When British historian Martin Gilbert died earlier this year at the age of seventy-eight, the world lost one of its leading scholars and a man of exceptional integrity. Best known as the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, Gilbert wrote almost ninety books and became a renowned authority on the Second World War and the Holocaust. Beyond his extensive writings, he also found time to teach, lecture, advise governments, and champion human rights.
Gilbert’s early years were dramatic. Born in London in 1936, he was evacuated to Canada soon after World War II broke out. On his trip back to Europe, several years later, he boarded the Mauretania—then a troopship with American soldiers—and arrived in Liverpool shortly before D-Day. When Germany finally surrendered, Gilbert was in Britain to witness the emotional outpouring that marked the War’s end, which included huge celebrations, and bonfires filled with straw images of Hitler and Mussolini.
Those early experiences sparked Gilbert to chronicle the central events of the twentieth century and to recover the stories of people who lived through it—especially those who had suffered most.
Three qualities stood out about Gilbert’s writings, which set them apart from competing histories.
First, Gilbert’s works are fact driven—he steadfastly avoided the word “perhaps”—and thus free of the kind of speculation that have distorted so many history books. He never got caught up in fads and refused to take part in cheap campaigns. Eminently fair-minded, his views on the history of Jewish-Catholic relations were always nuanced. “I have never minimized the complicity of individual Christians, or the role of Christian anti-Semitism, or the betrayal of Christian rescuers by their fellow Christians,” he told me in an interview about the Holocaust. And yet, Gilbert wrote a book called The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, highlighting the life-saving efforts of many Catholics. He also was among the first major historians to repudiate the groundless attacks against Pius XII, and was so impressed with the growing evidence in Pius’s favor, that Gilbert concluded, “far from deserving obloquy,” the Pope “should be a candidate for Yad Vashem’s order of ‘Righteous Gentiles.’”
Second, Gilbert didn’t just write about famous people and epic events; he devoted special attention to the experience of common people. Even in writing the life of the legendary Churchill, said the New York Times, Gilbert “sought out the prime minister’s former secretaries, chauffeurs and other employees to lend the narrative a populist perspective.” Gilbert’s ability to combine the great with the small give his histories a symphonic, all-encompassing flavor. One never comes away feeling cheated reading them.
Third, in spite of the dark nature of the topics he covered—war, depression, racism, and genocide—Gilbert’s works always retain a spirit of hope, a faith in humanity’s ability to survive, and even overcome, the depths of radical evil. Nowhere is that theme better conveyed than in his work, The Boys: The Story of 732 Young Concentration Camp Survivors. The book tells the story of a group of Holocaust survivors, who, as teenagers, lost virtually everything they had during the War, but rebuilt their lives and went on to serve society in extraordinary ways.
Gilbert was knighted for his achievements in 1995, and henceforth became known as “Sir Martin.”
On a personal level, he was generous to aspiring scholars, and patient and unfailingly gracious to interviewers (as I can personally testify). He was a man of admirable political action as well. Gilbert often left the security of his study to join grass-roots movements. During the 1980’s he fought passionately for the rights of Soviet Jews to immigrate to Israel, writing an impressive biography of their leader, Anatoly Scharansky. Their ultimate success in reaching their homeland owes much to Gilbert’s personal efforts.
As the years passed, Gilbert devoted more attention to the state of Israel, not only because he was Jewish, but because he saw the country as having significance for everyone. He believed its very existence—and emergence, after the Holocaust—was something close to a miracle; and saw its endurance as symbolic of any community’s struggle to maintain a vibrant presence in a dangerous and unpredictable world.
Gilbert did not hesitate to criticize political leaders in the Middle East—or anywhere else—whom he thought lacked a spirit of empathy and tolerance for others. Sir Martin also became more religious toward the end of his life, attending an Orthodox synagogue in London.
At a time when Israel is isolated and anti-Semitism is again on the march, and when so many other communities are under threat, Sir Martin’s life is a reminder that defeat is not inevitable, that evil need not triumph, and that hope can still bear witness to what’s sacred in this life—even as we await for God’s perfect love and justice in the next.
William Doino Jr. is a contributor to Inside the Vatican magazine, among many other publications, and writes often about religion, history and politics. He contributed an extensive bibliography of works on Pius XII to The Pius War: Responses to the Critics of Pius XII. His previous articles can be found here.