British historian Sir Martin Gilbert died Tuesday from a 2012 heart arrhythmia from which he never recovered, according to a friend of the family.
Gilbert, 78, was the official biographer of former British prime minister Winston Churchill, and also one of the world’s preeminent Holocaust historians.
Gilbert authored over 80 books, many on Jewish topics, in a life that saw a national service stint in the British Intelligence Corps and a prestigious academic career at institutions including Oxford, where he was an honorary fellow at Merton College. His works included classic histories of the first and second world wars, “A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War,” and “Jerusalem in the Twentieth Century.”
Gilbert was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1990 and received a knighthood in 1995 “for services to British history and international relations.”
A member of the British Iraq Inquiry panel since 2009, Gilbert was described as “an extraordinarily eminent historian” by panel chairman Sir John Chilcot.
“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,” Chilcot said in The Telegraph.
A practicing Jew, a frequent visitor to Israel and a winner of the Dan David prize in 2012, Gilbert wrote extensively on Churchill’s support for Zionism.
In his 2007 book “Churchill and the Jews,” Gilbert noted, “While never an uncritical supporter of Zionism, he was one of its most persistent friends and advocates. In a world where Jews were often the objects of scorn, dislike, distrust and hostility, Churchill held them in high esteem, and wanted them to have their rightful place in the world. At a time when he was criticizing Jewish terrorist acts against the British in Palestine, he told a Jewish friend who was uneasy about his criticisms: ‘The Jewish people know well enough that I am their friend.’”
Head of the Jewish Agency for Israel Natan Sharansky, a former Soviet Prisoner of Zion, said late Wednesday that Gilbert was a historian of great stature.
“But I will personally remember him as someone who not only wrote history but also took part in its making. He understood the importance of the struggle of Soviet Jews while it was taking place, and did not hesitate to turn into a human rights activist, joining the international efforts to remove the chains of the Communist regime and help us in our fight to break free.”