Jonathan Steinberg obituary | History books


“Nothing in my long professional career,” wrote historian Jonathan Steinberg, in the preface to his masterpiece, Bismarck: A Life (2011), “has been as fun as the composition of this work” . Brilliantly readable – nearly 500 pages go by in a flash – the book brought a new perspective to the Iron Chancellor.

“The method,” he explained, “is to leave those over whom power has been exercised, friends and enemies, Germans and foreigners, young and old, anyone who has experienced the power of Bismarck’s personality and recorded the impact, telling the story. “The result is a vivid portrait of the great statesman.

Like Bismarck, Jonathan, who died at the age of 86, was a master of the memorable phrase – for example, Bismarck, he argued, “held up democracy among the Habsburgs like a cross before a vampire.” The book is not without flaws. He neglects the powerful countercurrents of modern German history, notably the Social Democrats, and few historians would agree with the general assertion that “when Bismarck left office, the servility of the German people was been cemented, an obedience from which he never recovered ”. Nevertheless, Jonathan’s Bismarck, a New York Times bestseller, has been rightly described by Henry Kissinger as “the best study of its subject in the English language.”

Born in New York City, Jonathan was the son of Milton Steinberg, Rabbi of the Park Avenue Synagogue, and his wife, Edith (née Alpert). He attended Walden School, a progressive institution where students address teachers by first name and choose their own subjects of study.

Otto von Bismarck, writes Steinberg, “brandishes democracy among the Habsburgs like a cross before a vampire.” Photography: Sportsphoto / Allstar / Cinetext Collection

Milton died at the age of 46 of heart failure and Jonathan was taken under the wing of the Warburg family, influential bankers and synagogue patrons. Eric Warburg sent him to Harvard to study economics, from which he graduated in 1955. During his two and a half years of military service in Germany, Jonathan learned German by reading novels using a dictionary.

In 1957 he returned to New York to start working at EM Warburg Bank, but during his first year abroad he fell in love with Cambridge, his interest in history being sparked by his tutor at St John’s College, Harry Hinsley. “Even at the age of 22,” he later wrote, “as a private first class in the US military, I knew I wanted to live in Europe.

He returned to Cambridge in 1961 to begin a doctorate under Hinsley’s supervision. His decision was aided by the fact that he had become engaged to Jill Meier, who later ran a bookstore near town. Jonathan quickly completed his thesis, publishing it in 1965 under the title Yesterday’s Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet. The book showed that the new German navy was directed against Britain, but it was quickly challenged for its claim that Tirpitz had created the navy in its own liberal image.

A research fellow at Christ’s College from 1963, Jonathan was appointed academic assistant at Cambridge in 1966, as well as a fellowship to Trinity Hall. He had already been teaching since his first day as a graduate student, when he was asked to supervise 13 undergraduates in American history. “I didn’t know anything about it,” he wrote, “but I had the right accent and a bunch of fun facts. He turned out to be an excellent teacher. Considered a “pair of safe hands,” he was chosen to supervise Prince Charles in the history section of his degree.

As a doctoral student, Jonathan worked for a series of German banks during the holidays, while collecting material in the naval archives, and then for SG Warburg in London. During this time Jill and her many Swiss parents sparked an interest in Switzerland and in 1975 he published Why Switzerland? – a historical guide to the country’s institutions.

In 1990 he published All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust 1941-1943, in which he sought to explain why Italians from all walks of life had resisted growing German pressure to deport Jews to Auschwitz, while the Germans had not. These projects earned him his appointment to the historic commission of Deutsche Bank, responsible for investigating the deposit by the company in Swiss banks of gold bars made from fillings taken from prisoners in concentration camps. Jonathan’s report, Deutsche Bank and Its Gold Transactions During World War II (1999), is shrewd and narrow, but devastating in its conclusions.

Universally trustworthy, Jonathan was vice-master of Trinity Hall from 1990 to 1994 and president of the Cambridge Faculty of History in the mid-1990s. By this time, however, his marriage to Jill was in the process of falling apart. break down and, under the pressure of this, presiding over the faculty, teaching and possibly also researching the Holocaust, he suffered a nervous breakdown.

He escaped by returning to the United States in 2000 as a Walter H Annenberg professor of modern European history at the University of Pennsylvania, where he taught even after his official retirement in 2015. While on vacation, he taught continued to live in Cambridge with her new partner, Marion Kant, a German musicologist who teaches at the university (they married in 2007).

Jonathan’s interests and activities were numerous. He learned to play the oboe as an adult and played chamber music until he was 80 years old. He is also passionate about sports, from badminton and real tennis to American football and baseball. He was a fan and, more surprisingly, a shareholder of Cambridge United.

His career as a historian never fully reflected his talents: perhaps he had been too influenced by his training at the Walden School, and had studied the subjects he found interesting, rather than engage in the major historiographical trends of the time. He seemed to have little contact with German historians and was not in favor of the dominant approaches to history in his day, seeing them as “a sort of watered-down Marxism mixed with prejudices about ‘history from above’. “. People were what really mattered to him.

In the mid-1980s, he began to have Alzheimer’s disease. As his former doctoral student Christopher Clark, now regius professor of history at Cambridge, recently wrote: “Last September we watched a video together of a wonderful talk he gave on Bismarck at the University of Pennsylvania. He was seized. And when it was over, he said, “This man, Jonathan Steinberg, doesn’t exist anymore. And Bismarck no longer exists. They both belong to history.

A son from his marriage to Jill, Daniel, passed away in 2018. Jonathan is survived by their two other children, Matthew and Peter, Marion and her children, Jessica, Deborah and Myron, as well as seven grandchildren.

Jonathan Steinberg, historian, born March 8, 1934; passed away on March 4, 2021


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