Zbynek Zeman, 1928-2011

July 21, 2011

Zbynek Zeman was a Czech scholar who "became very English" without ever forgetting his European roots, and who retained a lifelong passion for communicating the history of central Europe to an English-speaking audience.

Born in Prague in 1928, Professor Zeman fled from Czechoslovakia after the communist coup d'état of 1948.

There was a rumour - never confirmed - that Professor Zeman, an accomplished skier, escaped the country by skiing across the border.

He went to the University of London, where he was able to complete the undergraduate degree he had begun at Charles University in Prague, before studying for a doctorate in history at the University of Oxford.

Professor Zeman worked as part of a team editing documents captured from the German Foreign Ministry and then returned to Oxford in 1958 as a research Fellow at St Antony's College. Over the next two decades, he worked at the universities of St Andrews and Lancaster.

In the 1970s, Professor Zeman also worked with the charity Amnesty International, and was instrumental to the establishment of a research department at the organisation.

His involvement with Amnesty was spurred by his experiences during a short spell in Czechoslovakia at the time of the Prague Spring of 1968. A return to Oxford in 1982 saw him appointed research professor and professorial Fellow of St Edmund Hall.

After the Velvet Revolution of 1989, Professor Zeman returned to Prague and divided his time between Oxford and Charles University, where he was visiting professor of history, until his retirement in 1996.

Professor Zeman was committed to highlighting the history of central Europe throughout his career. He was particularly noted for his work on the decline and split of the Habsburg Empire, but he also wrote on a number of other topics, including Nazi propaganda, biographies of notable Czech figures and his own eyewitness account of the Prague Spring.

Mark Cornwall, professor of modern European history at the University of Southampton, worked for him as a research Fellow at Oxford between 1986 and 1991 and remembered Professor Zeman as a congenial but independent scholar who played "a mean game" of squash and was generous with his time - and his whisky.

"He had a great sense of humour and he facilitated many careers, including my own," Professor Cornwall said. "In my own career he taught me to be questioning and inquisitive. He pushed literature at you and made you think outside the box. He encouraged people to look in all directions."

Professor Zeman died on 22 June. He is survived by his wife and by three children from his first marriage.


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