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Norman Cohn, 92; British historian studied medieval sects, tyrants

September 02, 2007|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

Norman Cohn, 92, a historian who studied the links between apocalyptic medieval sects and 20th century totalitarianism and genocide, died of a degenerative heart condition July 31 in Cambridge, England, according to news reports.

Born in London in 1915, Cohn studied ancient and modern languages at Oxford University before joining the army when World War II began in 1939. Stationed in Vienna after the war as a military intelligence officer, he saw firsthand the effects of both Nazism and Stalinism.

The experience informed his most influential book. Published in 1957, "Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages" drew parallels between millenarian movements in the Middle Ages and the rise of 20th-century totalitarianism. He argued that Nazism and Communism drew from the same well of popular mythology as earlier apocalyptic movements such as the Flagellants and the Anabaptists.

In 1995, the Times Literary Supplement ranked "Pursuit of the Millennium" one of the 100 most influential nonfiction books since the war.

Cohn's other books include "Warrant for Genocide" -- an account of the notorious anti-Semitic forgery "Protocols of the Elders of Zion"-- and "Europe's Inner Demons," a study of witch hunts through the ages.

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