Friday, July 1, 2016

Georg Cohn. 
Photo: Courtesy of Emilie Cohn Roi



Early Years

Georg Cohn was born on August 14, 1887 the oldest of five children. His mother’s family had moved to Copenhagen from Moisling-Lübeck in the middle of the 18th century and his father came from Germany. 

He grew up in Copenhagen and went to Slomann’s School. He loved literature and the poet Viggo Stuckenberg was his favorite teacher. Being very musical, he studied violin with Bernhard Rosenbaum, father of Victor Borge. 

Completing school with distinction, he was admitted to the University of Copenhagen to study law and philosophy. Georg with his younger brother Naphtali, also a brilliant law student, gave private tutorials to other students and published several textbooks and journals on legal subjects. He also joined a small group of students at weekly sessions with the philosopher Harald Høffding. His own book on Ethics and Sociology won Georg the University’s gold medal for a philosophical work. The two brothers completed their studies with distinction and also found time to study Torah and Talmud extensively during these years. (Georg was to receive Rabbinical ordination [smicha] in 1936.)

In 1913, when Georg Cohn was 26 years old, having specialized in International Law, he was accepted to a position in the Danish Foreign Ministry. (His brother started a law practice and, within a few years, made a name for himself as one of Copenhagen’s most successful lawyers.) 

The Foreign Ministry was at the time a small establishment, rather like a club for members of the noble families. When World War I broke out in 1914, Georg Cohn became one of the central players in the successful effort to maintain Denmark’s neutrality. He was also prominent in arranging help for wounded prisoners-of-war sent by the belligerents to neutral countries to recuperate. 

In recognition of his services, King Christian X bestowed upon him in 1919 the prestigious knighthood of the Order of Dannebrog. He also received an award from the Danish Red Cross citing his “help to prisoners-of-war 1914-1919”. In 1922, he received another award, from the Austrian Red Cross.

The war had shown Georg Cohn the horror and suffering, in his eyes nothing less than the mass murder of a whole generation. He had also seen the importance of maintaining neutral territories, for all the countries involved. His main concern and efforts thenceforth were directed to finding ways to avoid war and ensure the possibility of remaining neutral in the event of war. At the same time he remained dedicated to the need to guarantee the rights of the civilian population and also of prisoners-of-war.

Shortly after the war, Georg Cohn participated in the conference of the Scandinavian Foreign Ministers and in the Versailles Peace Conference (1919), where he was concerned with protecting the interests of the neutral countries in the formulation of the peace agreements. 

Denmark’s Foreign Ministry was at that time expanded and reorganized. Georg Cohn was asked to head the League of Nations Department and was appointed Advisor in International Law, a position he filled until the end of his life.

In November 1920, he was chosen to be part of the Danish delegation to the opening session of the League of Nations in Geneva. He was again a delegate to the League Assemble in 1925 and in 1929.

In 1924, Georg and Naphtali Cohn traveled to Frankfurt and purchased Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s old synagogue in Schützenstrasse, to prevent its sale outside the Jewish community. That same year, Georg married Elfriede Bamberger from Kitzingen in Bavaria, great-granddaughter of the renowned Rabbi Seligmann Baer Bamberger of Würzburg. 

Maintaining Denmark’s Neutrality during World War I 1914-1918

In an article published in 1920 in the monthly Law Journal that he had founded with his brother, Juridiske Tidende, Georg Cohn gives an account of the difficult, often nerve-wracking, task of keeping Denmark neutral during the war. He describes the prevailing neutrality laws, largely based on the Hague Conventions of 1907 and the London Declaration (1909), explaining how problematic they had been even before war broke out, because of England’s and Germany’s conflicting interests. These laws were frequently violated in practice, while the introduction of aircraft and submarines into modern warfare, with all their implications, created new problems.

Denmark had immediately declared itself neutral, yet Georg Cohn describes in detail a series of incidents in which British and German warships violated its neutrality by fighting in its territorial waters. The most dramatic incident was that of a Spanish merchant ship Igotz Mendi, which had been captured by a German raiding vessel Wolf and used as a depot ship for cargo and prisoners. On its way to Germany, this ship was stranded off Skagen in Jutland. Only careful negotiations and the application of international law principles were able to prevent open conflict with Germany.

Georg Cohn concludes that the war demonstrated that a new concept of neutrality needed to be defined in international law and recognized for the future. First signs of this change already appear in the Covenant of the League of Nations.

The League of Nations, Neutrality and Neo-Neutrality 1919-1939

Denmark faced a dilemma. In accordance with article 16 of the Covenant of the League of Nations, member states (with the exception of Switzerland) were required to defend one another and participate in sanctions against any aggressing state. This article, in fact, annulled the option of impartial neutrality. Denmark decided, nevertheless, to become a member.

In various articles written between 1920 and 1924, Georg Cohn suggested a new concept of an active neutrality that would combine solidarity with a state that was victim of aggression and the cessation of all relations and economic dealings with the aggressor with non-involvement in any military action. He termed this “Neo-Neutrality”.

His writings, particularly from 1924, were the only source mentioned for the “Lamas Pact”, which secured peace among the South American States (1933). When Argentine’s Foreign Minister, Dr. S. Lamas, received the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1936, he declared that Georg Cohn was the true father of the pact and that he, therefore, should have been awarded the prize.

The official opening of the League of Nations, 
15 November 1920. Courtesy: National Library
 of Norway

In 1929, Cohn was appointed member of Denmark’s permanent representation to the Court of Arbitration at The Hague, and in 1930, headed the panel of arbitrators in a dispute between Poland and the United States. For this he received an award from the Government of Poland. 

Permanent Court of Arbitration. Members of 
the Permanent Court of Arbitration, established
at The Hague in 1899 to settle international 
disputes by judicial means.
Photo: Courtesy Britannica

The following year, he represented Denmark in its negotiations with Sweden over the maritime border in the Øresund straits − an issue in constant dispute since the 17th century. For his services in resolving the dispute to the satisfaction of both sides, he was promoted by the King to a higher ranking in the Order of Dannebrog, while the King of Sweden bestowed on him a similar honor.

In 1931, Georg Cohn received a doctoral degree from the University of Frankfurt for his work Kriegsverhütung und Schuldfrage (War Prevention and the Question of Guilt). His book makes the case for the League of Nations, in the event of war breaking out, to take immediate steps to put a stop to hostilities. Only after this, he argues, must ways be found to punish the aggressor. That same year he took part in the disarmament conference in Geneva.

In 1937, he received a second doctorate, from the University of Copenhagen, for his thesis on neo-neutrality. The book, Neo-Neutralitet: Folkeretlige Studier over Neutralitets begrebets Nyeste Udvikling (Neo-Neutrality: The Newest Development of the Concept of Neutrality), was published that year in Denmark and then in the United States in an English translation, with a necessary update, shortly before the outbreak of the Second World War in 1939. The American edition was to influence later scholars, as well as the neutrality policy followed by smaller countries which gained independence after the war.

P. Munch, the Danish historian and politician who was Foreign Minister from 1929 to 1940, writes in detail in his memoirs about Denmark’s policy of neutrality in the 20 years between the two world wars. He describes the central characters, including Georg Cohn, who were instrumental in the shaping and implementation of this policy, both at the League of Nations and at home.

The Greenland Case 1932-1933

Greenland had always been considered Danish, so when Norway suddenly declared its sovereignty over certain territory in East Greenland, Denmark protested. Tension between the two countries (their kings were brothers) ran high. Denmark and Norway agreed to bring the dispute before the International Court of Arbitration at The Hague.

Georg Cohn spearheaded the team in the Foreign Ministry that prepared the case (over nearly two years) and appeared before the court in The Hague. The judges accepted his arguments, recognizing Danish sovereignty in the face of conflicting claims.

The Greenland dispute is still widely used as a case-study in international law on criteria for establishing sovereign rights in contested territories.

In appreciation for his achievement, an area in Northeast Greenland was named after him, appearing on the map as “Georg Cohn Land” or “Cape Georg Cohn”. 

In the Shadow of the German Threat  1936-1940

Following the Nazi rise to power in 1933, war in Europe gradually became inevitable. The League of Nations had proved a total failure, and now a number of small European states, including the Scandinavian countries, prepared themselves to remain outside the conflict, as they had in the First World War.

Georg Cohn’s theories of active neutrality developed since the 1920’s, offered the small countries a certain degree of flexibility in adapting their actions to changing circumstances, specifically in the eventuality of a war between major powers. He argued that this neo-neutrality should be recognized by international law. His theories would soon be put to the test.

On April 9, 1940, German troops invaded Denmark, brushing aside a non-aggression treaty that had been signed between the two countries on May 31, 1939. Germany presented Denmark with an ultimatum, promising to honor its integrity and sovereignty, provided that the government guaranteed to keep the civilian population quiet in the new situation. 

The offer was accepted, albeit accompanied by a strong protest against Germany’s violation of Denmark’s neutrality. (Norway received the same ultimatum and rejected it.) Munch resigned and Erik Scavenius replaced him as Foreign Minister. An extraordinary situation arose, which has often been characterized as “the fiction of neutrality and sovereignty”.

Cohn’s theories of neo-neutrality provided a theoretical basis for the idea that Denmark could maintain its neutrality in any circumstances. When the Germans invaded the country, the government upheld its principle of neutrality. This has since become known as the fiction of neutrality. 

With gratitude to author Emilie Cohn Roi

The text is based on Emilie Cohn Roi's book, published in Hebrew in 2003: Courtyards of Copenhagen
Georg Cohn: The Quest for War Prevention
Other books by the author include:
*A Different Story, About a Danish Girl in World War II, available in English (Yad Vashem Publications) Finnish, German and Hebrew

*Chance Meeting (Pegishah Mikrit) in Hebrew

Published by Scandinavian Jewish Forum