On Martin Gilbert

During the last decade, British Jewry have lost several of its best-loved historians including David Cesarani, Robert Wistrich — and Martin Gilbert.

Routledge has now published the ninth edition of Gilbert’s Atlas of Jewish History which last appeared in 2010. To this have been added maps about Jews in Muslim Lands and Jews in the post-Soviet era. 

Gilbert was famed for his 23 volumes of the biography of Winston Churchill and companion works such as Churchill and America. His writings were strongly anchored in the tumultuous and terrible events of the twentieth century. He therefore explored the life and times of figures such as David Lloyd-George and Sir Horace Rumbold. This led him into writing a book on World War I — and the trajectory and fate of European Jews between 1933 and 1945. For many who were born into the twentieth century, there was a continuum of war between 1914 and 1945 with a short interregnum in between conflagrations. For the many readers of his books on Churchill, Gilbert’s works on the Shoah was integral to this period, to the rise and fall of the Nazis. 

As a man of liberal views privately, Martin Gilbert took care not to wander into the political arena. Perhaps it is a boon to historians that they generally comment about the past and not about the present. Gilbert’s Jewishness undoubtedly fuelled other avenues of exploration such as Israel and Soviet Jewry. Indeed he asked to be buried in Israel.

He also understood quite early on that there were ways of communicating history in both an educational and popular sense. Some historians do this through paintings and cartoons or even uncovering the hidden history within Shakespeare, Martin Gilbert’s favoured vehicle was that of maps. He wrote atlases that illustrated, British, American, Russian — and Jewish history — for a general audience. Working with cartographers, he wandered outside the narrow confines of academia — and this in turn invited occasional comment. As he commented thirty years ago in the preface to an earlier edition:

If this atlas can help to answer even a small portion of the questions which Jews so often ask about themselves or can tell Christians something more about the varied experiences of their neighbours, it will have served a purpose.

This latest intricate compendium of maps stretches from antiquity through to the twenty first century — from the Jews of Byzantium in the seventh century to Chabad in the former Soviet Union. It is however in the two longer sections, illustrating the last century that Gilbert concentrates his intellectual firepower. Subjects which would seem almost peripheral are reclaimed for the general reader such as ‘the Jews of Libya 1942-1975’ or ‘Christians who saved Jews from death 1939-1945’. This latter map lists 14 non-Jews from Britain who saved Jews — and whets the appetite of an inquiring reader to look further to discover who they were and why they did so. 

As an introductory, popular and accessible work, this latest atlas offers a taster, an interesting and indeed easy entry into the complexities of Jewish history. The updating of such an atlas inevitably stopped with Martin Gilbert’s passing in 2015 — and therefore current events such as Israel’s war with Hamas are not included. Gilbert wrote and edited a huge number of books and received many honours during his lifetime but perhaps it is his educational works, which will have the most enduring effect on his readers. 

Jewish Chronicle 16 February 2024

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