On the Death (and Life) of Martin Gilbert

February 15, 2015

By Seth Mandel

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. Read the rest of this entry »