Jonathan Steinberg

Jonathan Steinberg teaches at the University of Pennsylvania. His biography of Bismarck came out in 2011.

I knew who Harry Kessler was of course, ‘the red count’, the Junker aristocrat who supported the Weimar Republic, and wrote a diary which I used in my seminars. Well, it turns out he wasn’t a Junker; indeed, it’s hard to say what he actually was. Imagine somebody who was at once an English public school boy, a French-born art critic and a Prussian guards officer. Then...

Princely Pride: Emperor Frederick III

Jonathan Steinberg, 10 May 2012

On 18 October 1881, Crown Prince Frederick William of Germany and Prussia marked his 50th birthday with a gloomy entry in his diary. He had been waiting to succeed to the throne for twenty years and his indomitable father refused to do the decent thing. At 84, the old man simply would not die. Worse, his ‘over-mighty subject’ Otto von Bismarck, in spite of constant illness and...

One Per Cent: The House of Rothschild

Jonathan Steinberg, 28 October 1999

On 25 November 1882, Iolanthe; or, The Peer and the Peri was performed for the first time at the Savoy Theatre. In Act II, a restless Lord Chancellor, troubled by lovesickness rather than the expense of his furnishings, cannot sleep. As he wanders through his lodgings, he sings the famous ‘Nightmare Song’. One of the elements of the nightmare is what would now be called a venture capital scheme – to plant retailers as vegetables to get their goods to sprout:’‘

Capos and Cardinals

Jonathan Steinberg, 17 August 1989

‘So you think it comes from the Arabic?’ says the first character.


Jonathan Steinberg, 18 December 1986

On 20 July 1943 the Polish artist Jonasz Stern was executed along with hundreds of other Jews of the Lwow ghetto by SS machchine-gun fire. He awoke from a faint to find himself alive, buried under the corpses of the entire neighbourhood, covered in other people’s blood and excrement, the only survivor on Janowski Street. Two of the books reviewed here are about survivors, people who turned right instead of left, ran instead of lingering or lingered instead of running, those who met kindly Polish peasants or had ‘good faces’ – did not look Jewish, that is to say – individuals who survived, crazily, randomly, inexplicably, when everybody else, not just their families but neighbours, associates at work, team-mates, local shopkeepers, their whole world, was murdered.’

The Art of Denis Mack Smith

Jonathan Steinberg, 23 May 1985

There are not many historians who matter. Not many whose works have changed the way people see themselves. Of that little list, there is an even smaller number whose works have mattered to those in another society. The obscure American naval captain Alfred Thayer Mahan was one. His Strategy of Sea Power, published in 1890, had earned him honorary degrees in Oxford and Cambridge by 1893: Mahan told an anxious British public what it most wanted to hear about its navy. Denis Mack Smith is another. His Cavour and Garibaldi, published in 1954, told many Italians what they did not want to hear, but told them at a special point in their history when they had no choice but to listen. Denis Mack Smith became and has remained one of the most important historians of Italy. His confrontations with Renzo De Felice over their respective interpretations of Mussolini have taken place before huge audiences of Italian television watchers and his books are widely available everywhere in Italy. Readers of history in this country now have an unusual chance to get to know Mack Smith’s work at its very best. Weidenfeld and Nicolson published his new biography of Cavour a few weeks before the Cambridge University Press reissued Cavour and Garibaldi. The English-speaking reader has the first full-scale biography of Cavour for more than fifty years to compare with the book that made Mack Smith famous in Italy.

Diary: My Jolly Corner

Jonathan Steinberg, 17 May 1984

I was sitting on the uptown express on what used to be called the Lexington Avenue Line, and now has some alien number assigned to it by the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority, when a great truth (you get a lot for your 90 cents on the subway) was revealed to me. The truth came in a remark made by Heinrich von Kleist: ‘One could divide people into two classes, those who understand themselves by metaphor, and those who understand themselves by formula. Those who understand themselves by both are too few to make up a class.’ Suddenly I understood not only what I was doing there and why, but also what I had been doing for years. I belonged, of course, to the metaphor people and Kleist had made me see that mine was Henry James’s ‘The Jolly Corner’. This is the story of Spencer Brydon, in his mid-fifties, who has spent 33 years abroad enjoying ‘the freedom of a wanderer, overlaid by pleasure, by infidelity’, running away from ‘the ugly things of his faraway youth’. The death of his two brothers had left him heir of two New York properties and he has come ‘home’ to attend to them, ‘or, expressing it less sordidly, he had yielded to the humour of seeing again his house on the jolly corner, as he usually and, quite fondly, described it, the one in which he had first seen the light.’

Rug Time

Jonathan Steinberg, 20 October 1983

Seymour Hersh belongs to that small group of American newspaper reporters who made national reputations during the Vietnam War and Watergate. He won a Pultizer Prize in 1970 for his exposure of the My Lai massacre. He exposed the secret bombing of Cambodia and the role of the CIA in toppling the Allende regime in Chile. He tracked down evidence of CIA spying within the United States and exposed it. Investigation and exposure are his trade, and he does it thoroughly. For years he worked for the New York Times, whose motto is ‘All the news that’s fit to print’, and when the Times says ‘all’, it means all.

Italy’s Communists

Jonathan Steinberg, 21 July 1983

‘1983 is the most important election since the war,’ said my Italian friend, a sociologist, exultantly. ‘After nearly forty years everything is in flux.’ I had rung him the day after the election. He could hardly speak for excitement. The country was stunned. The results had completely flattened the opinion polls, which has been caught with their predictions down. They had not foreseen the landslide of voters leaving the ‘party of relative majority’, as the Christian Democrats tend to be called.

This Modern Mafia

Jonathan Steinberg, 7 October 1982

A Calabrian who now lives in Rome told me a revealing story about the Mafia. An uncle, aged 90, rang up from the ancestral village absolutely furious. ‘Do you know, Vincenzo,’ he spluttered, ‘they actually threatened me?’ There is more than a casual connection between the insulted old gentleman and the murdered General Dalla Chiesa. Both are signs that the old Mafia is gone, a Mafia which, no matter how brutal and violent, knew its betters. The traditional mafioso treated the galantuomo, the signore, the man in the white suit who sipped his coffee in the piazza at night, with the guarded deference of a peasant before his lord and he never murdered policemen unless it was absolutely necessary.

I could bite the table: Bismarck

Christopher Clark, 31 March 2011

In the autumn of 1862, the Kingdom of Prussia was paralysed by a constitutional crisis. Wilhelm I and his military advisers wanted to expand and improve the army. The liberal-dominated Prussian...

Read More

Something good

H. Stuart Hughes, 13 September 1990

In the late summer of 1942 a small group of Italian diplomats and senior officers decided to save the lives of a few thousand Jews. The Jews, mostly from Croatia, had fled to the parts of...

Read More

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences