Faculty Profile

War Prisoner & Smith Professor

Hans Kohn must be used to teaching in isolation. He first taught in a Russian prison camp where "people were so bored they were willing to listen." Later he spent 15 years teaching the girls at secluded Smith College in Northampton.

This summer Kohn is returning to Harvard to give two courses on nationalism. Students this term have heard him stress that "war is always a great misfortune," but Kohn probably owes his career and its success to World War I. The war started him on 20 years of travel on three continents before he settled down to teaching.

Born in Prague 60 years ago, Kohn might have followed his father's wishes and become a lawyer but for World War I. Just after he finished his education, he went to serve in the Austrian army. (He admits he was then under the spell of the nationalism he has grown to dislike.) Captured by the Russians in the spring of 1915, he spent almost five years in Turkestan and Siberia.

Here Kohn developed his interest in teaching and scholarship as there was so much time for "sitting and reading." But he had a good chance to watch the coming of the revolution, as the prison camps were "not so strict." "You could go into the local town, and the people were good-natured." This was before "Lenin came and stopped the people from being easy-going." ("Too much efficiency is harmful.")

Leaving Asia by way of Japan, he lived in Paris, London, and Jerusalem in the succeeding years. He "sat in the British Museum," wrote for German and Swiss newspapers, and began doing books. "Somewhere in Widener there are 18 of them."

Kohn left Palestine in 1931 because "there was too much chauvinism," and came to the United States. His 15 years at Smith have left a deep impression on him. His lectures are still filled with the references about women that must have aroused girls at Smith. He often refers to women having succumbed very easily to irrational nationalistic movements and their handsome leaders.

Although he had no Ph.D. students to work with at Smith, Kohn strongly defends women's colleges and their intellectual life. According to him, their major problem is the low faculty salaries. "Twenty years after graduation the average male graduate is making money, and he isn't studying anything besides the daily newspaper and the trade magazine, but the Smith girl is still reading."

Confesses His Biases

Kohn gives forceful lectures, confessing his biases as he goes along. He frequently turns to his students for answers to often obscure questions, waiting patiently until somebody in the back of the room thinks of the answer. ("You are right, absolutely correct.")

Now a professor at City College, Kohn taught at Harvard twice before as a visiting lecturer. When he was last here in 1943, he was gravely concerned about Russia, but today he feels our country is too pessimistic.

Six years ago "when the idiots were in the majority, we gave Stalin everything he got. Today the West is united and awake. I can't understand the panic; I can't see the defeatism." For example, "Russia isn't using the Iranian crisis, because it isn't strong enough. Stalin suffers from two weaknesses--Communism and Russia.

"War is improbable if we don't make mistakes--if we don't relax our military effort and our work towards Atlantic Union or if we don't become provocative out of too great fear." According to Kohn, the Cold War won't last too long, "perhaps ten or 15 years."

"History moves too rapidly. Seven years ago, who would have believed that today we would be trying to rearm Germany and Japan? In 1947, nobody would have thought we would be on good terms with Tito today. His men were shooting down our planes; he was as bad as Stalin."

Kohn's major concern now is the loss by democrats of the ability to make moral discriminations. "In 1945 we thought Stalinism was different from fascism. In our mental softness, we have adopted much from our enemies."