Underrated: Martin Gilbert

A tribute to a great historian, whose range of achievements dwarfs those of his academic critics

History Underrated

The Rt Hon Sir Martin Gilbert CBE is the official biographer of Winston Churchill, author of more than 80 books and collections of maps, Honorary Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, member of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, laureate of the $1 million Dan David prize for 2012, historian chosen to accompany both John Major and Gordon Brown on official visits to the Middle East. 

Underrated? Unfortunately, very much so in academe. Far from being sources of respect among university-based historians, his many honours seem only to intensify the disdain and neglect of his work by lesser scholars. As he lies impeded after a stroke, it is time to express gratitude for an immensely important life’s work which will have a lasting impact when the books, articles and conference papers of journeymen professors are forgotten. 

When he was a research fellow at Merton, his former tutor A.J.P. Taylor advised him to apply for lectureships at a number of universities. Fearing the fate of the anti-hero of Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim, and already well-known for his pioneering studies of appeasement in the 1930s, he determined to make his way as an independent, full-time researcher and writer. In 1968, Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill’s son and official biographer, suddenly died. As a younger colleague at Merton, I remember the day Gilbert prepared a suitcase of writings and documents to take to his interview with the former premier’s trustees. He was soon the new official biographer. An architect designed a home on Hinksey Hill, The Map House, to accommodate the many feet of desk space he required to set out Churchill’s documents. 

The Churchill connection brought the young Gilbert close to leading statesmen and also to Israeli affairs. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Randolph Churchill had telephoned Moshe Dayan to give strategic advice. Gilbert assisted with Randolph’s subsequent study of the Israeli victory. By 1973, he had another close link with the establishment of the Jewish state. His second wife was the daughter of Michael Sacher, of the family which founded Marks & Spencer and which had been among the main backers of Israel’s first president, Chaim Weizmann. The trust he enjoyed was demonstrated when Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist and Israeli general, took Gilbert into Israel’s command centre during the crisis of Egypt’s surprise attack which started the Yom Kippur War.

Though Gilbert was to write many books, it was the Holocaust that attracted his special attention. His book The Holocaust: A Jewish Tragedy stands, in my opinion, above any other produced by a British scholar. It was when I inquired why it was not included in a dense, 19-page bibliography of Oxford’s special-subject history course on Nazi Germany, that the underestimation by historians at his own university became clear. There was no substance in the work, nothing for students to discuss, I was told. After I mentioned the startling omission in the Jewish Chronicle, the book was eventually included.   

How is his underrating to be explained?  Gilbert has devoted his career to works of monumental proportions. Academics are too busy and too pressured to read. They prefer studies with introductions and conclusions which allow them to skip the rest. To score maximum points in the game of academic research assessments, works must present a thesis, quote amply from the writings of other historians, and express agreement or disagreement.  

Gilbert’s methodology of chronological narrative using a multiplicity of sources, derived from Winston Churchill himself, does implicitly put forward interpretations and is subject to bias. But it does not involve direct confrontations with rival historians. When he wrote Auschwitz and the Allies, Gilbert did not set out to discredit the doyen of Israeli Holocaust historians, Yehuda Bauer. But Gilbert’s account of the events of June 1944 differs considerably from Bauer’s. Gilbert’s writings on the Holocaust differ from many written by conventional historians in two other respects. He has apparently not relied on German sources of research funding. And he has shown endless kindness to survivors of the Nazi death camps, regard for their testimony, and willingness to advise and contribute to their memoirs. 

A great Jewish historian, he is quite separately a great English historian, a great cartographer and a fascinating lecturer. Apart from the huge achievement of the multi-volume Churchill biography and collection of documents, he has written major works on the First and Second World Wars as well as a three-volume History of the Twentieth Century. He has been entrusted with the most sensitive of secrets about the Iraq War. While the Queen is able to give advice to her ministers on the basis of her 60 years of experience, Gilbert has been summoned to give to successive prime ministers from Harold Wilson onwards the distillation of the wisdom of the past century. After all, the jealousy of the professoriat may not matter.