Early in my career in Jewish journalism, I was working on a column about the ideological considerations of interwar Zionists’ appeals to Western leaders. Winston Churchill obviously figured in this story, and so I knew immediately the best person to reach out to for input: Martin Gilbert. His response to that inquiry always stuck with me, and it’s only added to the sadness of the news today that Gilbert has passed away.
I emailed Gilbert my question. He responded with a warm note and emailed me a digital copy of a page of his manuscript for his book Churchill and the Jews. The book was already published (indeed it was already in paperback), so he could have referred me to the book. Had he wanted to be even more helpful, he could have given me a page number. But he sent me the page from the manuscript that he thought might be of the most help to my column in part because the page had his own notes on it. He was giving me not just the finished copy, but the thought process that led to it.
A few things struck me about the exchange. The first was that Sir Martin Gilbert, Churchill’s official biographer, had essentially volunteered to do my research for me. The second was that I had never met nor spoken to Gilbert before that, so it wasn’t as though he was taking this effort for a friend. Then I realized just how generous he must be with actual friends and colleagues.
But far more important for Gilbert’s legacy was what it said about his approach to historiography. Martin Gilbert had a rare combination of intellectual ambition and personal humility. On an issue related to Winston Churchill and also to the events leading up the founding of the State of Israel–two monumental subjects of the 20th century–there was absolutely no question that Gilbert was the man to ask. That is an accomplishment in itself.
It was made more impressive by the fact that Gilbert was very good at his job. Anyone seeking to understand the 20th century simply couldn’t avoid relying to varying degrees on the path Gilbert set. For example, among just the books currently sitting on my desk next to me are Gilbert’s one-volume biography of Churchill, his history of Israel, his history of the 20th century (another anthology that was also released as a single-volume edition), and two volumes he edited: one of Churchill’s speeches and writings, and the other a historical atlas of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Gilbert wrote a history of the Holocaust, a modern history of Jerusalem, and a history of the Jews living under Islamic rule, and he was the editor of Churchill’s papers. The higher the mountain, in other words, the more eager Gilbert was to climb it.
Gilbert’s books also had defining characteristics. For one, his books eschew the Western trend of self-flagellation while still remaining fully faithful to the historical record. They don’t drown in guilt and don’t whitewash either. For another, Gilbert’s humility found its way into his books.
One example of this is in his introduction to the Churchill biography. The great man lived a well chronicled life, and anyone writing a book on Churchill faces a similar question asked of American historians seeking to write about Abe Lincoln: What could you possibly add to the historical record?
For Gilbert, this was less of a problem because he had begun his work early on, while Churchill was still alive. He had less of a need, at least at the outset, to self-consciously distinguish himself. It was those who followed the path he cleared who had to do so. But he also made it clear that he took his job to be a historian first and foremost and thus he did not pretend to know his subject better than his subject knew himself. Gilbert allowed Sir Winston’s voice to remain more prominent than his own:
The record of Churchill’s life is a particularly full one, for which a vast mass of contemporary material survives. It is therefore possible, for almost every incident in which he was involved, to present his own words and arguments, his thinking, his true intentions, and his precise actions.
It may seem downright radical in this age of revisionism and reinterpretation, but Gilbert’s history was living history, not a lecture.
He was also willing to learn from his fellow historians. In reviewing Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s The Holocaust and the Historians for COMMENTARY in 1981, Gilbert opens with self-criticism. He notes that he had recently leafed through a new British biography of Hitler and was aghast at the shabby treatment of the Holocaust within its pages. But he said and did nothing else; he moved on. “Lucy S. Dawidowicz’s new book shows me how wrong it is to remain silent,” he writes, scolding himself for shirking a historian’s duty.
In reviewing Paul Johnson’s History of the Jews for COMMENTARY six years later, Gilbert treats his fellow historian’s work as a necessary corrective to the narrow lens through which many historians, himself included, view Jewish history. He writes that “what we now call the Holocaust has scarred, and will continue to scar, the Jewish consciousness, and will do so to such an extent that many students of universal Jewish themes, myself included, have already neglected, and will go on neglecting, the wider historical and cultural spheres for this one. It is for that reason as much as any that Paul Johnson’s new book is to be welcomed.”
This humility and sense of personal responsibility permeates Gilbert’s staggeringly accomplished career, and is one of the many reasons he will be sorrowfully missed and justly celebrated.