Sir Martin Gilbert: A Rare Kind of Historian

[Inside the Vatican] magazine names Sir Martin Gilbert one of its outstanding people of 2007, not because he is a world-acclaimed historian, but because he has always been a fair-minded, conscientious collector of facts. He is a man who presents historical events in context, makes careful judgments, and treats religious matters seriously, without any trace of the contempt so evident in many historians who deal with the Church, the Vatican, and Popes, particularly Pope Pius XII.

Gilbert is an unusual historian in the sense that he takes seriously "the Judeo-Christian ethic" — he even describes one of his books (The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust) as "about the Judeo-Christian ethic" — and strives to ensure that all of his writings provide "true history."

To Gilbert, "true history" means that historians must acquire all relevant facts, carefully weigh the surrounding circumstances, and not impose personal preconceptions on the facts and circumstances.

In a long conversation four years ago with Inside the Vatican's William Doino, Gilbert explained how the concept of truth in history was powerfully conveyed to him at the beginning of his writing career. At that time, he was a junior research fellow at Merton College, Oxford, and curious about the highly-respected 19th century Merton College historian, Bishop Mandell Creighton. He decided to visit his grave — "just to pay my respects." At the burial ground he was struck by the epitaph on the gravestone: "He tried to write true history." The inscription summed up his own feelings as a beginning historian. "I thought, well, there is such a thing as true history. Of course, a historian can have points of view… his own perspective on the actual, true history. But he has to first of all establish the facts and the realities."

 

Gilbert has published 80 books, with his fame resting primarily on his Holocaust studies and his biography of Winston Churchill. He took over the biography of Churchill in 1968 on the death of Churchill's son, Randolph, who had written the first two volumes. Over the next 20 years, Gilbert wrote six more volumes to complete the biography and edited 11 volumes of Churchill documents. The eight volumes are widely regarded as definitive and the basis for any future works on Churchill's life.

Among his Holocaust studies are: The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War; The Second World War; The Appeasers; Auschwitz and the Allies; Atlas of the Holocaust; Israel: A History; The Twentieth Century, and as previously mentioned, The Righteous. He is generally considered one of the outstanding authorities on the Holocaust.

While never ignoring the presence of anti-Semitism in Europe in the years leading up to and during World War II, Gilbert nevertheless praises the stand Christian Churches in general took against Hitler. It is particularly in The Righteous that he deals with the role of European Christian Churches and finds they "took a very powerful stand against the Nazis and their collaborators." He concludes: "Even the German Churches struggled to maintain their independence, and must be credited with acts of resistance and rescue."

The Righteous has to be of particular interest to anyone concerned with the unending defamation of Pius XII. In commenting on his own book, Gilbert says the charge that Pius was "silent about Nazi murder is a serious error of historical fact." He carefully enumerates crucial occasions on which Pius spoke out, and how the Nazis viciously accused him of being "the mouthpiece of the Jewish war criminals." (The Righteous, pp. 357- 357) He argues that, given the extreme vulnerability of Catholics under Nazi rule — especially in Poland — it would have been "highly irresponsible for the Pope" to have spoken out "in a provocative or foolhardy way."

Gilbert had long wanted to write about Christians coming to the rescue of Jews because he was convinced the full story of the Holocaust had to include the remarkable accounts of selfless rescuers. The urging of Jewish survivors — many of them in Israel — convinced him that the stories about the rescuers had to be told. Adding to the importance of a book about rescuers was the fact that it would help Christian-Jewish relations. Gilbert says he wanted the Jewish people "to realize that there were so many Christian rescuers." Yad Vashem has recognized more than 20,000, but Gilbert says: "Of course there were many more rescuers who were murdered after they were caught, together with those they were trying to save, whose stories have never seen the light of day."

Still, descriptions now on display next to a photo of Pius XII at Yad Vashem in Israel demean Pius. The last two nuncios to Israel have quietly worked to have Israeli authorities change the captions to accord with the latest findings of scholars. But in the fall of 2007, a Yad Vashem official told a Vatican representative that the latest scholarship agrees with their posted remarks. He added that Sir Martin Gilbert agrees with the captions.

When informed of this, on December 2, 2007, Gilbert wrote the following disclaimer: "To whom it may concern: I have neither written the Yad Vashem exhibition statement about Pope Pius XII, nor was I consulted about it. My views on the role of Pope Pius XII, the Vatican, and the Catholic Church's rescue efforts — and those of many thousands of individual Catholics — during the Second World War are set out in my book The Righteous: The Unknown Heroes of the Holocaust, which has been published in English, French and Italian." In this direct, non-confrontational way, Gilbert has weighed in on the painful dispute between Yad Vashem authorities and the Holy See for the sake of "true history."

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