Lionel Edmond Kochan

Lionel Kochan was born August 20 1922 into a family of Polish Jewish origin in Willesden, northwest London. His father was a Hatton Garden jeweller. After graduating in 1942 from Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and doing wartime service in the Intelligence Corps, he took his PhD at the London School of Economics, under Sir Charles Webster, professor of international history. He taught European history at Edinburgh University from 1959 to 1964, and then spent five years as reader in European studies at the University of East Anglia.

Lionel was an expert on central Europe and Russia. In 1964 he published his famously readable book The Making of Modern Russia and in 1967 he wrote Russia in Revolution, 1890-1918.

Controversially, he depicted the 1917 Bolshevik revolution as completing Russia's long-standing desire to modernise. Its early successes, he argued, owed much to extraneous events, like the peasants' revolt and policies that strayed from Marxist orthodoxy.

Once a devout Marxist, Kochan scrutinised communism with the intimacy of an insider. His later disillusion with Marxist verities was reflected in a healthy scepticism. His early books, Russia and the Weimar Republic (1954) and The Struggle for Germany 1914-45 (1963), grew directly out of his doctoral thesis.

Increasingly his interest turned to Jewish history, as his own devotion to Judaism grew. He began studying the Torah and Talmud - a far cry from his secular childhood.

On moving to Oxford in the 1970s, he and his wife, Miriam (they married in 1951), regularly attended Sabbath services at the community's Jericho Street synagogue. Without knowing Hebrew or the mooring posts of Jewish religious identity, he argued, any scholar of Jewish history would be as lost as a medieval European historian lacking Latin.

Kochan grew fascinated - some say obsessed - with the implications of the second commandment, the stricture on idolatry. In Jews, Idols and Messiahs: the Challenge from History (1990) and Beyond the Graven Image (1999), he wrestled with almost every conceivable aspect: theological, aesthetic, neurological, lexicographical, musical.

Blending his twin enthusiasms, Kochan edited The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917 (1970), which immediately became the definitive text in the field. The previous year, he had emerged as the ideal candidate to be the first Bearsted reader in Jewish history at Warwick University, a post he held until retirement in 1987. His review of Kristallnacht, Pogrom: November 10, 1938, published in 1957 at the invitation of the Weiner Library, in London, was justly praised as the first detailed analysis of the outrage.

Kochan later attacked the "Holocaust industry" by arguing that only experts should deal with a subject of such sensitivity. He opposed the institution of a Holocaust day, the idea of building a Holocaust museum in Britain and the notion of university departments of Holocaust studies. He felt that overt politicisation dishonoured the memory of the dead, and focusing solely on the Shoah risked obscuring the story of Jewish life in Europe before 1939.

Kochan resented the image of Jew as victim. Proud of his roots, he wanted his forebears to be remembered for succeeding against the odds.

Hence his final work, The Making of Western Jewry, 1600-1819 (2005), anatomises the extraordinarily varied experience of Jewry, from Livorno and London to Hamburg and Paris. While covering the phenomena of "court Jews", Hassidic rabbis and intermittent bouts of anti-semitism, it also addresses less familiar areas, rural Jewish life, secular communal leaders, the changing roles for women, the tensions between rich and poor, and the kehillah, or self-governing Jewish council.

Lionel was fluent in French, Russian, Hebrew and German. In retirement he became a research associate of Manchester University, the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies, and a visiting fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (1991-92).

He passed away in September 2005.