Sir Martin Gilbert, the Jewish British historian and biographer of Winston Churchill, died yesterday at age 78. Gilbert, one of the most prolific historians in the world, dedicated decades of his life searching for “historical truth,” in archives and personal testimony.
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He was born in 1936 in London, two and half years before the outbreak of World War II. Nine months into the war, he was evacuated to Canada out of fear of a German invasion of the British Isles, and only returned to his native land when he was seven.
He studied and taught at Oxford, which became his academic home, but very frequently left the ivory tower for his research. He collected historical documents and testimony — including letters, diaries, minutes of meetings, conversations and photographs — from military cemeteries and battlefields, monuments throughout Europe and archives all over the world, including in Israel. He described himself as a “historian of archives,” who chose to write history from the perspective of the people.
His work on the Churchill biography started in 1962, when Randolph Churchill asked Gilbert to help him with research on the biography of his father. After Randolph’s death in 1968, Gilbert took over the biography project himself, and added six more volumes to the two that had already been published — along with other books, such as "Churchill and the Jews." From 1968 to 1988 he dedicated his working life to research on Churchill.
As opposed to most other historians, especially post-modernists, Gilbert believed there is a “historical truth” and avoided using the word “maybe” in his works. He published 88 works during his lifetime — all of which dealt with the 20th century, in particular the First and Second World Wars, the Holocaust and Israel. A number were written as “atlases,” combining history and geography.
In 1990 he was made a commander of the British Empire and knighted in 1995.