Pioneering the study of inhumanity

The story of a remarkable research centre devoted to understanding “the roots of extremism” has been reconstructed in a new radio documentary

March 16, 2014

Source: Shutterstock

Warning sign at Auschwitz concentration camp, Poland

The centre’s origins stem from a speech by the then Observer editor David Astor in April 1962, in which he argued that since most Nazi leaders and supporters were “not mad in a medical sense”, we had to confront something “deeply alarming and disturbing” about human nature - namely “the pathological possibilities of the normal mind”.

This led him to call for a centre to study what he called “political psycho-pathology”.

Mr Astor was approached by the historian Norman Cohn, who had worked as an army intelligence officer in occupied Austria and was preoccupied by similar themes.

After discussions, he later recalled, “David Astor made me an offer such as can seldom have been made to any scholar: he gave me an undertaking that if I would resign the professorship I then held in the University of Durham and devote myself to implementing the suggestion contained in his address, he would see to it that I would not suffer financially.”

After research convinced him that “the official killings of alleged witches in the 16th and 17th centuries” offered the best parallel to the Holocaust, Professor Cohn began work on what became two major books: Warrant for Genocide, The Myth of the Jewish World Conspiracy and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Europe’s Inner Demons: An Enquiry Inspired by the Great Witch-Hunt.

From 1966 to 1980, he also served as the one and only director of what became the Columbus Centre at the University of Sussex.

Others scholars went on to examine “the authoritarian personality”, leadership, ideology and the way groups stereotype outsiders, and applied such insights to the persecution of the gypsies and the “psycho-dynamics” of racial prejudice.

Professor Cohn’s PhD student Albie Sachs produced a major study on Justice in South Africa for the centre.

“Fathoming the enigma of that all too human thing, inhumanity, became a great quest of the post-war years,” explains Daniel Pick, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, in the radio documentary The Roots of Extremism.

Through interviews with the main participants, their children and some of today’s leading experts in the darker aspects of ourselves, he reveals the important role the Columbus Centre played in that “quest”.

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com

You've reached your article limit

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 6 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments

Featured Jobs

Most Commented

James Fryer illustration (8 September 2016)

Some lecturers will rightly encourage forms of student interaction that are impossible for those covering their faces, Eric Heinze argues

University of Oxford students walking on campus

University of Oxford snatches top spot from Caltech in this year’s World University Rankings as Asia’s rise continues

Handwritten essay on table

Universities must pay more attention to the difficulties faced by students, says Daniel Dennehy

Theresa May entering 10 Downing Street, London

The prospect of new grammar schools on the horizon raises big questions for HE, writes Nick Hillman

Nosey man outside window

Head of UK admissions service Mary Curnock Cook addresses concerns that universities might ‘not hear a word’ from applicants