Zara Shakow Steiner was a distinguished historian of the Great Powers before both world wars and a popular tutor and fellow of New Hall (now Murray Edwards College), Cambridge.
Until her time, the arena of diplomatic history and war was overwhelmingly the preserve of male scholars, and the avalanche of writing during the 1950s and ’60s about the origins of the first world war or Hitler’s foreign policies, had done nothing to change that impression. The great figures in the field were men: Charles Webster, G P Gooch and Harold Temperley, John Wheeler-Bennett, Hugh Seton-Watson, AJP Taylor, Fritz Fischer and Pierre Renouvin.
It must have been with some bemusement, then, that the history faculty found a female fellow in the genre in their midst. Yet this young American of Jewish-Lithuanian heritage had unusually strong academic credentials: an undergraduate degree from Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania as well as two degrees from Oxford and a PhD in history from Harvard University all before she turned 30.
Zara Shakow was born on November 6, 1928, in New York. She married the rising literary critic George Steiner in 1955 and came with him to Cambridge in 1961 following his appointment at Churchill College. The couple had met at the suggestion of their former Harvard professors, who had a bet they would be married if they were ever to meet. They had a son, David, and a daughter, Deborah. George died on February 3, 10 days before his wife.
It was interesting, at least to outsiders, that neither academic was appointed to the faculty, although they steadily became among the most prominent Cambridge couples of their time. George made a name for himself in comparative European literature and critical studies, Zara in the history of British diplomacy and as a prolific reviewer, including for the Financial Times.
When her first substantial book in this field, The Foreign Office and Foreign Policy, 1898-1914, was published in 1969 it was recognised as a trailblazer, both in institutional history and in the foreign policy of prewar British diplomacy. A whole generation of younger historians was enthralled by the steady opening of the British Foreign Office and Cabinet records on the origins of the first world war, but this young American had made the first strike.
It was her 1977 synthesis, Britain and the Origins of the First World War, along with Volker Berghahn’s slightly earlier Germany and the Approach of War in 1914, that set the remarkably high standard for the whole Macmillan Studies in Modern History series that followed. The second edition of 2006, co-authored with Keith Neilson, is an impressive update and a teaching classic. By this stage, her knowledge of the history of the Foreign Office had attracted the attention of a coterie of former British ambassadors and officials, who became confidants, and helped advise her as she wrote and edited the massive The Times Survey of Foreign Ministries of the World.
Steiner cautiously agreed to write a tome for the Oxford History of Modern Europe, the only female author in that remarkable series which included Paul Schroeder’s daunting The Transformation of European Politics, 1763-1848 and AJP Taylor’s stunning, The Struggle for Mastery in Europe 1848-1918.
Just at this time, the archives for the interwar years opened up. It was so hard to keep up with it all that she and her editors made the tough choice to aim for a more comprehensive work, broken into two enormous volumes. The Lights that Failed, published in 2005, and The Triumph of the Dark (2011) together covered European history from 1919-1939. The reviewers reached for the appropriate adjectives: “magisterial” was the most common. Yet there had been times when she despaired of getting it done, showing visitors her writing room, overflowing with papers, articles, tagged books and copies.
There were lighter occasions, too, when the same visitors to Barrow Road would be brought in to tea or dinner with Zara and George, and to extraordinary debates on American politics, anti-Semitism, new book projects and research. Both at Cambridge, and in visiting professorships at Stanford, the LSE, and elsewhere, Zara was remarkable in encouraging younger women.
As her fame grew, the awards began to arrive. She was elected a fellow of the British Academy in 2007. Very late in the day, the International History Review realised that she was a grand historical resource herself, and asked her to write “Behind the Foreign Office Papers” for their February 2017 issue. If anyone had opened the curtains upon British diplomacy it was she.
The writer is Dilworth Professor of History at Yale, and author of works on British foreign policy and military history