Memories Of Sir Martin Gilbert

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Sir Martin Gilbert (1936-2015)

Sir Martin Gilbert has died at seventy eight. He was one of the leading historians of his generation and perhaps the most prolific British historian of his time. I had the pleasure of working with him on a BBC1 series which included a programme he wrote and presented on Churchill.  He was a warm and kind man, totally immersed in his subject and completely professional. 

Born in London in 1936, Martin Gilbert belonged to an extraordinary generation of British historians including Norman Davies, Quentin Skinner, Norman Stone and Ian Kershaw, among many others. He studied history at Magdalen College, Oxford where he was taught by AJP Taylor, then perhaps the best-known modern historian in Britain. 

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Like Taylor, Gilbert was drawn to great subjects which he discussed in an always clear and accessible style. Still a postgraduate at Oxford, Gilbert was approached by Randolph Churchill to assist with his biography of his father, Sir Winston Churchill. He worked with Randolph on the first two volumes of the biography and after Randolph’s death in 1968, Gilbert completed the remaining six volumes on his own over the next twenty years. The biography, including supporting volumes of documents, comes to 24 volumes (over 25,000 pages). It was completed in 1988, after more than 25 years. In addition to the biography, Gilbert also wrote and edited another fifteen books on Churchill.

This alone would have been a lifetime’s achievement but Gilbert wrote and edited over forty more works: biographies, historical atlases, a number of works on 20th century history and both World Wars and a number of books on Jewish history. Perhaps his best-known works are a polemical book about the policy of Appeasement in the 1930s, The Appeasers (co-written with Richard Gott, 1965), Auschwitz and the Allies (1981), an account of the failure of the Allies to disrupt the killing machine at Auschwitz, a three-volume history of the 20th century and a one-volume history, The Holocaust (1986). His final book was In Ishmael’s House: A History of the Jews in Muslim Lands, published in 2010. 

Gilbert’s work had three central planks: Churchill, of course, the 20th century and Jewish history, including eight works on the Holocaust, and a number of books on Israel and the history of the Jewish people. On Israel Sir Martin said: “It is the country I have lived in, taught in, played in, seen my children grow up in — and hold in the highest esteem, for all its faults, which are in my view far outweighed by its virtues.”

Gilbert was not the most fashionable historian. Though he did write one or two polemical works, he was never as provocative as his mentor, AJP Taylor, and he was not on the academic Left.  Nor was he a great stylist like Simon Schama. However, he was drawn to the great historical subjects of his time and though a passionate champion of archival research, his view stretched far beyond the ivory tower. His view of history was humane, books about great subjects for ordinary readers. 

Martin Gilbert once wrote, “My aim has always been to write history from the human perspective, never to neglect the person known as “the common man” – whether man or woman, or child, and to remember that when Winston Churchill was asked him why the Twentieth Century was called the century of the common man, he replied: ‘It is called the century of the common man because in it the common man has suffered most.’”

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