David Cesarani, Holocaust Historian and Eichmann Biographer, Dies at 58

Historians in the News
tags: Holocaust, obituary, David Cesarani

David Cesarani, an English historian of 20th-century Jewish life whose work included a biography of Adolf Eichmann that sought to refute Hannah Arendt’s famous appraisal of him as a banal functionary, died on Sunday in London. He was 58.

His death, from complications of recent surgery, was announced by his academic institution, Royal Holloway, a constituent college of the University of London. At his death, Professor Cesarani (pronounced sez-uh-RAH-nee) was a research professor in history there.

Widely considered Britain’s foremost scholar of contemporary Jewish history, Professor Cesarani was a regular presence on television and radio there, illuminating subjects from the Holocaust to Jewish life in 19th- and 20th-century England. His books, published on both sides of the Atlantic, could engender ardent critical responses in both directions, sometimes in a single review.

Professor Cesarani was almost certainly best known for his Eichmann biography, published in Britain in 2004 as “Eichmann: His Life and Crimes” and in the United States in 2006 as “Becoming Eichmann: Rethinking the Life, Crimes, and Trial of a ‘Desk Murderer.’ ” That edition received a National Jewish Book Award, presented in the United States by the Jewish Book Council, in 2006.

Through a deep study of archival documents, Professor Cesarani set out to refute Arendt’s contention that Eichmann, who oversaw the mortal logistics of the Holocaust, was an non-ideological bureaucrat simply following orders. Arendt, a Jewish political philosopher who had fled Germany and settled in the United States, evocatively deployed the phrase “the banality of evil” in her 1963 book, “Eichmann in Jerusalem,” to characterize Eichmann’s role as a mere cog in a vast machine. ...

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