Obituary: Sir Martin Gilbert PC, historian

Author of the definitive biography of Churchill and a meticulous Holocaust historian. Picture: AP
Author of the definitive biography of Churchill and a meticulous Holocaust historian. Picture: AP
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BORN: 25 October, 1936, in London. Died: 3 February, 2015, in London, aged 78.

Martin Gilbert was a historian of great authority whose eight-volume official biography of the life of Sir Winston Churchill is considered a definitive work. His eminence as a Churchill scholar was evidenced in 1971 when Churchill College, Cambridge, built a special air-conditioned extension to house Sir Winston’s papers. Gilbert, until his death, had sole access to these most private of papers.

His other major undertaking was the history of the Holocaust: his meticulous account of the horrors of the death camps was acclaimed for his voluminous research. He carefully wrote about the vast subject with a controlled dispassion, never letting his own commitment to Judaism cloud his judgement.

Martin John Gilbert’s grandparents had fled Tsarist Russian and settled in London, where his father was a jeweller. Initially Gilbert was evacuated to Canada, but on his return he attended Highgate School and did his national service in the Intelligence Corps. He went up to Magdalen College, Oxford, where he took a First in Modern History.

In 1960, Gilbert was appointed a senior research scholar at St Antony’s College, Oxford, becoming a Fellow two years later. In 1963, he co-wrote The Appeasers, in which he analysed the pressures on the UK government and those instrumental in making crucial decisions on foreign policy in the late 1930s. The authority of his writing was drawn to the attention of Randolph Churchill, who was then writing a biography of his father.

Randolph died in 1968 with only two volumes written. The publishers considered Gilbert the only historian able to tackle such a massive undertaking. It proved an inspired choice, and over the next two decades Gilbert delivered a peerless biography that is now considered a classic of its type.

His style was straightforward: Gilbert set out the facts with a scrupulous honesty and unearthed many lesser-known facts about Churchill’s life. He had the knack of interviewing everyone connected with the great man – from colleagues and statesmen to the people who served him throughout his career. From them, Gilbert was able to entice seemingly unimportant everyday information – from a gardener, a secretary or chef – that added up to a comprehensive portrait of his subject. It was also a delightfully personal one. Gilbert once said of writing the biography: “By the end I felt that Churchill had become, if not a friend, then certainly an acquaintance”.

The one-volume edition gave just as vivid a portrait and Gilbert was able to preserve many of those personal anecdotes and quote substantially from personal letters. Both versions provide a compelling picture of Churchill, who is revealed as a man of extraordinary courage, vision and imagination. When the final volume was published in 1968, one reviewer pointed out that “Gilbert’s great achievement is his ability never to lose sight of the individual in a history of mass war and mass suffering.”

In the two decades in which he worked on his Churchill books, Gilbert also liked to write on a variety of other subjects so that he could return to the biography with a renewed vigour. In fact he published over 80 other books related to near contemporary affairs: in The Second World War (1970) he analysed not only the tactics of the generals but researched the resistance movements and the social conditions pertaining in Europe after 1945.

Gilbert’s books examining the Holocaust and creation of Israel were fundamental works in retelling the story in minute detail. Indeed, in them the history of the Holocaust is captured almost on a daily basis. These books marked Gilbert out as one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on Jewish history.

In 2009, he was appointed to the Chilcott Inquiry into the role of the UK in the Iraq War. When Tony Blair appeared before the committee in 2011, he was questioned by Gilbert, who displayed a commanding grasp of the facts.

Gilbert had supported the war and some felt it was, therefore, inappropriate for him to sit on the inquiry. But his questions to Blair were gruelling and went to the underlying issues regarding the original need for the war and the issue of weapons of mass destruction. “Why,” Gilbert demanded succinctly, “were cabinet ministers not shown a paper detailing options for dealing with the Iraqi dictator?”

Gilbert, who was knighted in 1995, was a resolute accumulator of facts, his books a testament to his painstaking labours. He was an erudite man of much insight and a remarkable historian.

He is survived by his third wife, Esther Goldberg, whom he married in 2005; and by a daughter from his first marriage and two sons from his marriage to the historian Susie Sacher, which also ended in divorce.