Tuesday 12 December 2017

Obituary: Martin Gilbert - Churchill biographer

Scholar noted for his meticulous biography of Churchill and his examination of the Holocaust

Martin Gilbert, Churchill Biographer
Martin Gilbert, Churchill Biographer

Martin Gilbert, who died on February 3 aged 78, was a historian of authority and meticulous scholarship, whose output was dominated by his official biography of Winston Churchill: six narrative volumes, 11 companion books of source material, a 981-page popular precis and 13 spin-offs.

Equally authoritative as a historian of Judaism, the Holocaust and the sweep of the 20th century, Gilbert was renowned for his ability to ferret out precisely what had happened, though some critics felt he paid too little attention to the "why".

A committed Zionist and a proudly observant Jew, Gilbert's writings about the travails of his people drew their force - to the annoyance of some co-religionists - from the enormity of the facts rather than an emotional involvement. Writing in support of Jewish "refuseniks" in the Soviet Union, however, he let his feelings go.

Gilbert was an Oxford graduate student when, in 1962, Churchill's son Randolph - commissioned to write the biography - engaged him as a researcher. Randolph had delivered only the first two volumes (an immense task in itself) when he died in 1968, leaving Gilbert £250.

He undertook to complete the outstanding six volumes for a flat fee of £80,000 - out of which he would finance research - instead of royalties. By the time the final volume of the main series appeared in 1988, the project had taken Gilbert 26 years and generated nine million words over 25,000 pages. The precis, Churchill: A Life, appeared in 1991, and the most recent companion volume, covering the year 1942, in 2014. Six more were originally planned.

Gilbert's first narrative volume, Winston S Churchill: Volume Three: The Challenge of War, 1914-1916, appeared in 1971. The reviews were enthusiastic, Michael Foot declaring: "Whoever made the decision to make Martin Gilbert Churchill's biographer deserves a vote of thanks from the nation. Nothing less would suffice."

Maj-Gen Edward Spears wrote of the same volume: "From its pages emerges a living Churchill who towers above his fellow politicians and whose courage is that of a paladin whom nothing can dismay, yet whose fundamental tenderness peeps out in the letters to his wife."

Research for that single volume (on which Randolph had started him in 1963) took Gilbert from Flanders to Turkey. His inquiries were exhaustive.

Gilbert's non-judgemental portrayal of Churchill led to disputes with other historians. His thoroughness, too, aroused comment, notably when he ascertained from a 1930s laundry list that Churchill had paid a hitherto unknown visit to Beirut. Not content with editing all Churchill's correspondence in parallel, he even compiled brief biographies of every one of the hundreds of people mentioned in the text.

In 1971 Churchill College, Cambridge, built a special air-conditioned home for Churchill's papers, to which Gilbert had sole access. When, in 1995, the Heritage Lottery Fund purchased them from Churchill's grandson to keep them in Britain, Gilbert welcomed the step.

Alongside Gilbert's other output - he wrote some 90 books in all - further instalments of the Churchill biography appeared at regular intervals.

Martin John Gilbert was born in London on October 25, 1936, the son of Peter Gilbert, a jeweller, and his wife Marian. All his grandparents were born in Tsarist Russia. Nine months after war broke out, he was evacuated to Canada. Vivid memories of the crossing from Liverpool to Quebec sparked his later interest in the war.

After returning to Britain he attended Highgate School, where he was taught history by the Balkan expert Alan Palmer, and politics by the redoubtable Fabian TN Fox. After national service with the Intelligence Corps he went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, taking a First in Modern History; one of his tutors was AJP Taylor.

In 1960 Gilbert was appointed a senior research scholar at St Antony's College, Oxford, and two years later Merton made him a Fellow. He was already assisting Randolph Churchill when his first book was published, in 1963: this was The Appeasers. The Roots of Appeasement, casting its net wider, followed three years later. To Gilbert, the villain of the piece was Horace Wilson, the government's chief industrial adviser and Chamberlain's emissary to Hitler.

Gilbert attracted criticism for the way he presented the case against Stanley Baldwin, Neville Chamberlain and RA Butler; decades later, he would say that a lifetime of research had shown them to be even more culpable.

Without lessening his academic rigour, Gilbert found time to be the recent history correspondent for the Sunday Times, help research the BBC's British Empire series (1968) and look through the draft of Harold Wilson's book on the 1964-70 Labour government.

"Sir Harold asked for comment," said Gilbert. "I've never known anybody quite so receptive to suggestion." He declined an invitation to be Anthony Eden's official biographer.

Gilbert's interest in Jewish history first showed in his Jewish History Atlas (1969), and his first major work was The Emergence of Jewish Statehood (1978). While researching his Atlas of the Holocaust (1982), he found a distant cousin in a Polish village who had been hidden from the Nazis in Warsaw as a child - and was now one of 50 Jews where there had been 30,000.

He took up the cause of the refuseniks with passion, writing the biography Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time (1986) and appearing before the UN Commission on Human Rights, where he clashed with Soviet delegates over the Kremlin's refusal to let them leave.

John Major brought Gilbert to Downing Street as an adviser and "court chronicler", and he helped to draft several speeches, also telling Tory rebels that Major was "a doughty fighter and a successful negotiator in a world where leadership counts".

He was a member of the prime minister's delegation to Israel - advising on the history of the Holocaust - and to Jordan, and sat in on Major's talks with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Major confessed: "I do not know what I would have done without Martin Gilbert to keep me briefed on the Middle East." In Washington with Major in 1995, he charted the progress of the "special relationship" after friction with the Clinton administration.

In 2009 Gilbert was appointed to John Chilcot's inquiry into the Iraq War and made a Privy Counsellor to give him full access to the evidence.

Several MPs criticised the choice because Gilbert had once compared George W Bush and Tony Blair to Roosevelt and Churchill, but he proved a meticulous questioner of Blair about his motives and decisions.

Gilbert also advised on the script of the Oscar-winning documentary Genocide (1982). Over the years he held visiting professorships and fellowships at universities around the world. In 2002 President Bush invited him to lecture at the White House.

In 1999 Oxford University conferred on Gilbert an honorary DLitt for "the totality of his work". Churchill College made him an honorary fellow in 2008, and since 1978 he had been a governor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

He was appointed CBE in 1990 and knighted in 1995.

Martin Gilbert married first, in 1963, Helen Robinson, with whom he had a daughter. In 1974 he married Susan Sacher, great-granddaughter of Simon Marks, the founder of Marks & Spencer; they had two sons.

In 2005 he married, thirdly, the Holocaust historian Esther Poznansky.

Sunday Independent

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