Britain's most significant Holocaust historian, and Churchill's biographer
Sir Martin Gilbert died on February 3, almost exactly 50 years after Sir Winston Churchill, to whose official biography he had devoted most of his professional career. The historian’s untimely death coincided too with the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz. The most significant by far of British Holocaust historians, he and his third wife Esther showed personal respect, attention and affection for survivors of Nazi terror. Unfortunately, this contrasts with the surprising rudeness and dismissive contempt for them shown by some other professional writers on the Shoah.
Between 1967 and 1970, Martin and I were both research fellows at Merton College, Oxford. He became a particularly close friend who taught me about good cooking and much more. When I arrived at Merton, he was living in a college flat but had commissioned a young architect to build a modernist home on Hinksey Hill featuring a room overlooking the dreaming spires of the city with a huge desk for reviewing and comparing documents. He had won early celebrity with work on the appeasement of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. At the time, some of the main players, such as Sir Horace Wilson, were still alive and he had taken the then unusual step of interviewing them.
He was working part-time as one of several assistants to Randolph Churchill, who was writing his father’s biography. Martin was pessimistic about his own job prospects but was determined to avoid the grind of a conventional university post since he wished to devote himself to archival research and writing.
After the sudden death of Randolph, the journalist Michael Wolff was seen as his likely successor as official biographer. On the day of the fateful interviews with the Chartwell Trustees, who were to make the choice, Martin set out to convince them of his documentary talents by packing a suitcase of papers to show the interviewers. He got the job.
The blurred distinction between writing about history and being part of it was to affect Martin’s life. His researches into Appeasement and his work as a Churchill researcher brought him into constant contact with historical figures. Some of them became friends. As time went on, many (such as John Major) asked for his advice. After Susie Sacher, a member of the family which owned Marks and Spencer, became his research assistant and then his wife, he entered into another inner world, that of the Israeli elite.
The Yom Kippur war in 1973 was a key event. As a member of the Marks and Spencer clan, who had been the financial and moral mainstay of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann, he was completely trusted and was admitted to the Kirya, the headquarters of the Israeli defence forces. There, Martin witnessed at first hand the emotional pressures and the uncertainties of a battle for survival as serious as that faced by Churchill in 1940. He came, he saw, he chronicled.
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