Norman Cohn: A medevial Historian who has influenced modern thought

by Jamie Lutton

The best popular historians write about the past in a way that illuminates the present. Barbara Tuchman's medieval history book A Distant Mirror for example, stresses this even in the title. Also the best are those who can be read by the general public, not just by academics. Another historian of this type who I like even more is Norman Cohn, the author of several very good books on the medial and classical world, that illuminate the ideological roots of the wars and genocides of the 20th century.

Like Tuchman, Norman Cohn was not a trained historian; he was a student of languages instead.   He was worked  for British Intelligence just after the end of World War ll as an interpreter in the interrogation of captured German SS officers and refugees fleeing the Soviets from the Eastern Europe. This shattering experience shaped all of his writings.  Using his knowledge of both modern and medieval languages, he read extensively the surviving documents of the religious heretics from 1000 to 1600, to draw  a picture of how these 'heretics,' or religious movements, of Europe shaped modern ideological thought, both for good and for ill.

The desire for the poor to improve their lot in the West was blended with and was driven by the New Testament prophecies of a final struggle between Christ and an Antichrist, and the emergence of a paradise. This belief in the perfectibility of the world jumped languages, countries, cultures and centuries to be translated into secular discourse, never loosing its power to jolt the ordinary people and inspire them to rise up.
But unfortunately it also inspired the desire to suppress, harass, and often kill dissenters of all types.

So in essence, this belief inspired both the later followers of Marx and Hitler, for example, in the modern era, and developed a belief in totalitarian  thought and action, driving both social aspersions, and animosities.Hitler, for example, seems to be pagan, but still has the themes of an 'elect' (Aryans) prevailing over and dominating/destroying everyone else -- non Aryans, Jews, etc.

This seems to explain why modern totalitarian ideologies often resemble each other closely,  political and religious ideologies alike. The best example from today is the curious way conservative Islam resembles our own conservative Christianity, and how they both resemble Soviet Communism in Russia, or, China in the late 20th century, in their mutual absolutism and belief in strict adherence to certain narrow beliefs and goals.  Also, sadly, tendency to violence to carry out such beliefs.
Another good book on this subject is Eric Hoffer's The True Believer, which discusses the attraction to such belief systems, and how they seduce people into following them.

For a end of the year gift to a friend who loves medieval history, modern political writing, Marxism,  or is interested in the history of the Christianity in the middle ages, I also recommend Norman Cohn's book: The Pursuit of the Millennium and Europe's Inner Demons, The Demonizaton of Christians in medieval Christendom.

I also want to recommend his book Warrant for Genocide, The Myth of World Jewish Supremacy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion,  Norman Cohn demonstrates how this pamphlet was  the blueprint of the Final Solution.  This pamphlet, which casts a long shadow even today, is dissected by Norman Cohn as to it's origin, the text, and its heinous misuse.
In the modern new era of The Big Lie in  American politics, where we again are fighting the agents of totalitarian  thought,  this book is is an excellent gift for any serious reader.
For this author alone asks the question of where our deepest beliefs come from? And are these useful anymore?

We cannot be horrified by the excesses of, say, the modern Muslim faith without out understanding where they came from, and that we as a Christan culture share many of these same excesses because our shared belief in apocalypse and the persecution of minorities. And that aspects of Christianity morphed into Naziism, State Communism, and other totalitarian forms of government.

The blind belief in the rightness of all that  we do and say, and our right to suppress those who disagree with us, in the name of God or security or even just automatically, as a public good.
Our right to wage war on other nations, to jail citizens for private behavior like taking drugs, and to control others' private lives in the name of morality, such as in our marriage customs, birth control and abortion, do not horrify us as they should.

It is about time we  understood ourselves better, and faced the insidious influence of these old belief systems on our freedoms, and on reason.   For we cannot repudiate that which we do not thoroughly understand.