World renowned historian Sir Martin Gilbert remembered as ‘a man of wisdom and insights’

Historian Sir Martin Gilbert at Heath Library in Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Historian Sir Martin Gilbert at Heath Library in Hampstead. Picture: Nigel Sutton - Credit: Nigel Sutton

With the death of prolific author, world-renowned historian and Churchill biographer Sir Martin Gilbert this week following a serious illness, academia has lost one of its true heavyweights.

Tributes have been paid to Sir Martin, a Highgate resident and alumnus of Highgate School, following his death on Tuesday evening.

Sir Martin was the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, the author of 85 books in total and a leading writer of works on the Holocaust and Jewish history.

An advisor to many former prime ministers, he was also a panel member on the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war playing a key role.

Sir John Chilcot yesterday said the inquiry had benefited from the historian’s “wisdom and insights”.

“Can I say with great sadness that I have to tell the committee that Sir Martin Gilbert died peacefully last night after a long and serious illness,” he said.

Sir John passed on his personal condolences to Sir Martin’s family, adding: “Martin was an extraordinarily eminent historian, and I and my colleagues and many others have benefiited very much from the wisdom and insights that he was able to offer from his long and distinguished career.

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“He was also a kind and generous colleague, it was a privilege to have known him.”

Born in London in 1936, Sir Martin attended Highgate School before completing two years National Service in the Army with the Intelligence Corps and later studying at Oxford University.

It was two early incidents at Highgate School that had set Sir Martin on the road to becoming a historian, he told the Ham&High in a 2008 interview.

The first was being beaten up by fellow pupils, angry at the stringing up of British soldiers by Israeli terrorists.

“The mind of a young boy starts spinning. Here I was, a British boy and a Jewish boy, and while it was monstrous that two British soldiers should be killed in this way, I started thinking ‘Why were the Jews doing this?’,” said the historian, who would go on to tackle that very question in an acclaimed history of Israel.

The second was when he polled masters on the outcome of the 1951 election and found wildly different views of Sir Winston Churchill.

A decade later, when Sir Martin was a research fellow at Merton College, Sir Winston’s son Randolph Churchill asked him to sort through the papers in his father’s archive.

Upon Randolph’s death in 1968, he took over as Churchill’s official biographer, completing 14 volumes on the great politician and war leader.

Earlier, teachers at Highgate had persuaded Sir Martin that history was a more serious subject than his primary passion geography and he headed to Magdalen, Oxford, to study under the legendary AJP Taylor.

Sir Martin emerged as a respected historian with a reputation for meticulously researching his material and stacking up well-crafted objective accounts of the past.

He eschewed publicity-grabbing theories in favour of measured, considered, balanced history.

When his first book about Second World War appeasement proved controversial, he was upset saying “I wanted to write a true history that was accepted, not controversial history that people challenged”.

While writing about the Holocaust, he repeatedly found material too awful to print.

Once, after reading all 42 volumes of the Nuremberg trials, he was handed 10 boxes of archive material sent to the Imperial War Musuem and unopened since 1947.

“A note inside said that the documents were not presented to the trials because they were thought too repellent even for a court of law,” he said.

“The information was not needed to convict people. It was about German atrocities against Serbs and I was physically sick.

“I realised you write honestly about atrocities but there are limits to what should be printed and there are personal limits.”

His published work includes six volumes of Churchill biography, 12 volumes of Churchill documents, books on the First and Second World Wars, a study of The Roots of Appeasement, and a three-volume History of the Twentieth Century.

He lectured widely on political and military history and accompanied both John Major and Gordon Brown on official visits to the Middle East.

Last May former prime minister Mr Brown opened a new library in honour of Sir Martin at Highgate School.

Having flown in from Washington, the Labour MP paid homage to Sir Martin’s service to British prime ministers over the years.

“I know he helped Lady Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, but he also helped me a great deal with his insights into history,” he said.

“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.”