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Martin Gilbert, 1936-2015

The passing of Sir Martin Gilbert at the age of 78 marked a sad milestone. He achieved popular acclaim as the official biographer of Winston Churchill, the man whose in-depth eight-volume biography served as the gold standard reference work about the greatest statesman of the twentieth century. He also was a prolific writer of Jewish history, an observer of world events, and an author of many atlases. He was an excellent researcher, with a keen eye to detail, who skillfully distilled complex issues into flowing narrative with popular appeal.

Gilbert took on the role of official historian of Churchill in 1968 after Churchill’s son Randolph died. Randolph began the official biography of his father, leading a team of researchers, which included Gilbert beginning in 1962. Randolph and his team wrote two volumes of the biography, and they were disjointed and not very well written. I once asked Gilbert why Randolph’s volumes were so lacking, and he said that Randolph had great ideas but wasn’t disciplined in his execution. Gilbert was, to say the least, more disciplined, and he executed Randolph’s plan very well.

Gilbert took over the effort and completed the final six volumes of the biography, completely transforming the work and greatly elevating the quality. These six books chronicled Churchill’s life in great, well-written detail, offering extensive information in a flowing narrative. This was no mean feat given Churchill’s long and epic life, during which he was involved in virtually every major British domestic and international issue, about which there are thousands of documents and books. The full biography was so thorough and rich in detail that it has served as the jumping-off point for virtually every serious scholarly study of Churchill.

Gilbert condensed the 8-volume biography into a 1,000-page one-volume work, and he continued and expanded upon Randolph’s idea of editing companion volumes of documents that supported the biography, with extremely informative footnotes. The companion volumes are a treasure trove for historians (and it costs a bit of treasure to purchase them). He authored derivative works, such as Churchill and America and Churchill and the Jews, but it was his comprehensive biography and edited volumes of supporting selected documents that are his greatest legacies.

Gilbert’s detractors, and they are mostly British, considered him a hagiographer. Of course, his job as official biographer was to unearth facts and present them in a sympathetic light in an appealing narrative, and he accomplished that exceptionally well. He also was criticized for simply presenting and not analyzing his material, and indeed he was more reliable chronicler than a probing scholar. But it was a chronicle for the ages.

A caring Jew and ardent Zionist, Gilbert was active in the Soviet Jewry movement during the Cold War, and wrote books about the Holocaust and Jewish and Zionist history. He also produced some excellent atlases on Israeli history and the Israel-Arab conflict. When I first met him about two decades ago, it was in Jerusalem. I recall walking down a street with him once and he was excited to see a plaque on a building he hadn’t noticed before. He loved detail, and Israel.

In my limited contact with Gilbert I sensed that it wasn’t always easy for him to be a Jew in his position. On the one hand, it was in a sense appropriate, since Jews in Britain and elsewhere were among Churchill’s most consistent supporters and admirers. Churchill was philo-Semitic and grew to become a leading Zionist, which caused him friction with Conservatives and Socialists alike. I recall Gilbert telling me that Randolph Churchill was also philo-Semitic. If memory serves, Gilbert said that Randolph had a penchant for hiring Jews as his researchers, and that he once hired an Indian, figuring he’d hire someone not Jewish for a change, but it turned out that man was Jewish as well! Still, in the half-century that Gilbert worked many in Britain weren’t sympathetic to Jews or Israel, and some were outright hostile to each, and I gathered that Gilbert felt his Jewishness wasn’t always well received.

Clearly, Gilbert’s legacy will far outlive his life. We are above all indebted to him for his excellent research and writing about Churchill, making accessible to anyone who cares to read detailed knowledge about the life and achievements of this monumental statesman, which is in itself a significant contribution to history and Western civilization.

Originally appeared in The Weekly Standard on February 5, 2015.