Underrated: Martin Gilbert

A tribute to a great historian, whose range of achievements dwarfs those of his academic critics

Martin Gilbert: Underrated
Michael Pinto-Duschinsky
On 11 January 2013 11:17

The Rt Hon Sir Martin Gilbert CBE is the official biographer of Winston Churchill, author of more than 80 books and collections of maps, Honorary Fellow of Merton College, Oxford, Honorary Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge, member of the Chilcot Inquiry into the Iraq war, laureate of the $1 million Dan David prize for 2012, historian chosen to accompany both John Major and Gordon Brown on official visits to the Middle East. 

Underrated? Unfortunately, very much so in academe. Far from being sources of respect among university-based historians, his many honours seem only to intensify the disdain and neglect of his work by lesser scholars. As he lies impeded after a stroke, it is time to express gratitude for an immensely important life's work which will have a lasting impact when the books, articles and conference papers of journeymen professors are forgotten. 

When he was a research fellow at Merton, his former tutor A.J.P. Taylor advised him to apply for lectureships at a number of universities. Fearing the fate of the anti-hero of Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, and already well-known for his pioneering studies of appeasement in the 1930s, he determined to make his way as an independent, full-time researcher and writer.

In 1968, Randolph Churchill, Winston Churchill's son and official biographer, suddenly died. As a younger colleague at Merton, I remember the day Gilbert prepared a suitcase of writings and documents to take to his interview with the former premier's trustees. He was soon the new official biographer. An architect designed a home on Hinksey Hill, The Map House, to accommodate the many feet of desk space he required to set out Churchill's documents. 

The Churchill connection brought the young Gilbert close to leading statesmen and also to Israeli affairs. In the Six-Day War of 1967, Randolph Churchill had telephoned Moshe Dayan to give strategic advice. Gilbert assisted with Randolph's subsequent study of the Israeli victory.

By 1973, he had another close link with the establishment of the Jewish state. His second wife was the daughter of Michael Sacher, of the family which founded Marks & Spencer and which had been among the main backers of Israel's first president, Chaim Weizmann. The trust he enjoyed was demonstrated when Yigael Yadin, the archaeologist and Israeli general, took Gilbert into Israel's command centre during the crisis of Egypt's surprise attack which started the Yom Kippur War.

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