Franz Baermann Steiner (1909-1952) was born in Prague and died in Oxford.
He was a social anthropologist, polymath, essayist, aphorist, and poet. He was familiar, apart from German, Yiddish, Czech, Greek and Latin, with both classical and modern Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, Armenian, Persian, Malay, English, French, Spanish, Italian, Russian, six other Slavic languages, Scandinavian languages and Dutch.
His paternal family hailed from Tachov in Western Bohemia and his father was a small retail businessman dealing in cloth and leather goods. His mother’s family was from Prague. Neither side practiced Judaism, and his father was an atheist, but Franz received elements of a religious education at school, and from occasional attendance at synagogues. In 1920 he entered the German State Gymnasium in Štepánská Street, Prague. He joined the Roter Studentenbund (Red Student Union) in 1926 and was attracted to Marxism early, a fascination that lasted until 1930, and also to political Zionism. In late 1928 he enrolled at the German University of Prague for coursework on Semitic languages, with a minor in ethnology, while pursuing as an external student courses in Siberian ethnology and Turkish studies at the Czech language Charles University of Prague. He studied Arabic abroad for a year, in 1930–31, at the Hebrew University in Palestine.
He obtained his doctorate in linguistics 1935 with a thesis on Arabic word formation (Studien zur arabischen Wurzelgeschichte, ‘Studies on the History of Arabic Roots’). He then moved to study at the University of Vienna to specialize in Arctic ethnology. With the rise of Nazi antisemitism, he became a refugee and moved to London in 1936, where it is reported he arrived with nothing more than the clothes on his back and a bag of books. He studied with Bronisław Malinowski at the London School of Economics. He returned to Prague in July 1937 and undertook field research on Roma communitiesfor several weeks during a trip in Carpathian Ruthenia, in eastern Czechoslovakia. In 1938, he shifted back to Oxford where he pursued his studies in anthropology, registering for a research degree in the Michaelmas term for 1939–40 on the subject of ‘A Comparative Study of the Forms of Slavery’ at Magdalen College, where Alfred Radcliffe-Brown held the chair of Social Anthropology. During his exile in England he became an intimate of Elias Canetti, to whom he had previously been introduced, in Vienna, by Hans Adler. Iris Murdoch, though she had met him briefly in 1941, fell in love with him in the summer of 1951.
The Holocaust claimed his parents, in Treblinka in 1942, together with most of his kin.
He was appointed Lecturer in Social Anthropology at Oxford in 1949, a position he held until his premature death three years later. The following year he acquired British citizenship. He is mainly known for his posthumous collection Taboo, composed of lectures he delivered on that subject.
He was a Fellow of Magdalen College. His closest friends included Iris Murdoch, Elias Canetti and Mary Douglas. He was a leading anthropologist in his day, famous for his posthumously edited book on Taboo (1956), which was later published as a Pelican Book (1967) and was a standard text for many years. He also wrote several incisive articles, such as Chagga Truth (1954), and Towards a Classification of Labour (1957).
Even more importantly, perhaps, Steiner was also a major poet. His verse was praised by fellow poets such as Gottfried Benn and Erich Fried and was published in two volumes by the German Academy of Language and Literature (1954 and 1964). The Academy also brought out a complete edition of his verse a few years ago (2000). His poem Prayer in the Garden, which was translated into English by Michael Hamburger, stands alongside Paul Celan’s Death Fugue as one of the great lyric meditations on the Holocaust.
His health in the last decade, due to stress and poverty, was always delicate. He suffered a nervous breakdown in 1946, and a coronary thrombosis in 1949. He died of a heart attack, while speaking to an acquaintance over the phone, in 1952, just after Iris Murdoch had accepted his proposal of marriage. She attributed his death to the effects of the Holocaust, remarking that ‘Franz was certainly one of Hitler’s victims’.
He died suddenly in Oxford on 27th November 1952 and is buried in the Jewish Section of Wolvercote Cemetery where his grave was without a memorial until an initiative by an international group of scholars raised funds and a memorial stone was placed almost 62 years after his death in October 2014. At the stonesetting a eulogy was read by the organiser of the group, Prof J Adler, and is available on the OJC website.
Steiner’s texts have been collected into two volumes by Jeremy Adler and Richard Fardon, Taboo, Truth, and Region. Selected Writings Volume I; and Orientpolitik, Value, and Civilization. Selected Writings Volume 2 (New York and Oxford: Berghahn Books, 1999).