Zara Steiner


GreaWhen Zara Steiner went to interview a retired British diplomat, he greeted her with the words: “An American, a woman and a Jew writing about the Foreign Office? It should not be allowed.”

In many ways this sums up Zara Steiner’s career as an outsider in the British academic world. Born in New York, she spent most of her career in Cambridge, one of the first post-war women academics to break into diplomatic history, her acclaimed volumes in the Oxford History of Modern Europe are the only ones in the series written by a woman, and she was always conscious of her Jewishness. Like her husband she was never awarded a professorship at Cambridge.

Born in New York City to Frances (née Price) and Joseph Shakow, an outfitter, she was formed by the Depression and the Second World War. Yet Zara Shakow, who has died aged 91, had a meteoric rise.

In 1948 she graduated from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania and gained bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Oxford in 1950 and 1954 respectively. A student at St. Anne’s College, she was taught by some of the biggest names at post-war Oxford: Hugh Trevor Roper for Tudor and Stuart history, Isaiah Berlin for political theory, Hugh Seton-Watson for modern Europe. Attending A.J.P. Taylor’s Special Subject on The Policy of the Ententes as the only woman in the class, she received her doctorate in History from Harvard in 1957.

At Harvard she met her future husband, the literary critic George Steiner. They married in 1955. From 1965 to 1996, Steiner was a Fellow of New Hall (now Murray Edwards College) at Cambridge. In 2007, she was elected a Fellow of the British Academy (FBA).

Zara Steiner specialised in foreign relations. Her first books were The State Department and the Foreign Service (1958) and Present Problems of the Foreign Service (1961) but her breakthrough works were The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy 1898–1914 (1969) and Britain and the Origins of the First World War (1977). According to the historian Professor David Reynolds: “Her interest was -- in what we would now call the culture of the Foreign Office. She wanted to discover the ethos of the place and understand the people who inhabited it.”

Her seminal work is her contribution to the Oxford History of Modern Europe. In 1976 she was invited by Alan Bullock to write the successor volume to A.J.P. Taylor’s classic, The Struggle for Mastery of Europe, 1848-1918. Oxford University Press’s brief was 1919-45 in one volume. The resultant two volumes (The Lights That Failed, 2005, and The Triumph of the Dark, 2011) are considered the standard works on international diplomacy between the two world wars, and Zara is acknowledged as a great international historian and a role model for younger female academics.

She died ten days after her husband and is survived by her two children David and Deborah, both successful academics.

David Herman

Zara Steiner: born November 6 1928. Died February 13, 2020

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