Professor remains philosophical as burglars return: David Nicholson-Lord meets a leading social philosopher who has become the target of criminals up to a dozen times

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The Independent Online
AT ROUGHLY the same time Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, was telling the Conservative Party conference of his plans to incarcerate more criminals, Professor Leopold Kohr was burgled. For the professor this was nothing new, but the coincidence was instructive.

Mr Howard spoke little, and appeared to care less, about the causes of crime. Professor Kohr thinks he knows what they are. The professor, 84, who was once described in the New York Times as a 'prophet of our time', is experiencing his own private crime wave. Over the last year, he estimates his house near Gloucester has been subject to at least a dozen burglaries or break-in attempts.

In the decade he has lived there, he says he has been burgled three or four times a year. The windows of his home are pocked with the marks of jemmy and chisel. No culprit, however, has yet been brought to book. Police tell him they know who is responsible for some of the crimes, but lack evidence. Professor Kohr has responded by penning satirical lyrics on alleged police deficiencies and proposing imaginative new solutions to criminality.

In a series of raids last Christmas and New Year, for example, the burglars' haul included pounds 500 in cash he had withdrawn for presents, 50 hearing aid batteries and a supply of tablets for his heart condition. On one occasion a man burst in through the front door while the professor was asleep on the sofa. On another, a mound of human excrement was left on the carpet.

Professor Kohr, who was born in Oberndorf, Austria, where Silent Night was composed, kept up his spirits by rewriting the carol, concluding with the lines: 'The only one sleeping in heavenly peace/Is the superintendent of Gloucester police.'

He has also suggested putting offenders in the stocks for a week to remove the cloak of anonymity that he believes protects them from the social consequences of their actions. So taken with this idea was the local paper, the Gloucester Citizen, that it published a cartoon showing the perpetrators being pelted. 'Tomatoes and eggs don't bother them,' the caption read, 'but his four-hour lecture on Kierkegaard's critiques on existentialism has them begging for mercy.'

In fact, Professor Kohr's reputation rests on The Breakdown of Nations, a work of political philosophy published in 1957 which provided the inspiration for E F Schumacher's Small is Beautiful - Schumacher described Kohr as 'a teacher from whom I have learnt more than from anyone else' - and led to the professor's inclusion in a Sunday Times guide to the Makers of the 20th Century. Crime, according to Kohr, is the result of bigness: modern mass society creates the anonymity in which it flourishes. Smaller communities are less criminal because they are more 'translucent'.

In pursuit of translucency, Professor Kohr stuck a piece of card with the name of his alleged persecutor in the front window of his house. The response was ferocious. Manning Farrell, a friend who looks after the professor, said: 'Everything was turned upside down, everything was emptied and thrown about. It was as though devils had gone through the house. The amount of energy and anger put into it was frightening.'

Nothing appeared to have been taken. According to Mrs Farrell, the motive was probably revenge.

The main casualty, however, was the professor's complex personal filing system which he uses to write his books. With his latest book only one-fifth completed, his files are in chaos. Given his fragile health and failing eyesight, he says the book will now never be written.

He said yesterday: 'I think my career as a writer is finished. To discern anything in this mess is impossible. What has happened is a kind of literary murder.

'The reason they target me is because I am old and deaf and I cannot see any more. I do not blame them particularly . . . In my writings I have always pointed out that people behave only if they cannot misbehave.'

Professor Kohr believes the culprit comes from a nearby council housing estate - a place, he says, without any centre or sense of identity and where male youth unemployment is widespread. 'There is no community here. We need translucent communities where everyone knows each other, where everyone knows the police, where thieves can be confronted. These crimes were committed in the darkness of mass society.'

(Photograph omitted)