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Also includes: Norman Cohn (1)

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Works by Norman Rufus Colin Cohn

Associated Works

The Ancient World to the Reformation (1973) — Contributor — 83 copies
Fortean Times 88 — Contributor — 2 copies


Common Knowledge



This important and original book relates the manifestations of medieval hysteria to the totalitarian movements of our own time. With impeccable scholarship and exhausting bibliographies and index, professor Cohn has explored these subterranean popular revolts which so often sent tremors through the massive structure of medieval society.
PendleHillLibrary | 11 other reviews | Feb 1, 2024 |
Quite a challenging read as there is a lot to take in, with a lot of different personalities involved, in the very convoluted history of this pernicious forgery which was used to justify such terrible persecution of the Jews. I had heard of this document as being a fake produced by the Tsar's secret police before the Russian Revolution as a tool of oppression against the Jews, which was then taken up and used by various anti-Semitic groups, the most heinous being the Nazis, but was not aware of the full ramifications, the international basis of the forgery's acceptance and the context of similar documents from which it arose.

Very broadly, modern anti-Semitism, as opposed to the Medieval persecution of the Jews, which had been based on the biblical context in which they were blamed for the crucifixion of Christ and which viewed Jews as devil worshippers etc, arose out of the growing discomfort with modern life among the populations of various countries including France, Russia and Germany (but many others) as they transformed into modern societies. To many traditionalists in such countries, the Jews were identified with modernity, city living, modern "vices", etc whereas the concentration of Jews in cities were due to various historical reasons. These prejudices ignored the wide variation among Jews, with some still of an Orthodox religion, some of a more progressive Judaism and some of no faith or having converted to Christianity. At one time, the prejudices had focused on the Jews' religion and only viewed those who followed Judaism as Jews, but there came to be an idea of a Jewish "race" with certain inherent tendencies, all negative ones. Meanwhile, due to the poor living conditions in many industrialising nations, and the prejudice against them, some Jews were drawn to Communism. This later led to them being identified with Communism/Bolshevism, by the Nazis in particular, and held to blame for the Russian Revolution and other Communist-inspired events.

The first instruments of modern anti-Semitism were documents written after the French Revolution, initially blaming it on machinations of the Freemasons. Before long, however, this switched the blame to the Jews, who were deemed to control the Freemasons and use them as a front (ironically, as the author shows, since the Freemasons themselves were broadly anti-Semitic at the time). One influential work was a novel written by a mid 19th century German author which included a chapter in which the hero spies on a gathering of Jews at night in a cemetery in which they report to Lucifer the progress they have made in suborning Gentile society and bringing about various wars, revolutions, economical difficulties and so on. This chapter was later published as if it was non fiction under the title of "The Rabbi's Speech" and became a best seller. It was an influential precursor to the protocols.

The Tsar's secret police had an office in Paris - the Russian aristocracy divided their time between France and Russia - and its head was notorious for many forgeries which aided the propaganda purposes of the Russian state, so was probably the originator of the protocols. The author pins down its writing to a few years in the 1890s from references to politicians and events in France at that time.

It was recognised quite early on that the bulk of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, as it came to be known, was plagiarised from a French work which had nothing whatsoever to do with the Jews but had been written as a dialogue between Machiavelli and another personality, discussing the despotic behaviour of Napoleon III. Whole chunks were lifted and became the protocols, with additions which reflected the prejudices against Jews and served the interests of the Russian state. In an appendix the author compares English translations of this original document against chunks of the protocols, showing just how similar the lines of argument are, and in another appendix has some English translations of some of the most important additional passages.

The forgery, purporting to be the master plan of the Jews for a worldwide conspiracy against all nations - a conspiracy which was rapidly coming to its completion - was soon translated into Russian and published in Russia in various newspapers etc, where it was used as a justification for pogroms. The author follows the very torturous route by which this occurred, with many personalities involved. It was then taken up by a mystic called Nilus who for a time was attached to the Russian court where mystics were entertained by the Tsar and Tsaritsa (Tsarina is an incorrect English term as the author explains) and who had written a book. He became a wholehearted believer and added a copy to the third edition of his book. This caused a sensation, and the "Protocols" was soon published in its own right, becoming a best seller.

When the Russian Revolution took place and the "White" Russians, opponents of the Communists and anti-Semites, were defeated, their officers were offered places on the trains back to German with the retreating German army, and some became prominent publishers of the protocols in German translations. These were best sellers. Eventually the document was translated into many languages and disseminated worldwide, not only in the form of books, but also as cheap pamphlets, which were often given away, and it was also serialised in many newspapers. Even Henry Ford in America published a best selling copy of it after serialising it in his newspaper, though he was later made to retract it due to lawsuits brought by Jewish organisations.

Despite those who came forward, showing that the document was a complete forgery, partly plagiarised from the earlier French work, other so-called scholars wrote defences of it, and otherwise sensible people became wholehearted believers, with the most keen being among the middle class and among university students. The document was subsequently drawn upon heavily by the Nazis, becoming a set text in schools and later used to justify the increasing persecution of Jews in Germany and other European countries.

The sad tale of this document, which was used to justify pogroms and eventually mass murder, is also a salutary one. In the modern age, we are accustomed to the dissemination of false information on social media, but this book shows how earlier ages were also credulous. Perfectly reasonable people, often well educated, believed wholeheartedly in this concoction. Others knew it was a fake but seized upon it for reasons of expediency, deriving income, prestige and power from it, and in some cases finding opportunities to indulge their sadistic urges. Some, such as Goebbels, started off fully aware that it was a piece of propaganda, but ended up believing in its lies. A sobering read and I have only deducted one star from a full rating because the book does dart about in the timeline here and there and is a bit hard to follow in places, and I don't really believe in his Freudian based explanation for anti-Semitism as I think it is more a case of 'the Other' as in the tribal 'us and them' phenomena. But a solid 4 star read.
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kitsune_reader | 4 other reviews | Nov 23, 2023 |
Such an interesting book. If you take a look at the bibliography you’ll find a massive list of heavy-duty texts mostly in Latin, German, and French. I have no idea how Cohn has managed to transform this into such an enjoyable and easy read.

Anyway, he covers a huge range of millenarian groups. At one end of the scale you have the harmless Ranters who just want to have sex with each other and would probably be happy with a night out on the Bigg Market.

At the other end of the scale you have the real millenarian revolutionaries, and it’s here that Cohn flips the human psyche on its back and has a good poke around in its dark underside. These groups share eschatological beliefs that Cohn traces back to early Jewish and Christian apocalyptic works. You know the kind of thing: Anti-Christ and the Second Coming. A massive slaughter where the earth is purified of the followers of Anti-Christ followed by a thousand years of bliss on earth. These groups, mostly consisting of poor people, coalesce about someone thought to be a prophet or living God and rampage across the continent, killing whoever they think is evil. This is usually the Jews, clerics, or the rich. Sometimes all three. On the face of it, this looks to me like some form of human sacrifice.

I found the accounts quite disturbing, and I had to keep telling myself that these people were abnormal. Unfortunately I couldn’t convince myself that this was the case. Cohn draws some convincing parallels between them and the Nazi and Communists movements of the Twentieth Century. I see that various reviewers over on Goodreads see parallels with a whole range more recent groups. I suspect that people will be seeing parallels with their own times from now until Domesday.

Cohn identifies three things that underlie all outbreaks of the behaviour: an increase in population; rapid social change; rapid economic change. He also points out that outbreaks often follow famines and plagues. I couldn’t help noticing that those three requirements might be said to have held true for the United States since the beginning of the colonial period and that millenarian beliefs are really popular over there. Now let’s look at Trump. He targets two groups as evil. Immigrants (the very cause of population growth) and the political elite. He releases footage of himself being prayed over by pastors. He promises miracle cures involving injecting beach into the veins and bringing light inside the body. Q-Anon appears to have thought he was waging a secret war against a paedophile death cult. Plague strikes the US causing rapid economic change and BLM protests sweep the world causing rapid social change.

When they stormed the Capitol I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I just couldn’t understand why they would want to set up a monarchy. If I was going to storm the Capitol I’d want tanks, artillery and control of the air as an absolute minimum. These people were doing it with sticks and seemed surprised when they failed. Having read this book I think I understand them a bit better. I feel a bit sorry for them really. They honestly thought they were purifying the earth.

Well, I’m sure this was the last time people will getting up to that sort of thing and we can all rest easy in our beds.
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Lukerik | 11 other reviews | May 25, 2021 |
A rigorous and informative history of millenarian ecstatic movements from the 800s through the 1500s including my favorite, the Anabaptist takeover of Muenster town. Mostly told in an episodic fashion, every 5th chapter or so steps back and provides a reset in socio-economic stimuli behind these movements. Told from a perspective on history that is obviously reacting to Marxist events in the authors own time, it concludes by tying medieval eschatological utopian movements with the Marxist drive for utopian end of history, which was a little too tidy for my tastes. The author also is devoid of humor, although is not averse to descriptive passages regarding the misery his subjects experience.… (more)
1 vote
billt568 | 11 other reviews | Aug 25, 2020 |



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