
Similar motifs can be traced in Kohn’s treatment of nationalism and religion in the Jewish context. In his booklet on the political idea of Judaism, Kohn underlined the religious origin of Jewish national consciousness, while secularizing religion through nationalization. ‘The root of Jewish religion lies in the history of the Jewish people… Judaism is not a religion. It is a living ethnicity (Volkstum) whose national character, over the course of history, gave rise to a religion, a specific political‐ethical attitude to the world (Kohn: 20, 21-2). Thus, the synagogue “is not a place of worship… but a seminary (Lehrhaus), a place of spiritual education, the leading house of public education (Volksbildung)”’ (Kohn: 21). Religion has a national function, and, accordingly, nationalism has a religious mission. In the wake of Buber’s 1918 address ‘The Holy Way’ (Buber 1967: 108-148), and his shift from mysticism to ethics, Kohn portrayed Jewish nationalism as dedicated to establishing God’s kingdom in this world through total devotion to a collective ethical life. Jewish nationalism is utopian and messianic in nature, aspiring to break the existing national boundaries in favour of a unified humanity, echoing God’s own unity.
In conclusion, Kohn presented a secularized religion (distinguishing between ‘bad’ transcendent religion and ‘good’ worldly, nationalized religiosity) and re‐sacralized nationalism, formed by the process of modern secularization (distinguishing between ‘bad’ statist nationalism and ‘good’ communal and ethical nationalism). While he highlighted the uniqueness of Jewish nationalism, Kohn’s ideal nationalism in general resembled Judaism’s basic tenets; only the accented prophetic‐religious contours were missing.
Nationalism as Seen from Zion
In 1925, Kohn immigrated to Palestine in order to establish the utopian Jewish commonwealth he yearned for, and which he hoped would propagate his model of mended nationalism throughout a world shattered by the Great War. During that period, he further developed his ideas on the intricate relationship between nationalism and religion.
As an activist in Brit Shalom, Kohn sought to soothe Jewish-Arab hostility by establishing a common political community devoid of the prevailing power mechanisms, ‘a state… which is no longer “a state”, sovereignty (Herrschaft) which is no longer “sovereignty”, but an‐archia’ (Kohn 1922: 22). This, he thought, might neutralize the conflict between the two peoples and disengage the nation from the state, thus sparing it the degeneration of European nationalism (see Maor). Moreover, such non‐statist nationalism corresponded to the Jewish traditional—and religious—national concept, as Kohn underlined in his obituary for Ahad Ha’am: ‘The national idea that he exhorted was hundreds of years old and not the product of the European model of the last decades; for him [nationalism] was not a desire for power or a specific relation to a territory or to another national possession, but rather an ultimate essence, an enrichment and elevation of the spirit’ (Kohn; see also Kohn). In another essay from the same year, Kohn portrayed Jewish assimilation and nationalism as two opposite strategies, both of which betray the unique religious makeup of the Jewish people—the essence of Judaism—under the pressure of the modern steamroller of state nationalism.
Anticipating the arguments of Talal Asad and others, Kohn portrayed secularization as a process that produces distinct ‘nation’ and ‘religion’ to replace an undefined unity of communality and faith:
The results of this assimilation process could be traced in all aspects of social, cultural and psychological life, and were essentially similar to known phenomena observed among other Eastern and medieval peoples, upon their entry into a modern mode of life, upon their ‘Westernization’. The process of secularization in Jews’ life has begun. Allegedly, this process was expressed in the retreat of Judaism to the synagogue and exclusively religious institutions, in its being rendered into a mere ‘religion’, while many sides of life, once… associated with religion were appropriated from it and embraced under the wings of the secular‐rational regime…. The modern national movement treated favorably, post factum, this disengagement of religion from Judaism… (Kohn, part 1: 32)
Reform and, later on, liberal Judaism argued that ‘Judaism is not a nation but merely a religious association’, while subordinating Jewish religious life to the rigorous test of the state’s needs. Kohn hinted that Herzlian Zionism is not essentially different in that regard; it also aspires to reform Judaism according to external standards. ‘True’ nationalism (originating, according to Kohn, from modern Orthodoxy!), on the other hand, as expressed in the writings of Joseph Salvador and Moses Hess, wishes to restore Judaism’s lost unity of ‘nation’ and ‘religion’. For Kohn, that new‐old brand of nationalism was crucial for the completion of the French revolution (whose ideals of liberté, égalité, fraternité stem from the Bible). (part 2, 13).
In the years 1924-1933, Kohn directed his interest in nationalism eastward; he wrote extensively on Arab and Eastern forms of nationalism and highlighted their religious character, contrasting them with modern nationalism in the West. Kohn described how the peoples of the East, contesting Western domination, followed the Western pattern of secularization by replacing their religious identity with a national one. However, that process, especially noticeable in Turkey, was gradually diminishing. Kohn argued that a religious revival was taking place among the youth; religion would ‘continue to bestow its vitalizing powers upon the believers’, as it had done for centuries. Religion would be reformed along modern lines and then serve to bolster the East’s political and cultural resistance to Western colonialism (Kohn, compare 1929a). Eastern nationalism, like that promoted by Tagore in India, aspires to abolish the destructive welding of nation and state (Kohn). Kohn (referring mainly to Islam and Hinduism) stressed the universal, transnational nature of Eastern religions—a corollary of his portrait of Judaism. He argued than Zionism could make use of that fact and struggle for a new political framework, a ‘pan‐Eastern’ union of the people of the East, into which the Jewish commonwealth could integrate (Kohn). Outside the prevailing destructive order of nation states and the separation of religion and nationalism, Judaism could nurture an exemplary nationalism.
The political developments in Palestine, and the rise of Fascism and Nazism in Europe, however, jolted Kohn from his naïve belief in the possibility of a better, ‘Asian’ or ‘Jewish’ nationalism. Religion was, again, instrumental in generating and legitimizing cosmopolitanism, but this was another kind of religion. Kohn no longer championed Buberian irrationalism and völkisch‐oriented religion, probably because of their demonic use by the Nazis. He searched for other religious inspirations.
Theorizing the Nation in the Shadow of Fascism
As early as January 1930, immediately after he decided to depart from Zionism, Kohn planned to write a comprehensive book on nationalism. He wrote to his close friend, Robert Weltsch: ‘I decided to write, as my next big book, a book on nationalism and nationalities law in the Soviet Union. This is an important theme and an important preparatory work to my last big nationalism book…’ (Kohn). A series of publications in the years 1937-1944 unfolded his crystallizing conception of nationalism and religion. Kohn may have left behind many of his former convictions, but he still analysed ideologies through the prism of religion/secularization.
After migrating to the United States, Kohn set aside the East and his hopes that its nascent nationalism might serve as a more decent alternative to its Western counterpart. This shift probably ensues from Kohn’s recoil from his youthful völkisch, anti‐liberal creed after European Fascism had drawn such repelling conclusions from it. Kohn concluded that Western liberalism, is, after all, the best basis of his desired model of nationalism. His growing admiration of Great Britain, acquired in his visits before immigrating to Palestine and in his encounter with the British administration in Palestine, helped to revise his earlier, critical image of liberalism (see Gordon). In his first book as an American scholar, Nationalism in the Soviet Union, Kohn reversed his assessment of ‘East’ and ‘West’ and, for the first time, portrayed the technological and economic advantage of the West as a sign of its moral supremacy. Weber’s ‘protestant ethic’ was presented as the secularized religious foundation of the Western way of life (Kohn: 2-9).
Nationalism in the Soviet Union offered a penetrating account of Bolshevik transnationalism and Western nationalism. According to Kohn, the infrastructure of both was a secularized religion. Religion is founded on man’s longing for the eternal, and Marxists err when they tarnish that longing as a mere flight from the miseries engendered by Western capitalism. Notwithstanding its anti‐religious stance (justified only in regard to religion, not religiosity! (Kohn: 80-4), Communism’s declared universalism ultimately stems from religious sources: namely, Christian anti‐particularism. Unfortunately, Communism in Russia also secularizes negative aspects of religion, specifically its fanaticism, missionary outlook and unrealistic messianism. The West, on the other hand, is more tolerant and sober, thanks to the influence of the Renaissance and Reformation. Though the Western myth of progress also derives from religious messianic sources, unlike its communist counterpart, it avoids overzealousness by refraining from determining a specific end goal for progress (Kohn: 24-33). Yet despite his harsh criticism of Communism in Russia, in confronting the rise of Fascism and Nazism, Kohn found the danger posed by Western nationalism far greater and viewed Bolshevism as its last barrier, as the only standard bearer for the religious tradition of universalism (100-4). Kohn averred that all religions are basically universal; that nationalism, therefore, especially in its racial form, could not have risen without a bifurcated secularization, at once deferring universalist religious motifs and appropriating particularist ones (122-3, n. 11).
Kohn’s Force or Reason deepened his argument that modern secularism had spawned the monster of Fascist nationalism. Though Kohn celebrated the secular, anti‐conservative character of eighteenth‐century Enlightenment, the provenance of the forsaken ‘good’ universal and humanistic nationalism (Kohn, 14-6, 49-51), he accused nineteenth‐century secularism of begetting contemporary ‘bad’ nationalism. The problem with the culture of the nineteenth century, as epitomized in Darwin’s influential theory of evolution, was twofold. First, it secularized the secular: ‘If God had been dethroned in the eighteenth century, the later nineteenth century dethroned man’. The ‘dechristianization of Western humanity’ was followed by the ‘dehumanization of Western mankind’ (32-3). The result was the death of moralism and humanism as expressed by Nietzsche and Spengler, and the eruption of aggressive nationalism. Relinquishing his former convictions, Kohn did not blame this development on the association of nationalism with the state. Another blunder caused by Darwinism was the manner in which it enabled the restating of the traditional ethos of inequality in ‘modern’, scientific garb, after its religious justification was thoroughly discredited by the French encyclopaedists and the German Left Hegelians (122-4, n. 12). Kohn cited with no reservation Arnold Toynbee’s argument that the traditional vindication of the superiority of the white man was founded on the protestant adaption of the zealous biblical ethos of Jewish chosenness (147-8, n. 38). After enlightened secularism finally side‐lined that disastrous notion, it was revived by nineteenth‐century social Darwinism.
Kohn warned that the combination of nationalism and dehumanization was explosive; moreover, he insisted, nationalism per se was outdated and pernicious. While he reiterated his earlier abhorrence of the nation state, this time he did not champion Jewish/Asian religious transnationalism. Here, universalism is not an alternative to a decaying West, but rather the last phase in its deterministic progress. Kohn no longer relied on arcane, mystical links between peoples for the establishment of his universal order; rather, he underlined economic interdependence, a burgeoning universal (Western) civilization, gradually encompassing Eastern peoples, and the jilted ideal of human dignity. Kohn concluded his book with the argument that the League of Nations, which Mussolini and Hitler had so successfully degraded, was destined to become the core of a new world order (87-9, 104-5, 148-51, n. 40, see also Kohn: 257-60).
While in Force or Reason, Kohn interpreted the Fascist corruption of nationalism by casting secularization as a denial of the religious (in this case—the religious humanist and universal tradition), in his 1939 Revolutions and Dictatorships, he took secularization to task for transforming problematic religious traditions. Kohn argued there that the Jewish messianic idea has two branches—particularist and universalist—the first of which was radicalized by Hitler (Kohn: 11-22, 37). Conversely, Kohn stressed, Socialism was characterized by a similar radicalization of universalist messianism, a trend he found no less dangerous (11-4). Nevertheless, the future of humanity lay in the Jewish universalist heritage, as phrased in Buber’s terms; Hitler’s demonic struggle with Judaism emanated from his radical hostility to the universalism it represented. Unfortunately, ongoing hatred compelled the Jewish people to forsake its own vision of unity and surrender to the prevailing nationalist order (299-330, 394-401; see also Kohn: 217-8, 246-56).
In Revolutions and Dictatorships, Kohn suggested two transnational factors. The first was a surprising revisiting of the nineteenth‐century Holy Alliance, in which Kohn saw a candid effort to parlay the universalist heritage of Christianity into an anti‐national world policy. While its reactionary tendency prevented the realization of its plans, Kohn hinted that Christianity yet possessed the potential to curb national tensions (334-6). The second, more realistic factor was Bolshevik federalism which, on the one hand, did not ignore national aspirations, while on the other hand building a firm transnational political framework (159-63).
The Idea of Nationalism: The Dialectics of Nationalism and Religion
Kohn’s The Idea of Nationalism constitutes an impressive effort to distil from thirty years of ideological and analytical study of nationalism and related issues a systematic account of nationalism and its dynamics. It consists of three main aspects: (1) a generalized sociological analysis of the national phenomenon, (2) a detailed historical portrayal of various European national movements, and (3) criteria to discern between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nationalisms (without forgoing Kohn’s struggle against nationalism as such). In all these three aspects of his magnum opus, the dynamics of religion/secularization played a pivotal role. Kohn sees Christianity as a trans‐national factor (though he mentions some cases in which national churches were formed) and argues that only its diminution enabled the flourishing of nationalism. Biblical Judaism, conversely, served as model for nationalism, however curbed by its inherent universal character. Simply put, Kohn’s argument is that Nationalism rises after Christian universalism diminishes and that it is based on Judaism’s religious nationalism. Kohn’s contemporary, Carlton Hayes, also stressed the religious dimension of nationalism but attached nationalism to religion as an abstract notion, that is, as a permanent tendency to worship and to absolutize (Hayes). Kohn, conversely, linked nationalism to a specific religious tradition (though idealistically portrayed)—Judaism.
In his outline of the contours of the national phenomenon, Kohn anticipated Anthony Smith by narrating the development of national movements as the gradual and contingent evolution of a perennial ‘national’ nucleus in a modern setting. Religion (as tradition) is both part of this nucleus and one of the factors in its development. Kohn argued that humankind is characterized by its love for familiar people, landscapes, culture and language, and its distrust of alien versions. This produces the emotional bond to territory, mother tongue and common descent, the ‘natural elements out of which nationalism is formed; but nationalism is not a natural phenomenon, not a product of “eternal” or “natural” laws; it is a product of the growth of social and intellectual factors at a certain stage of history’. By the same token, nations are not identical with ethnos, which ‘are nothing but the “ethnographic material”, out of which under certain circumstances a nationality might arise’. Kohn averred that the nation is not a ‘naturally experienced community’ but rather an imagined one, gaining its reality from the social, intellectual and economic work of the state (8-9).
Kohn’s anti‐essentialist account of nationalism probably aimed to rob nationalism of its pretence to being the final stage of history. Kohn historicized the nation so as to demonstrate its historical beginnings and thus its possible historical end. He reiterated arguments from his 1922 essay on nationalism, to the effect that contemporary economic, intellectual and political developments had rendered nationalism an outdated and harmful political and social form of life, and that nationalism, as a cultural and existential property, should be severed from political power, just as religion was (21-4). Kohn’s constructivist and subjectivist portrayal of nationalism informed his description of the relationship between religion and nationalism in his general characterization of nationalism. Kohn underlined the past centrality of religion in demarcating borderlines between groups, but added that whether religion hindered or fostered the formation of a nation depended on concrete circumstances. For instance, where religion underwent a process of internalization (as in German Pietism), it cleared the floor for a secular development of nationalism. Conversely, where local struggles against the papacy engendered a nationalized Catholicism (like French Gallicanism), nationalism and religion became intertwined (190-1). At any rate, processes of secularization and religious transformations play a key role in the shaping of various nationalisms.
The constructivist narration of the nation in the first, general chapter gives way to an essentialist narration in the second, dealing with two ancient antecedents of nationalism—Israel and Greece. In those cases, religious notions, rather than economic and social processes, are seen as the wellspring of nationalism. That part of the work embraces Buber’s early distinctions between the Greeks, people of sight and place, and the Jews, people of hearing and time (Buber 1967; see Pianko). Kohn expressed his deterministic essentialism when distinguishing between the Greek gift for plastic art and drama, and the Jewish gift for poetry, arguing that ‘Even to this very day the Jew has remained a lyrist’. Historical consciousness, serving in the first chapter to prove the fluidity and contingency of national characters, appears in the second as a Jewish sensitivity to history as ‘the way of God’. Only this notion saves history from its contingent fetters, endows it with unity and allows it to serve as a core of national identity (34-5). All the basic tenets of nationalism, according to Kohn—namely historical consciousness, a sense of chosenness, national messianism, and allegiance to a specific homeland—stem from religious sources. Messianism, for instance,
…lent its forms and symbols to the obscure longing of millions. It ended by being clothed in the garments of philosophy of rationalism and modern social science. As a secular idea of progress and of new order, it dominates political and social aspirations today, deprived of its religious forms but retaining its religious fervor. …The intermingling of national ambitions, religious concepts, and a distant universalism deeply influenced later national movements. National political hopes became deepened into the belief that their fulfillment was an action of divine justice and that the struggles for their realization must be carried on as commands of God. (43-4)
In a note referring to the above text, Kohn further stressed the sacred nature of modern nationalism: ‘…Messianism has especially influenced nationalism, where the nation as a corporate Messiah replaced the personal Messiah, to bring about a new order of things. The nationality transcends thus the limits of a political or social concept; it becomes a holy body sanctified by God’ (585). Like Karl Löwith, Kohn thus related nationalism to the religious concept of meaningful time, spanning from a sacred past to a sacred future—unlike Benedict Anderson, who sharply discerns between religious and national concepts of time (Löwith; Anderson, 22-36).
Arguably, Kohn’s surprising shift resulted from his wish to posit the Jewish and (to a lesser extent) Greek national heritages as guiding lights for nationalism in the wake of the catastrophes of the first and second world wars. Thus, Kohn portrayed those two peoples not historically but idealistically, as primal embodiments not only of the national phenomenon, but of what he presented as the ‘good’ nationalism: democratic, individual‐oriented, universalist and ethical. The foundation for these merits of the Jewish biblical nationalism is the Jewish religion, that unwavering craving for unity that emanates from the ideal of God’s own unity. That religiosity is at the same time ‘secular’, in the sense that it is ‘this‐worldly’. Immortality, for instance, ‘was conceived only as an element in the continuity of national life’. Indeed, Kohn saw the ‘religious’ past of the Jewish people through secular, Buberian eyes, and ignored completely the transcendent and ritual aspects of ancient Judaism: ‘Like [the prophets and Psalms, Jesus] insisted on a religion of the heart and rejected outer forms of sacrifice and religious observance’.
The dialectics of religious transformation and secularization played a key role in Kohn’s account of the historical development of various national phenomena, and in his explicit and implicit judgment of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nationalisms. My focus here will be on England, the prototype of ‘good’ nationalism, and Germany, its antipode.
Intellectually, nationalism begins with renouncing the medieval tradition of universal religion and the fragmentation of political life, by way of renaissance secularization and reform particularism. Machiavelli’s and Luther’s deep pessimism triggered unrestrained state nationalism; Calvin and Zwingli, conversely, resumed the Jewish tradition of a sacred (that is: moral) people which finds its secularized expression in democratic and peaceful nationalism.
English nationalism, Kohn’s favourite, perfected Calvinism. It balanced the Jewish consciousness of national chosenness with liberal individualism and universalism, and Kohn stressed the religious sources of all those components. He cited Ernst Barker’s characterization of the nationalism espoused by the Puritan revolution: ‘…a community decided not by blood but by faith. The English nation for which they were passionate was a nation by adoption and grace, after the manner of the Old Testament’ (167). ‘The seeds of modern secular civilization were planted and nurtured in a primarily religious revolution’ (177). For Kohn, even the liberal and individualistic character of English nationalism was religious in nature:
A nation had come into being, directing its own destiny, feeling responsible for it, and a national spirit permeated all institutions. It sprang from a uniqueness of conscious of the identity of divine, natural, and national law, based upon the dignity and liberty of every individual as God’s noblest creature, upon his individual conscience inspired by the inner light of God and reason alike (183, see also 192).
That formulation echoes Kohn’s early mysticism, as exemplified in his 1911 letter to Weltsch, in which he based individuality and human dignity on man’s resemblance to God.
English nationalism did not only rise from religious sources, it ‘has always been, and still is, closer than any other to the religious matrix from which it arose’. Unlike its German counterpart, English religiosity ‘rarely [withdrew] into the sanctuary of inner life and inner liberty’ but was rather ‘full of social activism’ (178). Thus, the exemplary nationalism of England, diametrically opposed to Fascism in its democratic, individualistic and universalist fibre, is a reincarnation of the ancient Hebrew nationalism (633-5, n. 73). American nationalism is portrayed along similar lines, with the same accent on the impact of biblical heritage (268-80).
Central‐European nationalism, especially German, was Kohn’s historical exemplar for ‘bad’—namely, anti‐democratic, collectivist, parochial and amoral—nationalism. Arguably, one of Kohn’s primary objectives in his book was to explain Nazism by suggesting a sweeping version of German Sonderweg (special path) and unravelling the ‘rotten roots’ of German nationalism. Unexpectedly, though Kohn underscored that ‘good’ Western nationalism was present‐oriented and its ‘bad’ Eastern counterpart was past‐oriented, he presented Western, rather than Eastern, nationalism as drawing its inspiration from religious traditions. As seen before, Kohn stressed the dissociation of the main German religious currents, Lutheranism and Pietism, from national ideology and activity (332-42, 355). He dwellt the effect of Christianity and biblical Judaism upon Herder, describing it as mostly ethical and universalist. Kohn ventured to present the German cultural luminaries, particularly Kant, Goethe, Schiller and Herder, as alienated from German nationalism and (in the case of Herder) unsuccessfully advocating a ‘Western’ nationalism.
Kohn’s discussion of Herder’s völkisch ideology is especially revealing in this context. It was assuredly informed by Kohn’s own völkisch past and the appalling manner in which that ideology was misused by the Nazi regime. To Kohn, Herder’s quest for an authentic, natural and essentialist national character can easily morph into zealous particularism, as it did in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In this sense ‘folk could easily become a mystical primeval force, outside the process of change and intercourse, growing only within itself’ (446). Furthermore, the de‐universalization of nationalism is prone to catalyse hazardous ethical relativism. What saved Herder (to a certain extent) from such pitfalls was the eighteenth century’s rational universalism, along with his Christian devotion. ‘The spirituality of the Christian did not allow his folk concept to sink to the level of a purely natural concept’—as the Nazis’ folk concept later did. Kohn ended his extensive discussion of Herder with the latter’s rumination on the ‘primitive’ religions of small peoples and the manner in which they were driven to extinction by Christianity. On the one hand, Herder sympathized with those vanished religions as candid expressions of Volksgeist; on the other, he held up ‘the great symbol of Christianity… one shepherd and one flock—the message of a united mankind’ (449; see Calhoun: xxxvii-xxxix). The contradiction is resolved by Christianizing national religions rather than peoples. The natural need for a national religion should be squared with the ‘essence of Christianity—which is nothing but the pure laws of humanity’ (449). Thus, Kohn did not detach himself completely from his völkisch past, while not entirely negating the German national heritage. Here, too, he cast religion as a universal balance to extreme particularism.
Kohn’s struggle against state nationalism at that point was founded upon three arguments, all related to religion. First, his interpretation of the prophetic gospel: Kohn followed Buber (Buber 1967)—without mentioning him by name—in presenting the state and the national god as the erroneous initiative of the ancient Jewish people. The prophets, on the other hand, preferred, according to this narrative, an anarchic bond between communities and introduced God as a transnational deity, the God of right, not of might (36-43). Second, Kohn emphasized that the two great world religions, Christianity and Islam, and the two pillars of classical tradition, Greece and Rome, were basically transnational.
Third, Kohn claimed that modern Enlightenment and its offshoot, democracy, are basically universal; their national realization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as seen in the French revolution, emanated from ‘the existing possibilities of geographic conditions and organizational forms’. Surprisingly, he even presented democracy as a secular version of religious universalism:
…democracy was based on the faith in the liberty and equality of each individual—on the divine substance of each human soul which makes man in Kant’s words ‘an end in himself’—and on the faith in mankind as the bearer of absolute values. Natural law secularized and rationalized these religious conceptions… The rationalists of the eighteenth century did not deny the Heavenly City; they transferred it from heaven to earth, from the millennium to the present day. The City of Man, with its natural law, was as universal in its scope and message as Christianity (192).
Accordingly, Kohn underlined the religious penchant of Rousseau, whom he designated a champion of liberal, universal nationalism—‘a rational Christianity… devoted to the cult of the supreme Being and to the eternal duties of ethics’ (259).
In conclusion, Kohn’s account of nationalism, which focused on its intellectual and cultural, rather than economic and political, aspects, posited religion as the key factor in national dynamics. Nationalism replaced institutionalized religion, ‘giving meaning to man’s life and justifying his noble and ignoble passions before himself and history, lifting him above the loneliness and futilities of his days and endowing the order and power of government, without which no society can exist, with the majesty of true authority’ (574-5). In some cases, secular nationalism substituted religion; in others, it co‐opted it for its needs. Kohn explained that religion and nationalism are essential in that they imbue the state with ‘emotional warmth [and] the intimacy of union’; without it, the state degenerates into ‘a cold monster’, devoid of popular support and affiliation (188). Therefore, the vanishing of nationalism, which he envisioned, would necessarily render religion indispensable. Only a resurrection of the universal religions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam can enable the development of a transnational state with popular support. Kohn himself suggested such revisions to Judaism. In 1958, he wrote a memorandum for the activity of the liberal Menorah collegium in USA, in which he advocated for American-Jewish intellectuals to work together to reform and regenerate Jewish religious tradition so that it better accords with the multi‐religious and ‐ethnic foundations of the United States.
Kohn’s conception of nationalism continued to develop. In his 1964 autobiography, a reflection on his life and intellectual career, he restated the secularized character of nationalism, this time focusing on the Hegelian morphing of Jewish and Christian Heilsgeschichte into national history. There, however, he bluntly discarded that notion and suggested a more radical secularization in order to impede it (see also Kohn). Correspondingly, in his book on American nationalism, he argued that ‘the American idea of liberty—with its recognition of diversity in origins and religious background—has proved a stronger national cement… than bonds of common blood or religion…’ (Kohn, 149; see Langeheine, 207-9). Ostensibly, as years went by and Kohn pulled away from his youthful Buberian religiosity, he further disengaged religion from nationalism. His earlier and somewhat immature religious reading of nationalism in The Idea of Nationalism was probably inordinate, yet it loaded that trailblazing book with an abundance of innovative insights. Kohn’s emphasis on the centrality of religion and secularization for the formation of nationalism is especially important today, in a postsecular age, marked, inter alia, by a growing sensitivity to the implicit or explicit political theologies of nationalism (see Agamben, Asad: 516-22). Kohn blurred the borderlines between ‘religion’ and ‘nationalism’, viewing religion as a sentiment and attitude toward life and not only as a set of beliefs and practices, and nationalism as consciousness and culture and not only as a political movement. This approach can be highly fruitful when exploring the intricate relationship of religion and nationalism, usually treated as two distinct phenomena. Furthermore, although religions have rarely contributed to the moderation of national movements, Kohn seems right in suggesting their potential to do so.