Sir Martin Gilbert Memorial, 24 November 2015
I am honoured to have been asked by Lady Esther and the Gilbert family – Natalie, David, Josh, Richard, Susie and Eric – to speak about our mutual friend Martin; privileged to bear witness alongside three great men of letters – Jonathan Sacks, Richard Evans and Randolph Churchill – and privileged, too, to follow the eloquent and heartfelt remarks of Rabbi Liss and Esther. And let me immediately say how proud we are of Esther and of the love, support and friendship she gave Martin, and in particular the devoted and selfless care that I saw at first hand that she provided Martin every day and all days throughout his long illness.
Our friend Martin was the most prolific historian of our time; a scholar of prodigious industry; a writer who’s tireless research and endless curiosity brought us wonderful books which captivated a generation – and will endure for generations to come; and a father, husband, brother, colleague and friend whose natural and ever present generosity, grace and compassion, and whose seemingly endless patience and whose broad and welcoming smile – and who can ever forget his winning smile – made him a wholly unforgettable friend of all he met on his life’s journey.
Few, if any, writers of history will ever surpass his record of authoring 88 best- selling books from his first The Appeasers, to his histories of the Great Wars, of Churchill’s life, his maps of the world and his less known but wonderful and moving children’s story book of Israel, enjoyed by my young sons, that arose from a visit there with Natalie. And I know that Martin not only wrote about Churchill but counselled Prime Ministers from Harold Wilson to Lady Thatcher, John Major and Tony Blair, and he helped me again and again with his wisdom, his judgement and his insights into history. Awarded a CBE under Lady Thatcher, a knighthood under John Major, and then a privy councillorship in my time, I can say with both some pride but also some sadness tonight that it was already agreed that Martin was to join the House of Lords – and he would of done so as Lord Gilbert but for the illness that overcame him in 2012. That he was not able to take his much deserved place at the heart of Westminster, where he would have been so eloquent a voice for decency and common sense and such a popular member with all sides, is a matter of regret and a loss to us all.
His writing and his global reach reflected his times. Born in London in 1936 to Jewish parents, Peter and Miriam, whose own parents had themselves come as refugees from Tsarist Russia, Martin was a seasoned world traveller even before he had completed primary school. After being evacuated first to Cornwall with his parents at the age of 3 in 1939 and then to Canada with his Aunt and her three children in 1940, before returning in 1944 via New York only to be sent away again to Wales with his newly arrived young sister, the desire to journey and to explore never left him, and he said that if he had not been an historian he would have been a geographer. Yet it was his 10 years at Highgate School from 1945 to 1955, first as boarder then as day pupil, immersed in the great works of Carlyle, Swift, the war poets like Owen and Sassoon, that instilled in him a life-long love of learning and of the epic stories of the human experience. While he started out as a pupil afraid as he put it, of ‘the new and terrifying hierarchy which towered above me: a seemingly insurmountable pyramid of power’, by the six form – as he then put it – ‘the necessity of work became, instead, a passion. Life was filled with endless optimism, ‘an exciting experience: no moment… could be dull, and every day… was essentially different…From such a rich life, few could fail to benefit’.
At University with his celebrated tutors like A. J. P. Taylor, his passion for history was reinforced. The great Taylor, as Martin recalled, gave him three pieces of advice, which may have been in jest but which he, mostly, tongue in cheek, considered then wholly ignored. First, Taylor said ‘do not waste time with maps, they are not a serious intellectual endeavour’. Instead, Martin created 15 pioneering historical atlases. Second, ‘there is nothing new to be learned about Churchill. We already know everything important there is to know’. Did Martin not prove this wrong with his masterful account reassessing Churchill and his times across 35 books? Third, Taylor advised ‘ unpublished documents can reveal nothing new about modern history up to, and including, World War ll. All has already been revealed.’ But of course the unpublished documents that were found – with the exception of course of these fake Hitler diaries – enriched and, in some cases, transformed our understanding through research that was painstaking and – what Martin said should not be a dirty word – ‘nitpicking’. In this way Martin turned away from a school of history which he thought emphasised style over substance. Instead of what he called ‘the fashion to make clever remarks… and write cleverly with aphorisms, paradoxes, theoretical conclusions’, Martin’s concern was ‘to be accurate, to get to the facts and tell the basic story’, his vocation more akin to that of a detective: following the trail, sometimes just fragments, assembling the evidence, uncovering the truth, and he liked to think the inscription on the tomb of Bishop Creighton, reflected his aim: ‘He tried to write true history’.
I talked at length to Martin about his view of history as a voyage of discovery. As always, for Martin, context in history was vital: who knew what, when, how the person reacted with the information available at that moment. As he put it: ‘the historian is not primarily a judge who drags people from out of their environment and places them before a contemporary tribunal… His first aim is to see whether the people he studies acted for the good of their own society, as they envisaged that good. His second aim is to ask whether the ideas which he is examining are valid in terms of present values’. It may surprise some to know that he had agreed that he would find time to make his next book a chronicle of our period in Government. What he would have made of all of us, I do not know.
When I was doing my PHD, I was told by one Professor that if I did a successful thesis it would, at best, change a line in a history textbook, and I thought that no great ambition. Not that my scholarship changed a single word in any textbook. Martin reminded me of the story of Adolf Liebeskind, a member of the Krakow Jewish Resistance, who said: ‘we are fighting for three lines in the history books’ but mischievously, Martin, whenever he wrote about Liebeskind, always made sure to give him at least four lines.
But Martin’s research achieved so much more than changing a few lines: opening up new avenues, providing fresh insights and delivering original perspectives that are now central to all the authoritative accounts of the age. Churchill of course never kept a diary, remarking that ‘diaries only showed up your inconsistencies and changes of mind’. But when asked what he, Martin, had learned that he didn’t already know from his voluminous work on Churchill’s war time years, Martin summed it up; ‘I learned what a close thing it was’.
Martin corrected me and others on detail. When I used to retell Churchill’s joke about a New Year’s resolutions he had made late in life – he had moved from an old resolution ‘to never to drink before lunch time’ to a new one: never drink before breakfast – Martin corrected me. Not that Churchill did not drink, but that Churchill’s own stories of heavy drinking across the day, were more an image that he carefully cultivated, than the reality.
Martin and Esther were my guides and advisers when as Prime Minister I travelled to Israel, and he helped me write the first speech given by a Prime Minister to the Israel Parliament, about the long struggle of Israel, both for survival and then to create a lasting peace. And when the then – Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and I exchanged presents, it is a reflection of Martin’s pre-eminence and our shared admiration of him that without either of us knowing it, I had chosen to give Olmert, a copy of Martin’s The Righteous and he had chosen to give me a copy of Martin’s Story of Israel.
Growing up in North America and then London, Martin was proud of his Jewish heritage but aware of anti Semitism around him. But it was when on a visit to Poland in 1959 he unearthed the horrific stories of the Holocaust, that he resolved to write what became a number of books on it, persuasively explaining his decision in this way: ‘The murderers…kept records, often copious ones. But the victims, the six millions who were done to death, could leave no record. A few fragments of diaries, letters and scribbled messages do survive. But in the main, others must bear witness to what was done to the millions who could never tell their own story. The testimony of those who survived constitutes the main record of what was done to the Jews during those years’. And Martin saw his duty as to bring together all the documentary evidence he could obtain on this dark period of world history – compiling a library of his own that filled one of the upstairs rooms of his house. I will never forget the visit Sarah and I had with him to Auschwitz in April 2009. In no doubt about the evil that people can do to other people, he championed – and the Government found money – to fund the Holocaust Educational Trust, which sponsors school children to visit Auschwitz, to experience vividly and report back to new generation on what happened there – and why we can never forget.
And so Martin was not just a great historian: he was also a great humanitarian, a great internationalist and he was a great optimist about the future. He believed we could always do better in the future if we were able to learn the lessons of the past. As he wrote in The Righteous, ‘even the worst times brought out the best in human nature.’ Human decency was also an integral part of the war years; and it was a decency that, had it been on an even larger scale, had it permeated even more deeply into the societies of that time, could have saved many more lives – thousands, even tens of thousands. The story of The Righteous is not only a story of the many successful individual acts of courage and rescue; it is also a pointer to what human beings are capable of doing – for the good – when the challenge is greatest and the dangers most pressing.’
In my life I have met many people who are good but you cannot say they are great. And I have met many people who are great but not necessarily good. But to Esther, to the family and to you all, let me say this: Martin stands out as a great man AND a good man, who not only made us see the world differently but never lost faith in the human spirit, even in the face of the unspeakable darkness that was often his subject.
Esther and family: Martin sailed the river of life brilliantly. Now he has crossed over to the other side. Our hearts still ache at his loss but he leaves behind imperishable works and his indelible example, and he lives on in the impact he had on all of us and on millions he never met but who meet him in the pages he wrote. And every one of his great group of friends here today who have come together to honour Martin from all over the world will not only never forget him but, as long as we live, we will never cease to be inspired by the light and the learning he gave to us, to our country and to the world.
Complete text reprinted with the kind permission of Gordon Brown, ©Gordon Brown 2015