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Return to the Human Standard: Leopold Kohr

"The philosopher Leopold Kohr was an early pioneer of environment protection. Against megalomania and for remorm of the modern age, he urged a return to the human standard.. A single cause stands behind all the forms of social misery: something has become too great (state, econmic entities, factory, institution), he insisted.. A state should not exceed a population size of 12 to 15 million people."
Return to the Human Standard: Leopold Kohr

By Gerald Lehner

[This biographical sketch is translated from the German on the World Wide Web,  http://www.mountainfuture.at/deutsch/team/0310KohrLeopold.htm. The philosopher Leopold Kohr was an early pioneer of environmental protection. Against megalomania and for reform of the modern age, he urged a "return to the human standard".]

The Austro-American Leopold Kohr is regarded as the creator of the international slogan "Small is Beautiful", the populist title of a 1973 book by Kohl's student Fritz Schumacher. In the sense of Kohr's proposals, the title could have been "Small is Powerful". He offered a theory - partly supported by empirical methods - for maintaining regional and village structures independent of ethnic or religious membership.

Economic Arsenal against Rural Exodus and Centralization

For many "grassroots movements", Kohr was a patron saint in the struggle against the drift to the cities and the exploitation of rural areas by large power centers. He developed imaginative and witty strategies against multinational corporations and bureaucratic government machines. As early as the 1940s, Kohr vigorously opposed the modern economic orientation that constant economic growth alone can solve all problems. He urged a return to the "human standard" and is regarded as an early preacher of the concept of "sustainability" that is often misunderstood today. The native Salzburger was one of the forerunners of the ecology-, civil rights- and human rights-movements.

His essays and books are published in English, Spanish, French, Italian and Welsh. Kohr was born in 1909 in the Salzburg community of Oberndorf as the son of a doctor. From 1939, he was an American citizen and died in 1994 in British Gloucester...

"The End of the Great Ones"

In September 1941, Kohr's article "Disunion Now" appeared in the New York magazine "Commonweal". In that article, he spoke against national megalomania and for a Europe of cantons as in Switzerland. Kohr's essential goal was the destruction of great nationalisms with peaceful economic means. He took Switzerland as a model because Italians, French and German-speaking Swiss live there relatively peacefully. The only reason for their peacefulness, according to Kohr, is the high degree of decentralized self-government. Otherwise these groups would have joined the chronically dangerous nationalism of their respective nations long ago, the native Austrian said.

The nation-state unification processes of the past only produced imperial superpowers that are at loggerheads with each other, Kohr wrote at that time. At the beginning of the 1950s, he finished his main work "The Breakdown of Nations" (German title: Das Ende der Grossen). In 1957, the book was published in London, an indication that Kohr with his ideas was far ahead of his time.

Ernst Hemingway and George Orwell

The foundations of his ideas were laid in the Spanish civil war when as a newspaper correspondent he wrote against the fascist Franco and the German Nazis. He shared the correspondents' office with Ernest Hemingway and knew personally Eric Arthur Blair, the later "George Orwell". The anarchist-syndicalist resistance groups against fascism inspired Kohr's thinking. He was a fierce opponent of Stalinism and communism. In their struggle against Franco and Hitler, Spain's anarchists also resisted every form of centralized tutelage by Marxists and emphasized independent villages, cities and regions.

A State should have no more than 15 Million People

In Kohr's opinion, the well being of people lies in the return to the "human standard", not in permanent economic growth. A single cause stands behind all forms of social misery; something has become too great (state, economic entities, factory, institution), he insisted. To illustrate this, he referred to the analogy of the saurian that also perished in its massive size. Every unification to the largest possible unit is the preliminary stage to ruin, Kohr said. As an example, he cited a multi-ethnic state like the USSR that has crumbled today into small units. A state should not exceed a population size of 12 to 15 million people. Above that limit, a state loses its smooth functionality. The contact of state leaders to the population can then no longer be optimally guaranteed.

The "Anguilla project"

His support for small states made him a champion for the independence of Wales and Anguilla, a little Caribbean island 300 kilometers from Puerto Rico. With 6500 inhabitants, the island stood under British administration with the neighboring islands Navis and St. Kitts. The island's inhabitants declared their independence in 1967 and removed the British governor. Kohr taught at the University of Puerto Rico at that time and was determined to help the Anguillans.

With the aid of friends in the US and Canada, he organized a "state founding campaign" and called world attention to the problems of this island. The construction of a large American hotel was prevented on Kohr's advice as well as the establishment of a base for ships of the Greek Onassis. Economic possibilities should be realized on a small scale. An image as "philosopher of the gnomes" was later given to him by critics and adversaries.

Adventurous Life

Leopold Kohr grew up in Oberndorf, attended the elementary school there and the high school in Salzburg. In Innsbruck and Vienna, he graduated with a double doctorate in jurisprudence and political science. After the invasion of German troops and the beginning of national socialist rule, he left Austria for political reasons. Via Paris, Kohr reached the United States in the summer of 1938 on the steamship "Bremen". The baker Lammermeyer from Oberndorf helped him survive at first. Kohr had many financial problems. He suffered an acute hearing loss with the heavy physical work in a Canadian gold mine. Soon Kohr made many contacts with American intellectuals and visiting Austrians. In the "Free Austria movement" with middle-class, leftwing and monarchist Austrians, he did his utmost for the liberation of his homeland from the terror of domestic- and foreign national socialists. In his efforts for Austria's freedom, Kohr as a journalist and lecturer in North America pointed again and again to the rich cultural inheritance of little Austria in the heart of Europe.

With the New York Times against the Nazis

At Christmas time, he focused on the genesis of the Christmas hymn "Silent Night, Holy Night" from the early 19th century. Through his articles, many Americans and Canadians learned about the origin of this hymn - from Kohr's home community Oberndorf near Salzburg. At the same time, he stressed the cultural achievements of old Austria and Austria's will to independence. He called the US to intensified struggle against Hitler and wrote editorials for the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. During the Second World War, he described in detail the biographical, social and economic background of Hitler and his accomplices. Kohr came from a region only 30 km from Braunau, Hitler's birthplace.

Return Home

In 1943 Kohr began his teaching activity at universities in the US, Puerto Rico and later in Wales and England. The award of the alternative Nobel Prize in 1983 in Stockholm moved Kohr and his theses into the consciousness of the Austrian public again. In 1986, the "Leopold Kohr Academy" was founded in Neukirchen that has successfully spread Kohr's ideas.. Kohr died on February 26, 1994 in his English home.

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