Jonathan Steinberg: Wrote Influential English Study of Bismarck's GermanyHistorians in the News
tags: obituaries, German history, Holocaust history, Otto von Bismarck, Jonathan Steinberg
“Nothing in my long professional career,” wrote the historian Jonathan Steinberg, in the preface to his masterpiece, Bismarck: A Life (2011), has been as much fun as the composition of this work.” Brilliantly readable – nearly 500 pages go by in a flash – the book brought a new perspective to bear on the much-studied “Iron Chancellor”.
“The method,” he wrote, “is to let those on whom the power was exercised, friend and foe, German and foreign, young and old, anybody who experienced the power of Bismarck’s personality close up and recorded the impact, tell the story.” The result is a vivid, kaleidoscopic portrait, full of memorable aperçus and quotations, all conveying a convincing and rounded picture of the great statesman.
Like Bismarck, Steinberg, who has died aged 86, was a master of the memorable phrase – Bismarck, he wrote for example, “brandished democracy at the Habsburgs like a cross in front of a vampire”. The book, to be sure, is not without its faults. It neglects powerful counter-currents in modern German history, notably the Social Democrats, and few historians would agree with the sweeping claim that “when Bismarck left office, the servility of the German people had been cemented, an obedience from which they never recovered”. Nevertheless, Steinberg’s Bismarck, a New York Times bestseller, was rightly described by Henry Kissinger as “the best study of its subject in the English language”.
A research fellow at Christ’s College from 1963, Jonathan was appointed to a university assistant lectureship at Cambridge in 1966, along with a fellowship at 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 knew nothing about the subject,” he wrote, “but had the right accent, and a store of diversionary anecdotes.” He turned out to be a superb teacher, much loved by his students. Regarded as a “safe pair of hands”, he was chosen to supervise the Prince of Wales in the history component of his degree.
As a PhD student, Jonathan worked for a series of German banks during the holidays, while also gathering material in the naval archives, and then for SG Warburg & Co in London. Meanwhile Jill and her numerous Swiss relatives sparked an interest in Switzerland, and in 1975 he published Why Switzerland? – a historically informed 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 in many walks of life had resisted growing German pressure to deport Jewish people to Auschwitz, when the Germans had not. These projects led to his appointment to the historical commission of the Deutsche Bank, investigating the company’s deposition in Swiss banks of gold bars made from tooth fillings taken from concentration camp prisoners. Jonathan’s report, The Deutsche Bank and Its Gold Transactions during the Second World War (1999), is judicious and restrained, but ultimately devastating in its conclusions.
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