Essays & Reviews

Sir Martin Gilbert: History as Chronicle

In 1960, the eminent Oxford historian A.J.P. Taylor gave a bit of advice to young students. Avoid working on three things, because they are either irrelevant or already thoroughly plowed over: maps, Winston Churchill, and unpublished documents.

Fortunately, at least in one particular instance, that advice was ignored. Sir Martin Gilbert, who passed away recently at the age of 78, was one of the most prolific of modern historians. He wrote 88 books, including histories of the Holocaust, of the world wars and of the 20th century. He is best known as the official biographer of Churchill, having assumed that duty after the second volume from Churchill’s son, Randolph (Gilbert had served as Randolph’s research assistant).  Here is the New York Times obituary and an appreciation of Gilbert by Larry P. Arnn, who served as Gilbert’s research assistant in the 1970s and who remained a close friend:   For a 1983 interview with Gilbert in which he reflects on the art of writing history, click here. 

As is the case with any serious scholar, Gilbert had his critics. One of the most prominent criticisms, as expressed in the Times, was: “Throughout Mr. Gilbert’s career, reviewers took issue with his penchant for laying out reams of data with little editorial comment, which left the task of historical interpretation to the reader.” Gilbert typically countered: “I’m not a theoretical historian, seeking to guide the reader to a general conclusion,” as he told The Jerusalem Report in 1996. “I’m quite content to be a narrative chronicler, a slave of the facts.”  Arnn adds:“Gilbert utterly rebelled against the view that the facts of history change with time. In this way he agreed with the classics. He wrote the biography faithfully, from primary-source materials and with the greatest care to tell the story as it happened.”

In fairness, there is something to the criticism that Gilbert’s work lacks the sort of insight that would make sense of it all. But one cannot read Gilbert on Churchill or, say, the Holocaust, without thinking that Sir Martin had definite opinions of his own.

The advantages of Gilbert’s approach may be seen in the two volumes of the official Churchill biography dealing with World War II, especially Volume VI, Finest Hour, 1939-1941. In reading those volumes, it certainly helps to have at least some general knowledge of the events and controversies of the war, and to have one’s own opinion of the character and opinions of the major figures (Chamberlain, FDR, Eisenhower, Montgomery, DeGaulle, and so forth). As a rule Gilbert does not supply these. Instead, he provides a dense, day-by-day (in some cases, hour-by-hour) account of the war from the perspective of Churchill and those around him, including his secretaries and servants, as well as the higher-ups. The reader quickly forgets what one knows, or thinks what one knows, about the decisions yet to come and how the major events turned out. He or she becomes absorbed in the details, pressures, uncertainties, and unknowns of the time, as Churchill saw them, and sees how Churchill grappled with them.

For instance, it is generally known that Churchill’s hold on power in May-June 1940, as newly-appointed Prime Minister, was uncertain. But the details that Gilbert provides, or allows the historical record to provide, place one in the critical private and War Cabinet meetings (and those of the full Cabinet) where Churchill’s leadership, and Britain’s continuation in the war, teetered on the edge. One holds one’s breath, to see how it all turns out; to see if Churchill can play both politician and statesman with those who privately held him in contempt, as well as with those who weren’t sure of him but who desperately wanted to be sure of his cause. Or to stand over Churchill’s shoulder in a RAF control room, as he watches Fighter Command commit its last squadrons on one of the critical days of the Battle of Britain. There is no more left in reserve, he is told. This is it. In the cold, sober light of later analysis, careful scholarship has reached the conclusion that the RAF’s victory in that battle was actually “overdetermined”— that the British held all the cards over the Luftwaffe. It certainly did not seem so to Churchill on that day, or will not to those reading Gilbert’s narrative.

This is gripping stuff. It needs no editorial comment.