Obituary: David Cesarani
Holocaust historian who wrote an acclaimed study of Adolf Eichman
Published 01/11/2015 | 02:30
David Cesarani, who has died of cancer aged 58, was a historian specialising in the Holocaust and the history of the Jews in the 20th Century.
Cesarani was best known for his prize-winning Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (2004), a study of the logistical architect of the 'Final Solution' who was catapulted to infamy after being kidnapped in South America by the Israeli secret service, then put on trial in Jerusalem in 1962.
Cesarani set out to demolish some of the myths surrounding Eichmann.
"He wasn't the great Jew-hater of the popular histories," he found. "In his early life, he had perfectly normal, functional relations with Jews."
Among other things he revealed that the main reason Eichmann was able to evade discovery in Germany after the war was because he chose to live in the British zone of occupation. In contrast to the American zone which was "crawling" with Nazi-hunting intelligence officers, the British zone "had just 15 - one of whom was Clement Freud".
The Eichmann trial was the subject of sensational commentating, and at the core of Cesarani's book was a fierce attack on Hannah Arendt, the philosopher whose book, Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), shaped later interpretations of the Holocaust.
Arendt, who coined the expression "the banality of evil", portrayed Eichmann as a small-time bureaucrat who was just doing his job in a country which had surrendered its morality under the sheer weight of a totalitarian machine.
Cesarani protested that this came close to excusing genocide and argued that there had always been a degree of voluntarism: "Eichmann could have walked away", but he had embraced the Holocaust because he saw it as a good career move.
Cesarani learned early on that history is not some Manichean battle of good versus evil. As a teenager on an Israeli kibbutz he had been told that a nearby pile of rubble was a Crusader castle. "It was only much later that I discovered it was an Arab village that had been ruined in the Six-Day War." His insistence on being true to the evidence meant that there were few heroes in Cesarani's books.
In the 1990s, when he embarked on a study of Arthur Koestler as a man who exemplified the Jewish experience in Europe in the 20th century, he discovered that the author of Darkness at Noon was also a serial sexual predator who had raped Jill Craigie, wife of the one-time leader of Britain's Labour party, Michael Foot.
In Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998), he claimed, controversially, that rape was "almost a hallmark of his conduct" and argued that "his Jewishness, like that of other survivors of Central European Jewry, connoted self-abasement, deracination, exclusion and trauma: it did much to explain, if not to condone, eccentric and even extreme behaviour".
Cesarani was born in London on November 13, 1956, the only child of a Jewish hairdresser of Italian descent.
He was educated at Latymer Upper School, Hammersmith, winning a scholarship to Queens' College, Cambridge, to read history. After a year at Columbia University in New York, he did a DPhil at Oxford on Anglo-Jewish Zionist history between the wars.
Cesarani's academic career saw him move from Leeds to Queen Mary College, to Southampton - via a stint as director of studies at the Wiener Library in London- to Manchester and finally to Royal Holloway, University of London, where he was research professor of Jewish history.
A prominent supporter of the Israeli Peace Now movement, Cesarani wrote regularly for publications including The Guardian, was an influential figure in political circles and adviser to Holocaust organisations. In 2005 he was appointed OBE for his services to Holocaust education.
He is survived by his wife, Dawn Waterman, and by their son and daughter.
David Cesarani died on October 25.