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

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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”.

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