Jonathan Steinberg was essential in the founding of the Centre for History and Economics. We missed him terribly when he moved to the University of Pennsylvania in 2000, and one of the most agreeable rituals, for many years thereafter, was the first History and Economics seminar of the Easter Term, when Jonathan was suddenly back, having returned to Cambridge for the summer. We miss him, as a friend, a great historian, and an inspiration.
Emma Rothschild and Gareth Stedman Jones, Centre for History and Economics
I owe more to Jonathan Steinberg - for my academic, literary, and emotional life - than to any other person. His brilliance, his unquenchable curiosity for the past, and his relentless enthusiasm for the life of mind, made him a formidable scholar. But more than that, his warmth, his curiosity for the living, and his steady conviction that a student should be cultivated whatever their background, made him a powerfully influential and transformative teacher. He taught your whole person, not your CV. His loss is a great one. To his memory, what I would say is this: Thank you for seeing me as I was not yet.
Tara Westover, Harvard Kennedy School
I first met Jonathan Steinberg in the spring of 2002 when I took his ‘Italian History / Italian Film’ seminar at the University of Pennsylvania. When I became interested in the economic history and economic geography of modern Italy after a screening of ‘Tre Fratelli’ (1981), he introduced me to Giacomo Becattini’s work on industrial districts and laterally to Emma and Gareth’s Centre for History and Economics in Cambridge. Jonathan’s friendship with Becattini, which blossomed during their years together at Trinity Hall, had reawakened his latent interests in economic geography, economic sociology and the history of economic thought. Jonathan knew that I had been a Wharton undergraduate, and he encouraged me, as my first-year advisor, not to turn away from those interests when I started doctoral training in History at Penn. Jonathan confessed that he too had studied Economics, and had written an undergraduate thesis at Harvard titled ‘An economic analysis of the Puerto Rican migration to New York City’.
Although Jonathan abhorred internecine academic rivalries and advocated methodological pluralism in his historical work, he was also an inveterate champion of the underdog, and carried a torch for the Harvard institutionalists, preferring their historicism to the formal methods of neoclassical economics. This predilection, coupled with a junior year abroad at Cambridge, where Jonathan was tutored by Sir Harry Hinsley at St. John’s College, ultimately turned him towards History, but left with him deep roots in the tradition of Veblen and Schumpeter, though Jonathan shared with Talcott Parsons a sense that some theoretical focus to economics was desirable. Jonathan thus periodically revisited classical economic thought, a topic upon which he taught seminars at Penn well into the 2010s.
During my doctoral training, I came to specialise in early modern British history, and wrote my own dissertation on excise taxation, public borrowing and state formation in seventeenth-century Britain. Although supervising such a topic would have been as stretch for someone with even his broad interests, Jonathan remained on my committee and encouraged me to apply to be a visiting fellow of the Centre for History and Economics in 2005-6. I soon learned that he was exactly right: Emma and Gareth had created a playground for those of us with shared intellectual investments.
After the Great Financial Crisis, Jonathan was fond of reminding me and others that Economics, as he had studied it, included unfashionable topics such as labour economics, industrial organisation, and what we today call ‘history of capitalism’ and that, as with History, it might do so again. Decades before, Jonathan had recognised these same intellectual impulses in Becattini and in Emma’s work, and saw the Centre for History and Economics as one of the few places in the English-speaking world for both economists and historians who still cared about these issues.
Jonathan was foremost a gifted teacher, who believed that education begins with friendship, and he befriended me at a time in my life when I was not at all certain I would follow an academic path, let alone through to a professorial chair. That I did so is due in no small measure to Jonathan taking me and my ideas seriously, helping me to locate them amidst a wider canvass. As I have, in my turn, moved away from History into economic geography, economic analysis, and infrastructure economics, I have felt emboldened to do so by Jonathan’s enthusiasm for the possibilities of working across these disciplines and by the example that the Centre for History and Economics has set over the last thirty years.
D’Maris Coffman, University College London
The intellectual acuity evident in Jonathan Steinberg’s scholarship was matched by the generosity with which he mentored his undergraduate students. I first met Jonathan as a sophomore at the University of Pennsylvania, when I enrolled in his lecture course on the history of nineteenth-century Europe. Jonathan was a brilliant scholar. He was also one of the most popular professors at Penn. His graceful and sweeping lectures certainly sparked my decision to major in history, as no doubt was the case for many others. Much of this particular course centered on a comparative examination of the problems of state-building in nineteenth-century Europe. His focus on Italy and Germany was motivated by his enduring scholarly commitment to account for the rise of fascist and Nazi regimes in the 1920s and 1930s. While I did not realize it then, his engagement with these questions would leave an imprint on my own intellectual development, as I would go on to graduate school to pursue these themes in relation to Southern Europe and Latin America.
What made Jonathan such a popular professor among undergrads was his ability to make the past seem so relevant to the present. He made archival research exciting – even thrilling – as he shared with his students the stakes of historical inquiry. He walked us through, for example, the archival research that he had pulled together in the early 1990s to prepare his expert witness testimony for a trial for war crimes committed during World War II and shared with us his commissioned report on Deutsche Bank’s dealings in Nazi gold. Jonathan linked this probing into the past to present-day conversations over the possibilities for truth and reconciliation in the aftermath of war and genocide.
I came to know Jonathan as many students did—by dropping by his office in College Hall. I still recall my first visit. One assignment had asked us to read Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard and relate it to the Risorgimento and Italian unification. After reading my essay, he wrote a note on the paper to applaud its originality and to invite me to attend his office hours to discuss further how the character Angelica personified the political and class tensions at work. Jonathan was always approachable, as he took time to get to know me, asking about my family and what had brought me to Penn. Over the next three years, he encouraged me to pursue various research opportunities and internships, taking keen interest in my post-graduation plans. He served as the advisor for my honors thesis, which introduced me to the joys of archival research. While my own research interests were geographically far removed from his, he consistently showed an eagerness to learn from me about Portugal and Brazil. It was also Jonathan who encouraged me to pursue graduate study at the University of Cambridge. As a fellow of Trinity Hall, he was eager to share with me his favorite places and traditions. It was also Jonathan who introduced me to the Centre for History and Economics at Cambridge, encouraging me to apply to be a Prize Research Student during my MPhil study. As a first-generation college student, having Jonathan as a mentor made all the difference, as he offered unwavering confidence in my scholarship and guidance on navigating academia.
As I find myself back at Penn, now as an assistant professor in the very same department where I once studied with Jonathan, I can grasp from an entirely new vantage point what made him such an extraordinary teacher. He inspired with his intellectual range and his endless suggestions of books for students eager to learn more. But he always did so in a warm and approachable manner. Conversations with Jonathan were never one-sided, as he was eager to listen to his students, to learn from their reflections on a particular book or subject. He leaves me with an exceptional model for the type of mentor and teacher that I aspire to be.
I, like so many others, feel very grateful to have known and worked with Jonathan. I extend my deepest condolences to his partner Marion Kant, his family, and his friends. May it offer some comfort to hear how positively he impacted the lives of his students.
Melissa Teixeira, University of Pennsylvania
When I first joined the Cambridge History Faculty, Jonathan Steinberg was one of its most lively and critical members, with large interests in the writing and teaching of history in general as well as his special engagement with German and Swiss history. For these reasons, he was an ideal example of what the Centre was trying to do to expand the range of history and get beyond the departmental divisions between history and economics. Until he left for Penn, he was one of the most engaged and articulate members of the Centre Seminar at that time. His more recent absence through illness was greatly missed.
Gareth Stedman Jones, Centre for History and Economics
Christopher Clark, University of Cambridge
12 March 2021
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