During the 1996 Churchill Tour of england, so superbly arranged by Barbara and richard langworth, we enjoyed a rapid-fire walking tour of Whitehall with Martin Gilbert. He had so many venues that we had almost to run to keep up! Unassuming as ever, he arrived carrying an tattered old wicker shopping bag. From this he produced notes for his history lesson, provocative and exciting, on what went on at each place. We began (above) at Horse Guards Parade, bordered by the Admiralty, where Asquith once said the lights would burn late into the night “as Winston brewed his plans.” It was hard not to smile as our teacher spoke, the kind-hearted, sweet, humble yet brilliant biographer of a titan, utterly nonchalant, with his shopping bag on his arm. Thank you, Martin, for being a wonderful historian, and so great a friend. —Jacqueline Dean Witter, Redwood City, Calif.
I pursued our author from one engagement to another, but it seemed he could write new books faster than I could get them signed.
After finishing the narrative volumes of the official biography, Martin Gilbert published a book about that Olympian task, In Search of Churchill. In a minor key, my own life paralleled his search for Churchill, since for many years I have doggedly pursued Sir Martin Gilbert.
I was brought to his work in the 1980s, around the same time I joined the International Churchill Society and learned about the annual conferences at which Sir Martin often spoke. Being in the U.S. Navy, the chances of attending seemed remote, but in 1991 the planets aligned and I was able to take a two-week leave that coincided with the U.S. conference in Richmond, Virginia. I flew in from Pearl Harbor (traveling the farthest, I think), bringing two Gilbert books to have signed. One was “Never Despair,” the last biographic volume, which I had finished at sea on a submarine, possibly a unique accomplishment.
I was excited finally to meet the author as he signed books at Richmond’s beautiful Jefferson Hotel, using a Lamy Safari fountain pen, his preferred instrument. He cheerfully signed my books; I couldn’t help noticing that others had brought stacks, yet he happily signed all. Read More >
It was Lady Diana Cooper who introduced Martin Gilbert to my grandfather and namesake. His brilliant life of the 17th Earl of Derby so impressed Sir Winston in 1959 that he had assigned Randolph to write his official biography.
I was born on 22 January 1965, some thirty-six hours before my great-grandfather died. As a child, one of the highlights of each year was our family Christmas at my parents’ farmhouse in Sussex. We were often joined by Clementine, and also by Peregrine Churchill (born Henry Winston, younger son of Churchill’s brother Jack) and his wife Yvonne. During mealtimes the discussion would turn to the “Great Work,” and inevitably the pace of progress! My father Winston regaled us with stories of how the biography began, with his father Randolph, gathering together the resources at his beautiful but chaotic Georgian house Stour, in East Bergholt, Suffolk. Many times at Stour, the house guests were provoked by Randolph who, fortified by scotch and claret, relished debate and argument. He sometimes found that by the time he awoke in the morning his guests had left. That option was not available to his team of young researchers, who grew up on a diet of Churchill excitement, debate and endless energy.
Stour became the nerve centre for Randolph’s team. Michael Wolff, formerly a journalist in the Beaverbrook empire, was Director of Research and Randolph’s righthand man, spending much of his time at Stour. Martin Gilbert, a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford soon joined the team of “Young Gentlemen,” as they were known. Eager to help, he fitted this obligation in amongst his many other projects. Always interested in maps (see “the Map-Maker,” page 15), he published several very successful atlases, and built a home at North Hinksey which he called “Map House.” The house was designed around one large room dominated by a desk extending wall to wall, where he carefully laid out the Churchill documents. He continued this practice wherever he worked (see “Cosmos out of Chaos,” page 28). Read More >
It was November. We were walking through a thick fog that seeped into our bones. Gunshots were heard…ah, of course, it was hunting season. We could not see anything but the narrow grass path in front of us that bisected a farmer’s field. We tried to walk without slipping off the edges into clods of mud. What lay ahead? Where were we going?
Martin knew. He had been to the Somme before. In preparation for our journey, he had collected material: excerpts from official reports, regimental histories, poetry by those who had been there, trench maps and his own maps to be fine-tuned, descriptions of life—and death— on the battlefield, gathered over decades and gleaned from his archives.
Each day we set forth with another fistful of papers to explore a different battle, a different vantage point, each poignantly marked by a memorial or cemetery. Our “marching orders” were held together with a black clip, separated day by day of our journey. Each day’s cluster of papers was always in Martin’s hand, so he could read aloud and describe what had happened on that very spot, noting the mileage and directions, the inscriptions and impressions. Martin had just written The Somme; we were there just to make sure everything was right before it went to press, and also doing a “reccy” in advance of a trip Martin was to lead with a group of friends. Read More >
When I met Martin Gilbert more than thirty years ago, I was clutching a track-paper printout of several hundred errata or omissions in Frederick Woods’s 1963 Churchill bibliography. Martin perused my dot-matrix text with an intensity that I came to know well, pointing out a couple of my errors. My indebtedness to him began small, but burgeoned over the subsequent decades. Our relationship was quickly cemented. Not surprisingly, bibliography remained central to our communications.
Over the next few years, given my day work in the production of motion pictures, part of our communication centred on the prospect of a documentary or mini-series on Churchill. But my business was feature film production, drama not documentary, and nothing came of that proposed collaboration. Martin did go on to write the four-part television series “The Complete Churchill” (1991), and to participate in many other Churchill-related documentaries. He even helped create a video for The Churchill Centre, sitting at the famous desk at Chartwell, explaining why Sir Winston matters.
We then concentrated on bibliographic issues, and in 1989 Martin kindly wrote to the British Library’s Department of Manuscripts to recommend my access, for what he then generously described as “a comprehensive bibliography on a scale not hitherto attempted.” Five years later, he similarly secured access for me to the Bodleian. In January 1995, having seen more of my text, he advised a potential publisher that the “work will be the basic reference tool for scholars, students, journalists and Churchill-buffs for the next century.” By the end of that year, he had agreed to write the foreword, which he produced promptly the following June. My progress was slower than hoped, and ultimately it was not needed until early 2006. Yet without complaint, Martin kindly drafted updated forewords in 2001, 2003 and 2006. Read More >
My first serious encounter with Martin Gilbert’s work was in 1995, when I secured an interview for the post of Archivist/Exhibitions Officer at the Churchill Archives Centre, one of a team working on the Churchill Papers, now secured for the British Nation, with the help of Heritage Lottery Funding. It was a daunting prospect, made worse by the fact that I had not read any 20th century history since university.
In preparation I first read Sir Martin’s classic, In Search of Churchill. It probably got me the job, so it is not surprising that it remains a personal favourite. Yet it is also very much an archivist’s text. For it describes how Sir Martin set about the huge task of tracking down and working through his primary source materials, tracing papers and conducting oral histories to create his own Churchill archive alongside the Churchill Papers.
Jump forward a decade and it was my great pleasure to be shown the Gilbert archive by Sir Martin himself. It occupied most of his house and overflowed into a nearby office. But there was no sign of chaos. Everything was neatly filed in ordered lever arch files, and arranged by theme. Here were his working files for the vital Companion Volumes, grouped by year, month, week and even day; photocopies of key documents brought together from assorted archives; transcripts and commentaries. Here too were his own correspondence files, arranged alphabetically by correspondent, with titles like “Jock Colville,” giving tantalising indications of the treasures they contained. It was immediately clear to me that Sir Martin was a natural cataloguer. Read More >
“I felt proud, as a Jew, to sit with them and talk to them.” —MG, The Jews of Hope
For many Russian Jews Sir Martin Gilbert remains first and foremost a champion for their right to emigrate and to join their people in Israel. In the 1970s and 1980s tens of thousands of Soviet Jews, called “Refuseniks,” were denied this basic right; those who insisted and fought for it were persecuted, even imprisoned. The State of Israel and a number of Western Jewish organizations and individuals supported their struggle. Among them, Martin Gilbert was outstanding.
He joined their cause in winter 1983, when he traveled to Moscow and Leningrad and met leaders and activists of the Soviet Jewish movement. Though Moscow airport authorities confiscated part of the materials he had gathered when he departed, Martin nevertheless wrote a moving report of his meetings, The Jews of Hope: The Plight of Soviet Jewry Today. The book had a tremendous effect: after reading it, many people in the free world joined the effort. By giving international publicity to his heroes, Martin did a lot to protect them from further persecutions.
But this was not all. Every person he met during his trip became a devoted pen-friend of Martin Gilbert. Despite the thousand and one other things he was working on, Martin kept in touch with letters and postcards, often sent registered with return receipts to confirm they had not been intercepted by the KGB. I personally received more than one hundred letters; some activists had twice as many. Out of respect to his friends Martin usually wrote in his own hand. But on 16 January 1985 his sixtieth letter to me arrived typewritten: “Dear Misha, forgive a typewritten letter, but my fingers are ‘worn to the bone’ with my Churchill writing.” Read More >
When I was sent to Israel to be the British Ambassador, I was acutely conscious that navigating the present would require understanding the past. History hangs heavy everywhere, but in Israel it has an immediacy that I have rarely known. I have been blessed to have in Martin a wonderful and learned guide who also became a friend.
He has been a remarkable source of advice. On one occasion before taking up my post, I wanted to be sure of my ground on the vexed issue of the British government turning Jews from Nazi-occupied Europe back from the Mandate of Palestine. In his unique way, combining humility with humour and extraordinary command of detail, he took me by the hand through this minefield.
He is a writer of huge breadth. I went to his books for the definitive overview of Israel’s history, and the story of Churchill’s relationship with the Jewish people. I have returned over and over to his atlases and essays.
I heard Martin’s distinctive speeches on numerous occasions, without grand flourishes or great cadences, keeping his audiences in rapt attention. He had an understated and diffident style which often left me feeling he was on the verge of running dry, only to answer every question with a great depth of knowledge and understanding. Read More >
Some years ago now, my younger brother visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, to record the names of my father’s family who had perished.
He found that they had already been recorded there as long ago as 1953 by one Leah Slonimsky, who was listed as living on a kibbutz by the Sea of Galilee. Months of research brought him into contact with her. He sent me her location a few days before I was leaving on a trip to Israel with my family.
Arriving at the kibbutz, we were directed to her apartment. Her family later told us that she had been extremely emotional over our visit. As this diminutive woman of 80 emerged through her door, she threw her arms around me and stood weeping on the steps for several minutes. Over refreshments, she unfolded to us the story of my family’s annihilation.
Leah had been a lifelong and very close friend of my Aunt Channah. In 1934, she immigrated to Israel from Ponavez, Lithuania, where my father’s family lived as her neighbors. After the war, she was told the story of their murders, and of her own family, by a survivor who had joined the partisans and had witnessed their deaths. Read More >
Among Holocaust historians Martin Gilbert stands out as perhaps the -most profoundly human. He has a deep understanding of what the Nazis set out to accomplish: the systematic extermination of the sanctity of person as affirmed in the millennial testimony of the Jewish people. Nazi ideologue Alfred Rosenberg said as much when he insisted that the German spirit was poisoned not merely by Jewish blood but by Judaism.1
What distinguishes Martin Gilbert’s histories of the Holocaust is that, far beyond recounting the events, they recover a trace of the human sanctity the Nazis targeted for annihilation. Two things provide him with that distinction: historical method and humanitarian outlook.
Some historians claim that when writing Holocaust history one must never use the diaries or the memoirs of the victims because they could not see the “big picture.” These chroniclers view history from an overarching God’s-eye perspective. If, for example, the killing units went into operation with the invasion of the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, it was, in part, because the situation in Europe was well in hand; if, however, a survivor recalls that in the Kovno Ghetto “before our eyes our children fell,” as Sir Martin relates,2 it is irrelevant to history. No one provides a more thoroughly researched view of history than Gilbert. Read More >
It is nearly half a century since I first met Martin and I have never forgotten his kindness and generosity all those years ago.
He was a Fellow of Merton College and the coauthor, with Richard Gott, of a much acclaimed book, The Appeasers. I was a humbler form of life, a postgraduate making precious little progress with a Ph.D. on British politics in the Second World War. Martin took me up, entertained me to lunch or dinner, inspired me with his own enthusiasm for research, and radiated a sense of delight in the study of history.
I see now that he was a bit of a misfit in the Oxford of the day, a stuffy old place in many respects, and that I was a bit of a misfit too. Both of us were pupils and admirers of a great maverick historian, A.J.P. Taylor, against whom there was much feeling in Oxford. It was mainly due to widespread jealousy of a historian who attracted packed student audiences to lectures at 9 am, gave brilliant talks without a note on television, and wrote for a popular newspaper, The Daily Express. Martin sometimes had a historical bone to pick with him, whereas I regarded him as infallible, but we were both devoted fans. Read More >
As the only standing bookshop in the world devoted to the writings of Winston Churchill, -Chartwell Booksellers has inextricably been interested in the writings of Martin Gilbert. This association has yielded a delightful dividend: unlike Sir Winston, Sir Martin could actually visit us. Many of his visits resulted in parties. The first was in December 1986 when we feted him on the publication of Road to Victory, the seventh volume in the official Churchill biography.
Martin’s humility and straightforward communicative eloquence, so evident on every page of the official biography, was manifest from the moment one met him. We toasted his achievement that evening with Pol Roger champagne and marveled at what lay ahead: Volume 8, and the end of his remarkable biographical journey.
Little more than a year later, I visited Martin at his then-home on Parliament Hill, near Hampstead Heath. He swept me inside with unexpected giddiness. “I’ve just finished it!” he announced, practically crowing: “The last chapter. Let me read it to you.” And he did. Read More >
Martin Gilbert has a respect for what used to be called “the general readership,” which, despite everything, does still exist.
“Chronology, chronology,” Martin Gilbert once said to me, “chronology is all: it’s the key to proper history-writing.” He is right, and for all that some fashionable modern theories of history like to play around with chronology, adopting thematic or determinist approaches, Martin’s theory is still by far the best one, and I suspect always will be. His insistence on telling the reader what happened next, with utter integrity, rather than trying to extrapolate political or philosophical theorems from events, allows a narrative to emerge that permits the reader to exercise his or her own judgment about the events described.
Martin’s history-writing is therefore directly in the tradition of the great historians of the past, people who trusted their readers rather than hoping to lecture, change, indoctrinate, or let alone mislead them. In that sense he is a far greater teacher than the likes of Eric Hobsbawm, E.H. Carr, André Deutsch, E.P. Thompson, Manning Clark, Christopher Hill, Howard Zinn and others whose representations of the past were driven by a desire to impose an overarching ideology, rather than simply telling their readers what actually happened. Perhaps for that very reason, Martin has never really been properly acknowledged by academia for what he undoubtedly is: one of our greatest living historians. Read More >
“An interesting young researching man,” Lady Diana Cooper described him to Randolph Churchill, “full of zeal to put history right.” Martin Gilbert in 1962, commencing what would be a life’s work.
Winston Churchill’s only son Randolph, the first author of the official biography, began what he called “The Great Work” in 1961, and on his twenty-fifth birthday, 25 October 1962, Martin Gilbert was hired as one of five assistants. The project began grandly. Setting out to write a record for the ages, Randolph insisted that the publishers produce document volumes to accompany the biographical narrative he was writing. This has proven to be, especially under Sir Martin, a task of immense scope. It is one thing, and no easy thing, to cite a document in the course of explaining its meaning in a narrative history, especially when that narrative is constructed almost entirely from these original sources. It is another thing to publish that document so that the reader may understand it independently of a surrounding narrative account.
This requires extensive indexing and annotation of a different kind. People and events must be, so far as possible, identified and explained. Moreover, one must select the documents to be included, as the total corpus is much too numerous and lengthy to publish in a book or a series of books, even if the books are large and even if there are many of them. The selection must be made on the grounds of relevance, explanatory power, and importance. The provenance of everything must be explained. This activity is a service to history in itself and a major portion, probably by far the largest portion in actual volume of work, of the task. Read More >
Newly Revamped Website Provides Ultimate Resource Guide to Works of Official Biographer of Sir Winston Churchill
The late Sir Martin Gilbert (1936–2015) passed away in February of this year. Since then his widow, Esther, has overseen the redesign of his official website in order to provide a lasting memorial to her husband that people can use to research the life and works of a truly prolific historian who did more than anyone else to document the life and times of Sir Winston Churchill. To visit the website, please CLICK HERE.
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