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HMDT Blog: Sir Martin Gilbert

Sir Martin Gilbert was a scholar and historian, who wrote extensively on the Holocaust.

HMDT Blog: Sir Martin Gilbert

This blog was written for HMDT by Lady Gilbert, the creator and editor of three volumes of Holocaust Memoir Digest, based on published survivor memoirs, who was married to Sir Martin Gilbert during the last 10 years of his life. She had been reading his books on the Holocaust and articles on Soviet Jewry for years before they met.

In 1959, as a 22 year-old student spending the summer in Poland, Martin Gilbert visited the site of the death camp of Treblinka. In his Preface to his Holocaust, The Jewish Tragedy, he describes what he found there, on that first visit: ‘Driven by I know not what impulse, I ran my hand through that soil, again and again. The earth beneath my feet was coarse and sharp: filled with the fragments of human bone.’ It had been, at that point, a mere 16 years since 1943 when the SS had destroyed the camp in the face of the Soviet advance. In his subsequent work on the Holocaust and on the Second World War, it was the names and the lives connected to those fragments of human bone – scattered across Europe that Sir Martin tried to bring to life, to remember, to memorialise, to honour.

In 1962, while working for Randolph Churchill on the biography of Winston Churchill, Sir Martin was sent round the UK to mine private archives and institutions for the perspectives on Churchill that could come from those who had known him, worked with him, had made notes of conversations, and kept correspondence and diaries. In search of these archives, Martin uncovered the human aspect, the tenor of Churchill’s relationships, the context of the events and how Churchill worked and was viewed. These eye-witness accounts and reminiscences gave a rich background to the documentary record of how Churchill had spent his day.

Upon Randolph’s death in 1968 Sir Martin was asked to continue the biography, and he did, writing six of the eight volumes of Churchill’s life, and editing 12 volumes of Churchill documents. Not only did this work give us daily insight into the life of one of the key figures of the Twentieth Century, it also gave Sir Martin a sense of how history could be written – through the eye-witness accounts of those who had been there, had written about it, had lived it. This human aspect put flesh on the bones and gave context to the core of the documentary evidence of history.

Armed with his tools of a strict chronology that described who knew what and when they knew it, the wide-angled view of what currents of context were flowing at that particular moment, and the geographic span in which the events took place, Sir Martin was ready to bring the events and the people who lived them to life. With dedication and with strength Sir Martin set about to write the history of the Holocaust in a way that it had not been written before: by giving a voice to the survivors, the eye-witnesses, those who resisted, and those whose resistance was to remain with their communities, their families, their elderly parents. By telling their stories, in their words when possible, we, Sir Martin’s readers, are allowed to develop our own conclusions, to have a sense of the senseless destruction and barbarity, to look into ourselves and examine what it means to be human.

Although he became an historian, Sir Martin’s original thought was to teach. The way he leads his readers through history and his use of cartography to depict a story, shows that he never strayed from where his heart lay: in bringing history to life for his students. In fact his first book on Churchill was a slim biography for schoolchildren, and his first book on the Holocaust was A record of the destruction of Jewish life in Europe during the dark years of Nazi rule, a record depicted in ‘Maps and Photographs’. First published by the Board of Deputies of British Jews, later by the Anti-Defamation League, and finally by the Holocaust Educational Trust, it is a concise history in 23 maps that show the themes he developed during the following thirty years of research and writing: pre-war Jewish life, the fate of the Jews along with the fate of non-Jews and Roma, Resistance, Survivors, Righteous and the Jewish death toll.

Sir Martin’s first broad history that spanned the length and breadth of the Holocaust, Final Journey, was criticised for his use of survivor testimony: memory can be imperfect. It was a mere 34 years after the end of the war and academic historians did not consider survivor testimony to be valid documentary evidence. Undeterred, Sir Martin persevered, knowing – from his Churchill work – how important the eyewitness accounts were, and how vital it was to give the survivors and those who had experienced the Holocaust a voice. Their voices are indeed heard throughout his succeeding studies, his general histories of the Holocaust (The Holocaust, The Jewish Tragedy, the Routledge Atlas of the Holocaust, and Never Again which was produced for schools), along with his specific focus on aspects of that period (Kristallnacht, Auschwitz and the Allies, The Righteous, The Kovno Diary, The Boys, and Holocaust Journey) from his correspondence with survivors, published and unpublished memoirs, diaries, poetry and art to give depth, colour and life to the archival evidence of the perpetrators and their collaborators.

By telling the story through the words of those who experienced it, by using these words to frame the raw history of events, Sir Martin’s readers understand his deep humanity, his ability to connect us in the Twenty-first Century to those lives affected and snuffed out by the savagery of which human beings are capable, the inhumanity perpetrated 75 years ago. Sir Martin forces us to confront history, what it means to be ‘human’, and where we are in 2016 and in our own lives. He does it by turning the statistics of the Holocaust, the so-called ‘Figuren’ that the Germans called Jews, into individual human beings, with names and ages and life before the war and lives after – and the great loss of the lives and generations cut short by murder.

We live in a world punctuated by blame and victimhood. These are the easy answers masquerading as solutions to complex issues of human nature and survival. We are continually confronted by judgments of past decisions seen now through the lens of present knowledge and current thinking. Sir Martin wrote: ‘It would be wrong to judge a historical figure solely by the standards of the present day. Every generation has its own morality. 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.’

We are privileged to live in a country that has been built and enriched by immigrants for more than two thousand years, a form of government that has pioneered and defended liberty and democracy, a social fabric that reflects both cultural heritages and a cohesion that is the envy of many throughout the world. It is incumbent upon us to learn the facts of history through the chronology of what happened, with the context of what was going on at the time, and to see how it made an impact on the lives of human beings like ourselves, with families and homes and friends and schools and hopes and dreams. This is Sir Martin’s greatest legacy – to train educated and responsible generations for whom a knowledge of history helps them to be inspired by tolerance and generosity and to reject ignorance and the hatred that is bred by it.

The HMDT blog highlights topics relevant to our work in Holocaust and genocide education and commemoration. We hear from a variety of guest contributors who provide a range of personal perspectives on issues relevant to them, including those who have experienced state-sponsored persecution and genocide. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of HMDT.