David Cesarani, who died on 25 October 2015 aged 58, was the leading British historian of the modern Jewish experience. Equally at home in the history of the Anglo-Jewish community, of Zionism and of the Holocaust, he mixed scholarship with commentary in the press and writing on contemporary events. The balancing act was not easy, but Cesarani pulled it off because he neither suffered from the traditional reticence of the scholar nor let his journalism wander from scholarship and evidence.
Born in London in 1956 and educated at Latymer Upper School, David came from a relatively humble background and not an especially religious one, either: his father was a ladies’ hairdresser with a salon in Paddington. It was at Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate between 1976-79 at Queens’ College, that his interest in Jewish History developed, almost certainly as a consequence of a search for his own identity. He took courses in modern history – though his Special Subject, devised and taught by John Morrill, was on Oliver Cromwell – and on graduating with a first class degree went to Columbia University to study for a Masters in Jewish History with the then renowned rabbi and historian Arthur Hertzberg. As an undergraduate David had become active in student politics. This was the era, after the Six Day War of 1967 and the Yom Kippur War in 1973, when campus criticism of Israel began, and Cesarani was engaged in rebutting the accusation that ‘Zionism is Racism’ which was current at that stage, the mid and late 1970s. He came to see, gradually and incrementally, that as a historian he could play a part in the debate, dispelling mythology on all sides, correcting error, ensuring that public discourse was rational and based on the evidence. It is to his great credit that he remained trusted as a historian even while commentating so actively on Jewish life and history in Britain, Europe and Israel.
An early member of the organisation Peace Now, which stood for a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians on the basis of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, Cesarani was every bit as critical of Israeli leaders and orthodox Jewish groups who rejected this compromise as he was of those who entered the debate knowing little history of the Middle East, or distorting what little they knew. His job was to enlighten on the basis of an accurate history, without fear or favour. Often involved in controversies – how could he not be when dealing with such subjects? – his greatest achievement was to retain the respect of his colleagues and peers as a historian. Many historians are understandably uncomfortable if asked to mix politics and history; Cesarani thrived on it, believing that the purpose of studying the past was to inform the present and future.
Later in his career, David knew professional success and stability, especially as a research professor in the History Department at Royal Holloway after 2004. Before that there were stints at the Wiener Library in London as Director of Research, and at Southampton as Professor of Jewish History between 2000-04. But like many, his early career in the 1980s had been disjointed and precarious. After Columbia he studied in Oxford, at St. Antony’s College, for a doctorate on the politics of the inter-war Jewish community in Britain, and there followed short-term posts at the University of Leeds and what was then Queen Mary College, London.
By this time – the late 1980s – he had discovered how to bring together past and present: how he might use Jewish History to illuminate and clarify contemporary debate and controversy. He became the lead researcher for the All-Party War Crimes Group in 1987 which investigated the presence in the United Kingdom of Nazi and other Second World War criminals. This research, and the public concern it engendered, led to the 1991 War Crimes Act which extended British jurisdiction to cover war crimes committed anywhere. Cesarani’s own version of this episode and the history behind it can be found in Justice Delayed: How Britain Became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals (1992). The search for elderly war criminals and the change to the law were both controversial, though this was not the first controversy Cesarani had entered. Earlier, in 1987, he had taken a position in opposition to Jim Allen’s play Perdition, due to be staged at the Royal Court Theatre in London, though never performed there because of public criticism. The play focused on the infamous case of Rudolf Kastner who had negotiated with Adolf Eichmann in 1944 to save a trainload of Hungarian Jews, about 1600 in all, from the gas chambers at Auschwitz. Some of those saved eventually found their way to Israel. Kastner was damned by many for this truly Faustian bargain, and was eventually assassinated in Israel in 1957. It was a complex historical episode in the very worst of human contexts, and Cesarani used his knowledge and expertise to argue that Allen’s play had simplified and decontextualized the story in order to delegitimize Zionism and the founding of the state of Israel.
He returned to the subject of Eichmann in his later biography, Eichmann. His Life and Crimes (2005). Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), based on the Eichmann trial of 1962, had famously coined the phrase ‘the banality of evil’ to describe a man she saw as a functionary of Nazi policy and bureaucracy. Cesarani took issue with an interpretation which had become almost routine in historical and public discourse over the next four decades, presenting Eichmann instead as a man with choices rather than an official following orders, and re-injecting the theme of personal, moral accountability into the history of Holocaust. He was not alone in this reinterpretation: his biography of Eichmann will stand with other more recent works of the 1990s and 2000s as part of a revisionist movement against overly structural interpretations of the Holocaust.
Cesarani published other books connected with the Holocaust. His study of Arthur Koestler. The Homeless Mind (1999) concerns the formidable and controversial public intellectual who managed to reach Britain in 1940 having published one of the most insightful exposes of Soviet communism, even if in fictional form, Darkness at Noon. In Major Farran’s Hat (2009) Cesarani used the murder of a young Zionist activist in a Jerusalem street in 1947 as a way of examining the end of the British mandate in Palestine. It was a work of history, for sure, but it also owed something to Cesarani’s penchant for thrillers. And there were several edited collections of essays as well, among them The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation (1994), all of them testament to Cesarani’s energy and activity in bringing together historians, often young historians, and giving them the opportunity to develop and publish their research. He was himself a willing servant of his subject as well as its master.
Building a network of international contacts as he went – he spent periods of academic leave in Washington DC and at Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem – Cesarani was well-placed to act as an interpreter and conduit for the new research into the Holocaust which became possible with the ‘fall of the wall’ and the end of the Soviet Union in 1989-91 as archives and collections in Eastern Europe became accessible to scholars, often for the first time. Conscious of his role, Cesarani became interested in the historiography of the Holocaust, especially in the absence of major research that marked the generation after the 1940s, and the result was one of his last edited collaborations (with Eric J. Sundquist), After the Holocaust. Challenging the Myth of Silence (2011).
His public services to Holocaust education were a corollary of this scholarly commitment. As a research fellow in the 1980s he had gone out to schools and community groups to talk about the Holocaust as a lecturer for the Spiro Institute for Jewish Education, based in north London. It was at this time that he developed his skills as a public speaker and lecturer. He worked with the Home Office unit responsible for establishing Holocaust Memorial Day in Britain, the 27th January, which was first observed in 2001.
When David Cameron established the Prime Minister’s Holocaust Commission in 2014 to determine ‘what more Britain must do to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is preserved and that the lessons it teaches are never forgotten’, Cesarani was a member of its education committee. He was also a member of the advisory group that oversaw the creation of the remarkable permanent exhibition on the Holocaust in the upper floors of the Imperial War Museum in London. At the outset of the project Cesarani organised a number of seminars and teaching sessions for all the Museum staff involved, and though not solely responsible for its design, the exhibition bears evidence of his close involvement in its lack of sentiment, its commitment to historical detail, its careful focus on the massacre of one-and-a-half million Jews by the Einsatzgruppen before the Final Solution of the extermination camps was devised (ignorance of which Cesarani always lamented), and its use of survivors’ testimony.
These were features that ran through Cesarani’s scholarly publications, too. But he was never bound by orthodoxy, and he would challenge convention in his public educational work just as much as in his revisionist scholarship. There is a story of a public lecture he once gave on the subject of ‘Auschwitz and the Allies’. David spent the first 20 minutes explaining to his audience why it was impossible for the Allies to have bombed the train lines to Auschwitz and the camp itself, with the deliberate intention of lulling them into the acceptance of an interpretation with which he very strongly differed, before turning the occasion into a seminar on all the opportunities which, in his opinion, were ignored or dismissed, and which, if taken, could have severely disrupted, even if they could not have ended, the Holocaust.
Cesarani was a formidable public debater as I found out myself on one occasion. Asked to contribute to Radio 4’s ‘The World Tonight’ on the problems of the secondary school History curriculum which has focused excessively on the Nazis and their crimes, I expected the easiest of victories. They did not tell me who I was up against, however, until I was placed in a sound-proofed box with moments to go. My arguments in favour of a curriculum that introduced students to the workings of stable government in plural societies, rather than focussing relentlessly, at all ages, on history’s most terrible events, were parried by David and swatted back. Afterwards we agreed that it had been a ‘score draw’ in soccer parlance; if I had more possession, he had more shots on target.
Against this background David’s continuing interest in the local travails of the Anglo-Jewish community might appear parochial or quaint. He was the author of the official history of the Jewish Chronicle, which has held the Anglo-Jewish community together since the 1840s, and which was published for its 150th anniversary: The Jewish Chronicle and Anglo-Jewry 1841-1991 (1994). There were many more essays and provocations from his desk on Jewish migration to the United Kingdom, Jewish communal organisation and the tensions between different groups and political positions in Anglo-Jewry. All of this work had an important point to make, however: that Jewish history in Britain was more vexed and more troubled than its first historians had suggested. David was one of several in his generation who took aim at the complacency of a whiggish history of the Jews which had been written to comply with a whiggish history of the English – a story in which the Jews had found common cause with English mores, politics and institutions and successfully adapted themselves to private and public life, enjoying notable professional advancement in a nation dedicated to tolerance and fair play. Cesarani recognised, of course, that Britain has been good for the Jews, but he and others were conscious that just as there were successive waves of Jewish migration to Britain, there were also different Jewish experiences. It was better to think of varied Jewish communities, differentiated by forms of religion, politics and attitudes to Israel, and often at odds with each other, than a single Anglo-Jewish identity. He himself identified strongly with Jewish causes, but he was not very observant and maintained a healthy disrespect for the excesses of religious orthodoxy. Indeed, there was something reliably unorthodox to David Cesarani; it was part of his personality and attractiveness as a companion and colleague that his opinions were always surprising and often the very opposite of what might have been expected.
It is sad and poignant that Cesarani’s early death occurred just as two books that exemplified and united his career were going through the press, to be published early in 2016. His study of Disraeli. The Novel Politician looks again at Disraeli’s Jewish identity, but brings to that old question all David’s wisdom combined with impressive knowledge of British politics in the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, The Fate of the Jews 1933-48 is a major synthesis which will sum up his work on the Holocaust over three decades. They will represent one side of David Cesarani’s great achievement. To appreciate the other side, go to the Imperial War Museum, or to a lecture on Holocaust Memorial Day, or talk to someone who attended one of his seminars, or heard him on Radio 4, or read one of his pieces in the newspapers. In a profession that sometimes talks airily and vaguely about ‘public historians’, David Cesarani was the real thing.