Martin Gilbert

For other people named Martin Gilbert, see Martin Gilbert (disambiguation).
The Right Honourable
Sir Martin Gilbert

Gilbert being awarded Hon. Doctor at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, Israel, 2011
Born Martin John Gilbert
(1936-10-25)25 October 1936
London, United Kingdom
Died 3 February 2015(2015-02-03) (aged 78)
London, United Kingdom
Nationality British
Education Highgate School
Alma mater Magdalen College, Oxford
St Antony's College, Oxford.
Occupation Historian, author
Known for Winston Churchill's official biography
Twentieth century history
Jewish history

Sir Martin Gilbert, CBE, FRSL (25 October 1936 – 3 February 2015)[1] was a British historian and honorary Fellow of Merton College, University of Oxford. He was the author of eighty-eight books, including works on Winston Churchill, the 20th century, and Jewish history. He was a member of the Chilcot Inquiry into the UK's role in the Iraq War.

Early life

Gilbert was born in London to Peter and Miriam Gilbert;[2] all four of his grandparents had been born in Tsarist Russia.[3] Nine months after the outbreak of World War II , he was evacuated to Canada as part of the British efforts to safeguard children. Vivid memories of the transatlantic crossing from Liverpool to Quebec sparked his curiosity about the war in later years.[1]

After the war, Gilbert attended Highgate School, where he was taught history by the Balkan expert Alan Palmer, and politics by T N Fox.[3] He then completed two years of National Service in the Intelligence Corps before going on to study at Magdalen College, Oxford. Gilbert graduated in 1960 with a first-class BA in modern history.[2] One of his tutors at Oxford was A.J.P. Taylor. After his graduation, Gilbert undertook postgraduate research at St Antony's College, Oxford.


Historian and author

After two years of postgraduate work, Gilbert was approached by Randolph Churchill to assist his work on a biography of his father, Sir Winston Churchill. That same year, 1962, Gilbert was made a Fellow of Merton College, Oxford. He spent the next few years combining his own research projects in Oxford with being part of Randolph's research team in Suffolk, who were working on the first two volumes of the Churchill biography. When Randolph died in 1968, Gilbert was commissioned to take over the task, completing the remaining six main volumes of the biography.[4]

Gilbert spent the next 20 years on the Churchill project, publishing a number of other books throughout the time. Each main volume of the biography is accompanied by two or three volumes of documents, and so the biography currently runs to 26 volumes (over 25,000 pages), with another 7 document volumes still planned. Michael Foot, reviewing a volume of Gilbert's biography of Churchill in the New Statesman in 1971, praised his meticulous scholarship and wrote: "Whoever made the decision to make Martin Gilbert Churchill's biographer deserves a vote of thanks from the nation. Nothing less would suffice."

In the 1960s, Gilbert compiled some historical atlases. His other major works include a definitive single-volume history on the Holocaust, as well as the single-volume histories The First World War and The Second World War. He also wrote a three-volume series called A History of the Twentieth Century. Gilbert described himself as an "archival historian" who made extensive use of primary sources in his work.[4] Interviewed by the BBC on the subject of Holocaust research, Gilbert said he believes that the "tireless gathering of facts will ultimately consign Holocaust deniers to history."[5]

By the 1980s Gilbert's academic attention had also turned towards the Refusenik movement in the Soviet Union.[6] Gilbert authored Jews of Hope: The Plight of Soviet Jewry Today (1984) and Shcharansky: Hero of Our Time (1986), and he presented on behalf of the Soviet Jewry Movement in a variety of contexts, ranging from large forums such as formal representation before the United Nations Commission on Human Rights [7] to smaller forums such as an educational slideshow for the general public on behalf of the Soviet Jewry Information Centre.[8]

In 1995, Gilbert retired as a Fellow of Merton College but was made an Honorary Fellow. In 1999[9] he was awarded the D.Litt. degree by Oxford "for the totality of his published work".[10] In 2000 he received the Guardian of Zion Award from the Ingeborg Rennert Center for Jerusalem Studies at Bar-Ilan University. From 2002, he was a Distinguished Fellow of Hillsdale College, Michigan, and between 2006 and 2007 he was a Professor in the History department at the University of Western Ontario. In October 2008, he was elected to an Honorary Fellowship at Churchill College.

Public service

Gilbert was appointed in June 2009 as a member of the British government's inquiry into the Iraq War (headed by Sir John Chilcot). His appointment to this inquiry was criticised in parliament by William Hague, Clare Short, and George Galloway on the basis of scepticism over his neutrality, Gilbert having written in 2004 that George W. Bush and Tony Blair may in the future be esteemed to the same degree as Roosevelt and Churchill.[11][12] In an article for The Independent on Sunday published in November 2009, Oliver Miles, the former British ambassador to Libya, objected to the presence of Gilbert and Sir Lawrence Freedman on the committee partly because of their Jewish background and Gilbert's Zionist sympathies.[13] In a later interview, Gilbert saw Miles's attack as being motivated by antisemitism.[14]

As the Iraq inquiry was to be conducted on Privy Council terms, Gilbert (who was not previously a Privy Counsellor) was appointed to the Council in order to participate.[15]

Praise and criticism

Many laud Gilbert's books and atlases for their meticulous scholarship and his clear and objective presentation of complex events.[16] His book on World War I is described as a majestic, single-volume work incorporating all major fronts—domestic, diplomatic, military—for "a stunning achievement of research and storytelling."[17] Catholic sources describe him as a "fair-minded, conscientious collector of facts."[18]

Gilbert's portrayal of Churchill's supportive attitudes to Jews (in his book Churchill and the Jews) has been criticised, for example, by Piers Brendon.[19] Also, Tom Segev writes that, although Gilbert's book The Story of Israel is written with "encyclopedic clarity," it suffers by the absence of figures from Arab sources.[20]

Honours and awards

In 1990, Gilbert was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE). In 1995, he was awarded a Knighthood "for services to British history and international relations".[21] In 2003 Gilbert was awarded the Dr. Leopold Lucas Prize by the University of Tübingen.[22] The Sir Martin Gilbert Library at Highgate School, where he was a pupil, was opened on 6 May 2014 by former Prime Minister Gordon Brown.[23] "I know he helped Lady Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, but he also helped me a great deal with his insights into history," said Brown. "I know he advised Harold Wilson even before them, but at every point Martin was available and he wanted to believe that the best outcomes were possible. A genuine humanitarian, someone whose writing of history taught him we could always do better in the future if we are able to learn the lessons of history."[24]

Honorary degrees

Gilbert received Honorary Degrees from several Universities. These include:

Country Date School Degree
Canada 4 June 2003 University of Western Ontario Doctor of Laws (LL.D) [25]
Israel 2011 Ben-Gurion University of the Negev Doctorate
This list is incomplete; you can help by expanding it.

Personal life

Gilbert was the target of a serious attempt by the State Protection Authority of Hungary to recruit him as an agent in the early 1960s. He initially responded warmly, and agreed to go on a Hungarian government-funded trip to Budapest in September 1961, and expressed views about Britain which seemed designed to impress his Hungarian hosts (mixed with some untruths about his background). The Hungarians attempted to intercept the many letters he sent back home during the trip, and were able to work out that Gilbert was lying about being a Communist. When invited to a further meeting in Paris, Gilbert did not show up and eventually when his intended handler defected to the West, the Hungarians gave up. Gilbert never explained the incident himself; writing about it in 2015, Hungarian historian Krisztián Ungváry noted that Gilbert must have realised what was going on, and may have been used by the British intelligence services to plant a double agent.[26]

In 1963, he married Helen Constance Robinson, with whom he had a daughter. He had two sons with his second wife, Susan Sacher, whom he married in 1974. From 2005, he was married to the Holocaust historian Esther Gilbert, née Goldberg.[2] Gilbert described himself as a proud practising Jew and a Zionist.[27]


In March 2012, while on a trip to Jerusalem, Gilbert developed a heart arrhythmia from which he never recovered.[28] He died in London aged 78.[29]

Gilbert's death was announced on 4 February 2015 by Sir John Chilcot. Giving evidence before the Foreign Affairs Select Committee about delays in the publication of the report of the Iraq Inquiry, Chilcot reported that Gilbert had died the previous night following a long illness.[30][31][32]

Titles from birth to death


Biography of Winston Churchill

Volumes one and two were written by Churchill's son Randolph Churchill, who also edited the two companions to volume one. Gilbert's first work as official biographer was to supervise the posthumous publication of the three companions to volume two, but these were published in Randolph Churchill's name, and indeed, Randolph had already compiled most of the material in his lifetime. In 2008, Gilbert announced that the job of publishing the remaining companion volumes had been taken over by the Hillsdale Press, and the first of these appeared in 2014. The Hillsdale Press had already reprinted the complete biography in eight volumes and the sixteen published companion volumes, as a series titled "The Churchill Documents", so that the volume of 2014 became the seventeenth instalment of this series.

Companion volumes

Other books on Winston Churchill

Other biographies and history books


  1. 1 2 Gilbert, Martin, Author's message
  2. 1 2 3 "The Papers of Sir Martin Gilbert", Janus, UK: CAM
  3. 1 2 "Sir Martin Gilbert, historian – obituary", Daily Telegraph, 4 February 2015
  4. 1 2 Gott, Richard. "Sir Martin Gilbert obituary", The Guardian, 4 February 2015
  5. Berg, Raffi (14 April 2005). "The fight against Holocaust denial". News. BBC. Retrieved 12 May 2010.
  6. "Interview with Martin Gilbert by Yuli Kosharovsky, June 14, 2005". Retrieved 22 November 2015.
  7. Gross, Netty C. (March 3, 2008). "Big Chill Remembered". The Jerusalem Report. Retrieved 22 November 2015.
  8. Gilbert, Martin (1984). ""A Children's Tale," slide show and presentation". Soviet Jewry Information Centre. Retrieved 22 November 2015.
  10. "Leave to supplicate for D.Litt.". Oxford University Gazette. 24 September 1998. Retrieved 4 May 2015.
  11. "Parliamentary Debates" (PDF). c 808. Hansard. 24 June 2009. Retrieved 29 July 2009.
  12. Martin Gilbert "Statesmen for these times", The Observer, 26 December 2004, originally published by BNewsweek
  13. "The key question – is Blair a war criminal?". The Independent on Sunday. London. 2009-11-22. Retrieved 2010-01-12.
  14. Cesarani, David (2010-01-29). "Britain's affair with antisemitism". The Guardian. London. Retrieved 25 March 2010.
  15. "Official Report (Commons) 6ser vol 494 col 24". 15 June 2009. "Privy Council Members". Privy Council Office. Retrieved 28 August 2009.
  16. Book Reviews: Oxford Mail, Library Journal, Middle East Review, Booklist Chicago, British Book News, Society of University Cartographers Bulletin, The Diplomatist, Jewish Chronicle, Scunthrope Evening Telegraph, Glasgow Jewish Echo, Geographical Magazine, Martin Gilbert
  17. "Descriptions", Library thing
  18. "A Rare Kind of Historian", Catholic exchange, 2008-02-01
  19. "Churchill & the Jews, by Martin Gilbert", The Independent (review), London, archived from the original on Jan 3, 2011
  20. "Sir Martin's coffee-table book", Ha’aretz, IL, Aug 7, 2008
  21. The London Gazette: (Supplement) no. 54066. pp. 1–2. 16 June 1995. Retrieved 17 July 2008.
  22. Gilbert 2003b.
  23. "New Highgate School Library". Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  24. "Opening of Sir Martin Gilbert Library". Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  26. Ungvárya, Krisztián (4 August 2015). "England, Sir Martin Gilbert and Hungarian State Security". Journal of Intelligence History. Taylor & Francis. 15 (1): 1–16. doi:10.1080/16161262.2015.1061796. Retrieved 30 January 2016.
  27. Brown, David (22 January 2010). "Chilcot inquiry member Sir Martin Gilbert praises Gordon Brown". The Times. London. Retrieved 28 January 2010.
  28. "Sir Martin Gilbert obituary Eminent historian who wrote the definitive biography of Winston Churchill". The Guardian. 3 February 2015. Retrieved 3 February 2015.
  29. "Martin Gilbert, preeminent Churchill biographer and Holocaust historian, dies". The Washington Post. 4 February 2015.
  30. "Iraq Inquiry: Chilcot rejects calls for report timetable". BBC News. 4 February 2015. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  31. "Iraq Inquiry panel member Sir Martin Gilbert dies aged 78". ITV News. 4 February 2015. Retrieved 4 February 2015.
  32. Doherty, Rosa (4 February 2015). "Historian Sir Martin Gilbert dies at 78". The Jewish Chronicle. London. Retrieved 4 February 2015.

External links

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