Interview by Larry P. Arnn and Christopher Flannery
Martin Gilbert is the official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill. Since 1968 he has published three volumes of the Churchill biography (the fourth, which covers September,1983, through 1940, is in press) and eight volumes of Churchill’s papers. In addition he has published a number of works in the field of 20th century history, including The Appeasers, with Richard Gott, The Roots of Appeasement, The European Powers, 1900-45, and Sir Horace Rumbold. He has been a pioneer in the use of maps and pictures to explain the movements of the past, publishing many illustrated historical atlases. He is also a noted scholar of modern Jewish history, and his works in this field include Exile and Return, Final Journey, and Auschwitz and the Allies. He is an accomplished photographer, and has published his own Children’s Illustrated Biblical Atlas. He was historical consultant to Southern Televisions Ltd. in its recent production “Churchill: The Wilderness Years,” and he assisted with the script of the recent film, Genocide, narrated by Orson Welles and Elizabeth Taylor. A popular lecturer in Britain, Mr. Gilbert delivered the inaugural Fulton Memorial Speech at Westminster College, Missouri, in I98I. During November, 1982, he lectured in Claremont as a guest of The Claremont Institute, Claremont McKenna College and Pomona College. His lectures inaugurated the Institute’s annual Distinguished Lecture Series.
The interview was conducted by Mssrs. L.P. Arnn and Christopher Flannery. Dr. Flannery is vice president of The Claremont Institute. Mr. L.P. Arnn is vice president of Public Research Syndicated, and a doctoral candidate in the Government Department, Claremont Graduate School. He is finishing a book on Churchill as Minister of Munitions during the First World War.
Q: When did you first conceive an interest in History?
GILBERT: I remember many striking, unusual occurrences from my very early years which made me wonder why things were as they were. I can remember the assembling hall in my school, where there were long lists of names of men who had been killed in the First World War. I can remember flying bombs falling in London. I can remember hearing on the radio Churchill and the King speak, with some other boys, and our being very curious to hear whether the King would stutter or not. I remember getting off the ship from Canada in July, 1944, in Liverpool (I was sent abroad to Canada during the war for safety, as many children were), and seeing all the destroyed buildings. I wondered what this meant, how it could happen, and what caused it.
I had an uncle who had been absent for what seemed a long time. I remember asking after him and being told that he was ill and far away and couldn’t visit us for a long time. When he did come home some years later, he was emaciated, and I learned that he had been something called a prisoner of war in Japan. How could this happen, I wondered, and what did it mean?
Once I visited Belgium, and I remember vividly seeing many people there with tattooed numbers from German concentration camps on their forearms. I asked why these people wore numbers on their arms this way. I think I caused some embarrassment. There did not seem to be an explanation, or at least, no one seemed willing to give me one.
Once, when I was a school boy, I traveled to Paris, and was struck by an inscription on the petit Arc de Triumph. It was a record of the great actions of Napoleon’s armies. I was mesmerized by the strong passions that were epitomized in this inscription, and seemed somehow characteristic of history.
Travel, I soon found, is very important for getting a full sense of how people live and what they think. I used to get about a great deal when I was 15 or 16 years old, by hitchhiking. In Cologne, on one of these trips, I stayed once in a bunker in front of Cologne Cathedral. It had been an underground shelter in wartime and was riddled with little cubicles, like coffins. I could get a sense of what the war was like from this, a sense that was difficult to duplicate in any other way. One sees, when one is traveling, how each society is created, and always to some extent cursed, by its history.
Of course, I was traveling then in a Europe newly divided, where the effects of the war were everywhere present. This struck me very forcibly and excited my curiosity. One noticed, for example, great numbers of mutilated people, and one could not miss the fact that terrible things had been going on.
All of this-the travel, the turmoil in the world, the absence of explanations for what seemed important things-made a vivid impression on me, and I wanted to try to figure out, if I could, why many things that seemed anomalous to me were as they were. I would ask for explanations, and could not seem to get them. That, I think, is why I became interested in history.
There was another aspect to it, too. It was not only that when I asked, I found that explanations were lacking. Often explanations were given that seemed to me implausible, or contradictory of other things I knew that seemed to be true. This kind of thing happened to me often on my travels.
I remember, for example, something that happened in Yugoslavia. Of course, I talked to many people who had very firm ideas about the great events that had recently occurred and were still occurring. I remember hearing it said, when traveling in Yugoslavia, that “the English did nothing to help us, when we needed them.” This did not seem accurate to me, and I wished to have an answer to such opinions, to know exactly what did happen. In 1954, I stayed at a student’s home in Ljubljana. In discussions I remember some friends saying that the Marshall Plan was merely an instrument of U.S. imperialism. That did not seem a very sensible view of what I knew about the United States. Moreover, I noticed that the student’s bed was constructed of U.S. government gift boxes and wondered why, then, did he not throw these boxes away. His argument seemed to require him to throw his own bed away.
It was in part to resolve these contradictions that I took up the study of history.
Q: You seem, in your travels, to have encountered some controversy about the different ways of government found in the world, and about the character of the great events that had just transpired. You seem, in some of the episodes you mention, not to mention your later books, to be a defender of democracy. Do you recall where you learned the value or meaning of democracy?
GILBERT: I always recoiled from extremes. For example, the masters in Highgate school, where I attended, were very eccentric figures. The mannerisms of schoolmasters, of course, are traditionally thought eccentric. But their opinions were eccentric as well. It seemed the masters were either Marxists or Spenglerians. They would speak of doomed bourgeois society or of the Soviet Union as the wave of the future. When I would hear, as one often did, how repressive and exploitative bourgeois democracies really were, despite their pretences, I would look around me and say to myself, “that is not the way it is, that is not true, I can say and do as I like here and so can others.” I was always skeptical of extremes, and thought one ought to have the facts straight.
This is not to say that one was compelled to adopt the opinion of the masters. Early on, for example, I wrote a provocative paper for a Marxist master in which I defended liberal democracy. I was naturally apprehensive about his reaction. But he was very encouraging.
I think two aspects of my character emerged at this time. I was, as I say, not attracted to extreme positions, and I was very keen to get the facts straight about things. For example, both the masters and the students at Highgate were anti-French. They often claimed that the French were untrustworthy, or even cowardly, and had deserted us in the war. But I had been to Le Havre and Rouen, and had seen the rubble there, and knew that the French had been through the war just as we had. So I was skeptical of this point of view.
I would ride my bicycle home from school on weekends and would always pass Hampstead Pond, where there would be speakers declaiming on all kinds of things. There would be Marxist and anti-God speeches. I stopped and spoke with them often. This went on for a year or two when I was fifteen or sixteen years old. After a while I began to write replies to their speeches. For some reason, I would write my replies in verse – I wrote some extremely long poems, ten or fifteen pages of verse – and would deliver the lines to these speakers when I happened by. Generally, I would have good fun talking to these radical speakers. But this was an example of the kind of extreme views that many people had while I was growing up, and I was not attracted to them.
My arguments to these people were always, “But that is not how it was, or how it is.” I always believed that there were certain facts, that the truth even about these big questions could be got at. I remember once a Yugoslav student, no doubt much influenced by the propaganda machine in his country, where we were at the time, made the claim that Britain was a tyrannical country. I argued back that what he was saying was simply untrue; I was British, and I could say and do as I pleased. Could he do as much in Yugoslavia?
Q: You have written a great deal on the history of the Jews and on what the Jews went through in the Second World War. Do you remember how you became interested in things Jewish?
GILBERT: Ah, I remember exactly when I first became conscious of being a Jew, and of how this made me somehow different in the eyes of some. When I was a little boy in Canada, 7 years old or so, I was out playing on Center Island, Toronto. There was another little boy playing with a spade, and I wanted to borrow it. Well, when I asked this boy if I could borrow his spade, he said no, that his mother had told him not to lend things to Jews, that they never gave hem back. Of course, I knew that I would have given back his spade. Later on, when I would sometimes hear people speaking ill of foreigners, of the French or Americans or whomever, I would think-“now, I wouldn’t have stolen that spade, perhaps those foreigners are not so bad either.”
Around 1947, when I was about nine years old, there was a very popular radio program-“Dick Barton, special agent.” All the boys in school would listen to it. Immediately after this program there was always the news, and we would listen to the headlines. One day the headlines reported that Jewish terrorists in Palestine had hanged an English sergeant. On hearing this report, the boys in school looked on me as an enemy. I was associated with these terrorists because I was a Jew. There were 40 or 50 boys, and you can imagine how staggering their united hostility would be.
This gave me some understanding of what it is to be a Jew, I suppose, and it had an effect on me. I was picked up on one of my hitchhiking trips by a German who had lost a leg in the war. He told me how he had fought on the Eastern Front. I remember feeling uncomfortable, wondering, and not being able to ask, whether he had been involved in killing the Jews.
I remember that when this same trip came to an end, we got out of the car, and we were near what had been a displaced persons camp. There were Hebrew prayers coming from it. I remember wondering why these people were here, and whether it had anything to do with the fact they were Jews.
Q: How was it that you became a student of Modern History?
GILBERT: Well, originally I had wanted to study geography. Human geography was just coming into some vogue. I was always interested in frontier regions, for example, in such places as Trieste, where language and cultures were mixed. But the masters at school at that time did not consider geography a subject fit for gentlemen to study at the university. So I did history. I was not really bothered by having to do history. On history, too, I was very keen. But I think at the time I might have preferred geography just a little.
Of course, scholarships were very important in those days, and there was one scholarship in particular that was prized by all – the Brackenbury scholarship for Balliol. I did very well in my examination and was invited to enter Balliol College. I was not, however, offered the Brackenbury scholarship, but another one that ranked perhaps among the top four or five offered. But my schoolmasters had so impressed upon me the importance of the Brackenbury scholarship that I had-quite wrongly-got it in my mind that if I couldn’t have that it wasn’t worth going to Balliol at all. It was customary when presenting scholarships for the President of the College to ask the entering students why they wished to attend Balliol. I am sure they were astonished when I, because of these notions, responded that, indeed, I did not want to go to Balliol after all.
Consequently, Balliol turned me over to Magdalen where I was offered what was called a demiship. At the time, students entering Magdalen had first to do two years’ military service. So in April, 1955 I was conscripted.
Just after being conscripted and before entering the army an amusing thing happened to me. In Oxford at that time there was a religious group that held regular meetings to teach the doctrine of pacifism. I think they were Quakers. In any case, I somehow found my way into one of their meetings. They spoke of the evils of war and how hundreds of thousands of young men were forced to enter the army and so on. The meetings were not well attended, and these groups were always desperate to increase the congregation. So one of the members asked me to join. I was sorry, I, told him, but I was joining the army next week, and could not come to further meetings. This seemed quite a shock to all those present.
Pacifism was another example of an extreme that I could not manage to agree with. Of course war is dreadful. But it always seemed to me that there are some things that one must fight for. At the time, there was the Malayan insurrection, and the Mau Mau were in revolt in Kenya, and there was constant difficulty over Cyprus. It did not seem to me right that-admitting that war was terrible-these places should be allowed to be overrun by communism or some other kind of dictatorship.
Q: It was in the army that you learned Russian wasn’t it?
GILBERT: Yes. And I began my reading of Russian history when in an army hospital following an accident. One of my jobs was to read the Russian provincial press, from which I became familiar with the flavors of Russian attitudes and life, and with the Russian view of foreign nations. I was already interested in Soviet imperialism, and in how the Soviet Empire had been acquired. From visits to the Russian zone in Austria, I had got a pretty clear picture of what this imperialism was like.
In fact, I had been arrested in the Russian zone in Austria in 1954. I had been taking a photograph of a Soviet border post in Linz and because of it I was detained for several hours in a bare room, with a bare bulb. I had an amusing talk with my interrogator. When he came in, I remarked that the lamp hanging from the ceiling-it was an Osram lamp, a very common simple lamp-was manufactured just a few hundred yards from my home in London. This seemed to interest him and we talked about London for a while. I later went to visit this interrogator at his hotel in Vienna.
When I returned to college, the first political event that occurred was the launching of the CND (Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament). A.J.P. Taylor was prominent in this, and there were political meetings of all sorts and all views at college. I attended many meetings but never became politically active myself. I could not bring myself to become a believer in the cause. I remember hearing the then famous D.N. Pritt, Q.C. (Queen’s Counsel, meaning a barrister with the right to plead before the House of Lords) give a lecture. He was a great supporter of the Soviet Union, and argued that the Soviet Union was not imperialistic. The imperialism of the Soviet Union was an American myth. As a matter of fact, Mr. Pritt contended, it was the United States that was the imperial power. He even went on to cite examples of American imperialism. I can remember that he went so far as to bring out the Virgin Islands as an example. This struck me as incredibly silly, and simply contrary to fact.
After finishing with the army and before returning to college, between April and October of 1957, I traveled extensively, spending two and one-half months in Yugoslavia and the same amount of time in Turkey. From Greece to Yugoslavia to Turkey-a few short train journeys or boat rides-one could see the extremes the world presented, from an open society to a left or right dictatorship. Turkey was under a right-wing dictator at that time, and Yugoslavians were being indoctrinated both as anti-Russians and anti-Americans. Some of my friends there would argue that it was I who came from a repressive society. And I would ask them how could it be that I am permitted to travel, while they are not.
Once again it was borne in upon me how important was the right to travel. I could see, talking to people in Turkey and in Yugoslavia, that they could not be easily brainwashed if they had the right to travel, even just to go across the border to Greece, which at that time was much more moderate than either Turkey or Yugoslavia. Even in the best case, it is difficult for people to hold independent views. When their information is controlled, it is nearly impossible.
I can remember more recently being in Poland while the Gdansk strike was underway. People would ask me what about this thing or that thing happening in the world, for example, in Afghanistan. They would put forward the contradictory explanations being offered, on the one hand, by the BBC and the Voice of America, and, on the other hand, by the official news organs. Who was right? Someone had to be wrong. Without these foreign broadcasts, these people could not even begin to get a picture of what was happening in the world.
When I returned from my travels in 1957 I gave my first public lecture. It was on Yugoslavia.
Around this time, of course, was the Suez Crisis. And an odd thing happened to me, that shows how the memory can play tricks on you, and how careful you have to be to have evidence to support your recollection.
Disapproval of Anthony Eden was widespread and passionate at college. Eden lived under the shadow of Suez ever after. It was really a tragic obsession. As it happened, I was a supporter of Eden’s position, a view very much in the minority. However, a few years later, in 1960, somehow or other I had come to think that I had been opposed to Eden back in 1956. Well, everyone had been opposed to him, and I suppose I just came gradually to identify myself with what was the more or less universal view, forgetting my own previous position. But a friend of mine showed me some letters I had written him in 1956 stating very strongly my then pro-Eden views-which I had forgotten ever holding.
I visited Eden near the end of his life, while he was quite ill and really a sad figure. I had to go and see him on several occasions, and he was good enough to try to
answer my questions on Churchill. On my last visit-the last time I ever saw him-I took along my Suez letters and read them to him. He was moved to hear that a student had written extensively to a friend at the time and felt that the Eden government had good reason for what it was doing.
Q: Tell us more about your life at Oxford. What were your studies and your teachers like?
GILBERT: Teaching at Oxford favored the bright student. They did not teach to dispel ignorance, but as if they were teaching someone who already knew what they were talking about. In their lectures teachers would refer offhandedly to this or that obscure journal-possibly one long out of print-or to this author or that event, about which many, maybe most, of the students would know nothing at all, this being the first they had heard of it. But the atmosphere was such that one felt ashamed to admit his ignorance. So one would scramble around afterward trying to find out what this thing was, when the teacher might-without undue distraction-have given a brief explanation during the tutorial. I did this terrible scrambling looking for something called Speculum-“Oh yes,” the tutor had said, “you will find that in Speculum.” It would, it seemed to me, have been out of place to ask him what Speculum might be, so it took me many hours of searching to discover that it was a medieval historical journal.
I had a reaction against this kind of teaching, and was led instead to stress the basics, to tell the basic story as well as the very clever parts.
In historical scholarship at the time, it was fashionable to make very clever statements but there seemed to be no relation between the facts and the wit. There was not an attempt to describe in detail what had actually happened and be accurate and complete in telling the story. The main lines of the story were assumed to be known by everyone. I think this was related to the method of teaching.
One of my teachers was Bruce McFarlane. He was a Medievalist, and, I believe, a communist. He was typical of the best tradition of teaching. What he learned-and he knew a great deal-was not for the sake of publishing books, but for teaching, in the tutorial. Such teachers are perhaps like musicians. They make the best teachers because their object is just to recreate the past as accurately as possible.
McFarlane was a perfectionist, and he taught me what it meant to know something exactly. The first essay I wrote for him was an essay on the invasions of England and on the routes of invasions. I included a detailed map with this essay. I still remember his handing me the paper back, and pointing to the map, saying tersely, “I don’t think the Trent rises here.” However painstaking I was, it was not enough.
Of course, one had to write very frequently. Ordinarily one would be given an assignment on Thursday and be required to submit an essay on the following Thursday. This gave you the weekend to read a vast number of books and articles, and then the night before tutorial you could write your essay. Now there were two ways to do this. You could skim the readings and-knowing the views of your tutor beforehand-write a plausible essay reflecting the tutor’s or the standard view. Or you could try to read the materials thoroughly, try really to master the subject for yourself, and write an essay on this understanding. Well, this second approach was virtually impossible because of the vast amount of material and the short amount of time. But I decided that this was the approach to take if anyone really wanted to learn something, to understand what had happened, and not merely be able to say something plausible or fashionable about it. In general, one was expected to be too clever by half, and I decided to try to be accurate and tell the basic story. It was surprising how often the basic story, the real story as it emerges from the documentary record, would be lost even in the supposedly authoritative works.
I had tutors who were tremendous authorities. When they spoke-that was “Knowledge.” Their manner and tone of voice carried absolute conviction that this was the last word on a subject-or at least that anything else was more or less incidental. I once summoned the courage to ask one of my tutors a pretty elementary question of fact-and was astounded when he admitted he did not know the answer. I thought, at the time, if he does not know the answer to this basic question, how can he be so confident in his conclusions?
A.J.P. Taylor, who was one of my teachers, used to say that the story of modern history has already been told. All the essentials are there in the history books that have been written. Nothing that affects the main line of the story can be learned from unpublished documents. But it was remarkable-or so it seemed to me-how the history books missed or distorted the main line of the story while making fashionable, clever asides. I gradually became convinced that the real story of modern history had not yet been fully told and determined to get the facts and tell the story as the documents revealed it.
Taylor once gave me three pieces of advice to guide my scholarship:
First, do not waste my time with maps. This is not a serious intellectual endeavor. Second, there is nothing new to be learned about Churchill. We already know everything important there is to know.
Third, unpublished documents can reveal nothing new about modern history up to, and including, World War II. All has already been revealed.
Q: Well, you seem to have honored this advice in the breach far more than in the observance.
GILBERT: Yes, though it is odd that a map of Trieste in Taylor’s study should have been one of the things that stirred my interest in maps.
Q: You went to work for Randolph Churchill in 1962, not long after leaving Magdalen, having been a research scholar at St. Antony’s, and then elected to a research fellowship at Merton in the interim. Randolph, of course, was writing the great biography of his father, in which task you have succeeded him. Had you, in 1962, already become keenly interested in Churchill?
GILBERT: No, as a matter of fact, I had not taken particular interest in Churchill before going to work for Randolph. But I was aware that there was a kind of historical problem surrounding Churchill.
I first became aware of this problem surrounding Churchill when I was writing for a school magazine. I distributed a questionnaire to all the masters in school. There were questions on several of the great men of the century, Mao, Stalin, Roosevelt-and Churchill. I discovered in the answers to this questionnaire that Churchill was very controversial. Opinion on Churchill was by no means uniform that the common view-Churchill the savior of Britain-was correct. One master even said that Churchill was a murderer.
Q: Why do you think this was?
GILBERT: Maybe it has to do with politics. One has to try to keep politics out of history. But history has implications for politics. It is very difficult with a man like Churchill, who had such an impact on things, and who is still an important figure, just to focus on the documentary evidence and tell what happened. That is difficult in part because politics influences the writing of history, and also because telling the story according to the documentary record is itself the most difficult way to write history. It takes very hard work.
On the whole, Churchill was not written on at Oxford. He did not seem to come into the essays and discussions. He did not seem to be treated as a particularly important figure. As I became familiar with the British Foreign Office documents, and had some way to make an independent judgment, I found that the real story of Churchill did not appear, or was distorted, in the books that dealt with his career. This, together with the things I began to learn about Churchill, made me interested to go more deeply into his life.
Q: How do you account for the fact that the major historians of the time had at once failed to tell the real story of recent history, and at the same time, at least in some cases, were confident that the essentials of the story had been told?
GILBERT: Well as I said, it was the fashion to make clever remarks. This is what distinguished one’s work. And it was not thought that there was any necessary connection between the facts and one’s cleverness. One was taught at university to skim and write cleverly: aphorisms, paradoxes, theoretical conclusions, were all considered a mark of particular ability. And it is a lot of work to labor over all the documents. Historians, like many people, can be lazy.
I recall once reading a book written by a tutor of mine. In the bibliography of this book a certain book was cited. I looked in every possible place in Oxford for that book and couldn’t find it. Finally, I asked the tutor where he had come across it, and he had the candor to tell me that he had seen it cited in someone else’s bibliography and, thinking that it was a book that should be read on the subject, had included it in his own bibliography-though he had never seen the book himself. This is how many people wrote history.
And in a similar experience, I read a book written by one of my tutors on Anglo-Russian rivalry in Persia. One of the sources cited in his book turned out to be the key to the story of Czarist policy towards Britain. I wrote an essay based on this source and showed it to my tutor, the one who had written the book. It was completely new to him. This was a great triumph for me and was one of the things that convinced me that-far from having been told in all its essentials-the story of modern history was still unrecorded.