SIR MARTIN GILBERT: One of the greatest historians of our time

“This is not history – this is my case”

Sir Martin Gilbert, CBE, PC 1936 - 2015

Sir Martin Gilbert, CBE, PC
1936 – 2015

Rarely in life does one come across an academic of such standing whose personality does not match their occupation. Sir Martin Gilbert, despite his academic achievements, was one of the most approachable historians I have ever known. He was fun to be with and very interesting to talk to. He was honest and open with his encouragement, and wanted nothing more than to support those whose endeavor it is to make the world a better place. I am honoured to have called him “friend”, and to have had the opportunity to spend time with him and his wonderful wife Esther over the years. Yesterday, the world lost one of the greatest historians of our time.

“This is not history – this is my case,” Sir Winston Churchill wrote in his memoirs of the Second World War, and it fell to Martin to independently confirm the case he made. During the 1960s, Martin became the research assistant to Randolph Churchill, (Sir Winston’s son), who had approached his father with a proposal to write his biography. When Randolph died in 1968, Martin continued the work and building on the initial two biographies on Churchill’s life, he produced six more, and a condensed version of the eight: CHURCHILL: A Life. Accompanying the eight volumes, each over a thousand pages long, Martin gathered Churchill’s papers together and produced 17 companion volumes of documents to expand further on the research, this takes us to 1942.

I have just written my very first book, breaking new ground on my great-grandfather’s life, focusing on his relationship with God. Martin was very enthusiastic when I initially approached him in 2010, and offered any and all support. GOD & CHURCHILL – A Most Remarkable Connection, due for release in October 2015, is dedicated to Martin, in grateful thanks for his immensely important contribution to accurately recording the history of Churchill’s life and times. I am confident that the author of any book written on Churchill since his death in 1965, would, if asked, confirm that without Martin’s life-work, their work would have been that much more difficult to research and produce.

Martin’s extensive knowledge, especially on the life and times of my great-grandfather was next-to-none. If you wanted to know what Churchill had for breakfast on July 1, 1958, Martin was the person to ask. If you needed to know if Churchill ever said this or that, Martin was your man with the answer. There was very little he didn’t know on Great-Grandpapa, and anytime he wrote or spoke, his words were based on hours of meticulous research.

He was a great orator, and I remember being present at the book launch of In Search of Churchill, and hearing him speak for the first time. At the time, I knew who Martin was, but didn’t “know” him. However, I approached him with both a copy of In Search of Churchill, and also a first edition copy of CHURCHILL: A Life, asking him to sign them. Immediately he looked up at me and said: “You’re one of Julian’s boys, aren’t you?” Then he paused, not giving me any time to answer, “Jonathan, isn’t it?” I couldn’t believe he knew my name. I am of no significance in comparison to those of the previous generation who knew my great-grandfather. However, to Martin, that made no difference. I was Jonathan Sandys, and he knew my name. That was the first time we met, and from there, I visited him at his London home.

I recall that we talked for some hours. Martin wanted to know all about me, what I was doing and the plans I had for my future, but in 1994, at 19 years old, I really didn’t have any solid ideas for my future. When I became a public speaker on the life and times of my great-grandfather, I approached Martin for advice. “You must look at the facts,” were his words to me. He quoted Great-Grandpapa, and at the time I didn’t know it. Later on, when reading about Churchill’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, (1924-1929), I came across the quote and recall smiling when his words fell into place. “You must look at the facts,” Great-Grandpapa warned, “because they look at you.”

Martin authored 80 books on subjects ranging from the First and Second World Wars, the Holocaust, Jewish history and ‘Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century.’ Having served in British Intelligence, he began a very prestigious academic career and was made an honorary fellow at Merton College, (Oxford). In 2009, he was asked to serve on the British Iraq Inquiry panel, where yesterday, panel Chair Sir John Chilcot told The Telegraph, “I and my colleagues and many others have benefited very much from the wisdom and insights that he was able to offer from his long and distinguished career.”

Martin was created Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1990, and in 1995, received a knighthood ‘for services to British history and international relations.’ Similar to the great man whose history he recorded, Martin humbly accepted the honours he received, but to meet him for the first time, not knowing his history, one would never have known the decorations he had received for the amazing works he had tirelessly produced.

Martin was a very humble man, and it was the pride of others that touched his heart most of all. I last saw Martin and Esther just before Christmas. His physical health had deteriorated, but the mind was still working. I read him the dedication I had composed for the front of my book, and noticed halfway through that tears had started to form in his eyes. On leaving his room, Esther pulled me aside and we talked. “Thank you for what you said,” she told me. “He doesn’t believe he has done anything really, and it is good for him to hear how his work has touched others.” At the end of my great-grandfather’s life, he too believed he had “achieved a great deal,” As he told his son-in-law Christopher Soames, “only to achieve nothing in the end.” However, just like Churchill, Martin was wrong. History records Martin’s achievements, and those of us so-far who continue to benefit from his legacy, will ensure his great works continue.

Martin inspired and encouraged me as father to his son. I would never have been able to pursue a career in public speaking with a foundation in the life of Winston Churchill, or author a book on Churchill, without all the hard research Martin contributed through his works. The previous generation knew Churchill, lived through the war years, and heard him speak. My generation could only read the stories and hear recordings of his speeches. However, the next generation, that of my young 11-month old son, – will depend on us to introduce them to the significance of the life of Sir Winston Churchill and the incredible legacy of freedom that his determination and service ensured. Martin’s life work makes that task much easier for us all, and a big thank you must go out to him for all he did in the service of international history.

The world has lost one of its greatest historians.

Shalom, my dear friend. I pray that those of us who follow you, will make you proud of all we do. God Bless you, and thank you.