The don, the Deutsche Bank and the shock revelations of its Nazi past

The don, the Deutsche Bank and the shock revelations of its Nazi past


2F14958 Professor Jonathan Steinberg from the Univ. of Pennsylvania will be a featured lecturer at One Day University, February 19, 2008, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Charles Fox/Philadelphia Inquirer/MCT/Sipa USA)

A quirky and donnish figure, Jonathan Steinberg had a way of pouncing on his students and shaking them out of their comfort zone. During his history lectures at Cambridge University he might demand an essay minus the verb To Be. Or he might describe an arcane study and shock them with its relevance to their current work. Colleagues describe the character of the historian, who has died aged 86, as that of a chess player, always one or two moves ahead. His acuity could be disconcerting but for the warmth and generosity with which he also mentored his post graduate students.

That acuity came sharply into play as he delved into the Deutsche Bank’s activities during the Second World War. His 1990 book, All or Nothing: The Axis and the Holocaust 1941-43, which explained why Italians, in contrast to the Germans, refused to deport Jews to Auschwitz, led to his appointment to Deutsche Bank’s historic commission. His devastating yet restrained 1999 report, The Deutsche Bank and Its Gold Transactions during the Second World War, uncovered the most shocking conclusions; that the bank had been involved in the purchase and sale of gold bars made from tooth fillings from dead concentration camp victims, and had played a key role in the funding of Auschwitz.

A decade or so earlier, it was Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century Prussian Prime Minister, who fascinated him. Then vice-master of Trinity Hall and chair of the Cambridge history faculty, Steinberg gave a lecture to the University of Pennsylvania in 1988 in which he described the politics of the so-called Iron Chancellor as a kind of style revolution, to be compared to the Kennedy presidency. Bismarck proved an alluring subject for Steinberg. The founder of the German Empire was viewed as a pacifist in foreign affairs but an authoritarian on domestic issues. It would lead to Steinberg’s acclaimed 500 word biography, Bismarck: A Life, published in 2011.

“Nothing in my long professional career,” he wrote in the preface ,“has been as much fun as the composition of this work.” Steinberg created a three dimensional figure offering the reader the full flavour of Bismarck’s physical and emotional attributes.

In a memorable phrase he asserted: “Bismarck brandished democracy at the Habsburgs like a cross in front of a vampire.” A New York Times bestseller, the book was hailed by Henry Kissinger as “the best study of its subject in the English language.”

Jonathan Steinberg was born in New York to Edith, née Alpert and Milton Steinberg, a rabbi at Park Avenue Synagogue. His alternative ideas as a teacher may have stemmed from his education at New York’s progressive Walden School, where students were free to choose their own subjects and were on first name terms with their teachers. But when he was 16 his father died of a heart attack, at the age of 46, and he was taken under the wing of the synagogue patrons, the influential Warburg banking family.

Sent by Eric Warburg to study economics at Harvard, he graduated in 1955 and completed two and a half years of military service in Germany where he was detailed to a hospital in Neubrucke an der Nahe. He later recalled that he was unfit for work with psychiatric patients because he believed everything they told him! He used his time there to study German by reading novels with the help of a dictionary. He became engrossed in studying German society in more depth, including the descendants of the old Prussian aristocracy. The journey to Bismarck was, perhaps inevitable.

By 1957 he was back in New York to work briefly at the EM Warburg Bank, but took up a graduate place at St John’s College, Cambridge where he fell under the spell of an inspirational history tutor, Harry Hinsley. His fiancée Jill Meier had accompanied him to Cambridge and ran a bookshop near the city.

Steinberg published his dissertation in 1965 as Yesterday’s Deterrent: Tirpitz and the Birth of the German Battle Fleet, in which he asserted that the new German navy was aimed at Britain, but critics argued that Tirpitz created the navy in a liberal image.

By 1963 Steinberg was awarded a research fellowship at Christ’s College, and was appointed to a university assistant lectureship at Cambridge in 1966 and a fellowship at Trinity Hall.

There he served as a vice master and was entrusted to supervise the Prince of Wales in the history component of his degree. Steinberg had taught since his first day as a graduate student when he supervised 13 undergraduates in American history.

In 1975 he explored Swiss history and society in Why Switzerland? It preceded All Or Nothing: the Axis and the Holocaust 1941-43, which would prove pivotal to his future investigations of the Deutsche Bank’s role in the Holocaust.

The bank published documents that showed it had financed the building of the Auschwitz concentration camp, in a dramatic escalation of its attempts to settle Holocaust-related US lawsuits. Steinberg, who had been a member of the commission since 1998, saw the need to examine the ethical and substantive issues facing historians involved in such work.

But there was a price to pay. The shocking discovery of the bank’s involvement in the Holocaust, the strain of chairing the faculty and his personal teaching programme resulted in the breakdown of his marriage and his mental health.

Steinberg recovered and returned to the US in 2000 to take up the position of Walter H Annenberg Professor of Modern European History at the University of Pennsylvania.

He married the musicologist Marion Kant in 2007 and taught a course in secular Judaism, arguably revisiting his rabbinic roots. Steinberg then divided his time between Cambridge with his wife, and Pennsylvania, where he continued to teach well past his official retirement in 2015.

Steinberg published seven books and numerous articles on the German and Austrian Empires, Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy and world Jewish history. He was a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Holocaust Assets and a frequent commentator on British radio and TV.

In his mid 80s he began to suffer from Alzheimer’s. Watching the video of his Bismarck lecture with his former PhD student Christopher Clark, now Regius Professor of History at Cambridge, he mused: “Jonathan Steinberg doesn’t exist any more. And Bismarck doesn’t exist any more. They both belong to history.”

He is survived by his two children from his marriage to Jill, Matthew and Peter; by Marion and her children Jessica, Deborah and Myron and seven grandchildren. His son Daniel predeceased him in 2018.


Jonathan Steinberg: born March 8, 1934. Died March 4, 2021

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