David Cesarani was born in London on 13 November 1956 and educated at Latymer Upper School before going on to Queens’ College, Cambridge, to study history. This was followed by an MA in Jewish history at Columbia University in New York and a DPhil at St Antony’s College, Oxford.
Appointed Montague Burton fellow in Jewish studies at the University of Leeds (1983-86), Professor Cesarani went on to work at Queen Mary University of London (1986-89) and to serve as director of the Institute of Contemporary History and the Wiener Library in London for two separate periods (1992-95 and 1996-2000), broken by a year at the University of Manchester. He later became professor of modern Jewish history at the University of Southampton (2000-04) and then research professor of history at Royal Holloway, University of London until his death.
Bryan Cheyette, professor of English at the University of Reading, recalled Professor Cesarani as a man of “passionate intellect and wicked, twinkling, astringent humour” who once asked him at a party, “Don’t you want to know everything!?”, adding that “the disappointment in his voice at my lack of intellectual curiosity has stayed with me as an inspiration and a challenge for over three decades”.
In his early work, Professor Cheyette continued, Professor Cesarani was a leading figure among “the first professional Jewish historians in the UK [who] rejected conventional Anglo-Jewish historiography with its apologetic stress on ‘Jewish contributions to European civilization’ and untroubled acculturation”. His edited volume, The Making of Modern Anglo-Jewry (1990), was a landmark example of this trend.
At around the same time, Professor Cesarani became the researcher for the All-Party Parliamentary War Crimes Group (1987-91). This led to his book Justice Delayed: How Britain Became a Refuge for Nazi War Criminals (1992) and a shift towards wider issues of European history, which he explored in his acclaimed biographies Arthur Koestler: The Homeless Mind (1998) and Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (2004).
Alongside his books, extensive journalism and many outreach activities, Professor Cesarani was an active and highly effective campaigner for war crimes legislation, Holocaust education and many other causes. Professor Cheyette described him as an academic who “understood what it was to make an ‘impact’ before making an impact was turned into a metric nightmare” and as “par excellence, a public intellectual, which meant that his boundless talents were not confined merely to the academy”.
Professor Cesarani died after surgery to remove a tumour on 25 October and is survived by his wife Dawn Waterman, a son and a daughter.