Sir Martin Gilbert was granted the greatest gift that a biographer could ask for, a subject truly heroic to write about

The life and work of Sir Martin Gilbert, who died last month at 78, should be noted by Catholics with gratitude. In the long and often painful relationship between Catholics and Jews, Gilbert’s devotion to the truth makes his work a contribution to the “healing of memories”, to use the favoured phrase of St John Paul II.

Sir Martin is best known as the official biographer of Winston Churchill. The biographer and his subject shared the capacity to write a staggering amount. Author and editor of more than 80 volumes, Gilbert wrote the final six volumes of the eight-volume Churchill biography, taking up where Sir Winston’s son, Randolph Churchill, left the project at his death. That Churchill remains, 50 years after his death and 70 years after VE Day, a more familiar and heroic figure than his contemporaries, Franklin Roosevelt or Charles de Gaulle, is in large part due to the work of Sir Martin.

In addition to the work on Churchill, Gilbert produced highly acclaimed studies of World War I and World War II, the Holocaust and Jewish life, including the establishment of the State of Israel. For good measure, he produced a three-volume history of the tumultuous 20th century.

Gilbert described himself as an “archival historian” in that he did history by painstakingly assembling hundreds of thousands of original documents.
His Churchill volumes were accompanied by companion volumes of original documents, a publishing project which will continue even after Sir Martin’s death.

Though it does not constitute the major part of his scholarship, it is on the question of Pope Pius XII that Gilbert’s work offers an important way forward. His book, The Righteous: Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, details those who heroically helped to save Jewish lives, drawing upon the records of Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Jerusalem which has declared more than 21,000 people as “righteous among the Gentiles”. Gilbert gives a largely sympathetic account of the efforts of the churches, including the Catholic Church, to resist the Holocaust. He points to several concrete episodes where large numbers of Jews were saved by the Church, including 80 per cent of Rome’s Jews in 1943. He points out that, according to the Nazi documentary record, there was no doubt that Pius XII’s acted boldly to frustrate the Nazi “final solution”.

Although often mentioned as a supporter of Pius XII’s canonisation, it is not quite right to enlist Sir Martin in that cause. His work did convince him that the black legend of “Hitler’s Pope” was a slander, and that a compelling account of Catholic heroism in the saving of Jews could be told. Nevertheless, as a Jew, he thought the decision about the canonisation was an internal Catholic affair, and declined an invitation from St John Paul II to offer his views for that reason.

Faithful to his scholarly approach, his recommendation was to let the archives speak. Did the many indisputable actions of Catholics in defence of Jews take place at the direction of Pius XII? Independent of Pius XII? Or against the policy of Pius XII? Gilbert believed that the Vatican archives would tell the story, and urged that they be opened sooner rather than later. He went further, encouraging the Vatican to assemble the case for Pius XII from the archives and submit it to Yad Vashem’s process for declaration as a “righteous among the Gentiles”. The Church, Gilbert argued, should not fear to discover the truth.

The polemics over Pius XII are likely to continue. Pope Francis entered into the debate last year in a newspaper interview, vigorously defending Pius XII and offering some polemics of his own, pointedly asking why the Allied powers were not more often blamed for their failure to stop the Holocaust. Polemics, necessary though they might be, tend to aggravate divisions rather than lead to consensus. Sir Martin’s serenity before the record of history provides the possibility of agreement, perhaps even reconciliation.

To Sir Martin was granted the greatest gift that a biographer and historian could ask for, a subject truly heroic to write about, and events – World War II, the establishment of Israel – that indicate that history, pace Toynbee and perhaps Churchill himself, is not just one damn thing after another, but the arena for the triumph of the human spirit.

Providence granted to Martin Gilbert the task of chronicling the most brutal of centuries. In doing so, he managed both to tell the truth and to offer hope, a service for which both Jews and Catholics can be grateful. Requiescat in pace.

This article first appeared in the latest edition of the Catholic Herald magazine (20/3/15).

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