Martin Gilbert, the official biographer of Winston Churchill, who also wrote histories of many of the signal events of the 20th century, including both world wars, the Holocaust and the Middle East conflict, died on Tuesday in London. He was 78.
His death was announced on the floor of Parliament. Mr. Gilbert, an appointee to the parliamentary committee investigating Britain’s involvement in the Iraq war, had been in declining health since suffering a heart arrhythmia several years ago.
Mr. Gilbert, whose work was translated into many languages, was one of the world’s most prolific historians. He wasthe author of almost 90 books, the most famous of which was the compendious Churchill biography begun in the 1960s by Churchill’s son, Randolph.
Often described as the longest biography ever published, the work spans eight volumes and more than eight million words. Mr. Gilbert, who assumed the project after Randolph Churchill’s death in 1968, wrote the last six volumes, which take Winston Churchill from 1917 to his death in 1965.
Mr. Gilbert, who never met Winston Churchill, also published a string of one-volume works about him, including “Churchill: A Photographic Portrait” (1974) and “Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship” (2007).
A self-described Zionist who nonetheless criticized the rightward inclination of the current Israeli government, Mr. Gilbert was widely known for his books on Jewish affairs. He advised a succession of British prime ministers on the Middle East and was knighted in 1995.
As a historian, he kept one foot in the ivory tower and the other in the popular arena, a stance that did not always endear him to either side. Academic reviewers found his histories overly narrative; reviewers in the popular press declared them not narrative enough.
Mr. Gilbert, who lived in London, taught for many years at Oxford University, and at his death was an honorary fellow of Merton College there. He was a guest instructor at universities around the world, including the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the University of South Carolina.
He was renowned for his prodigious powers of archival research, and his books were correspondingly known for including seemingly everything he unearthed in every archive he visited. While invaluable to historians, this modus operandi, some critics said, could work against the readability of the finished product — a charge leveled at his military histories “The First World War” (1994) and “The Second World War” (1991) and his ambitious three-volume chronicle “A History of the Twentieth Century,” published in the late 1990s and comprising more than 3,000 pages.
Throughout Mr. Gilbert’s career, reviewers took issue with his penchant for laying out reams of data with little editorial comment, which left the task of historical interpretation to the reader. He countered that by virtue of selecting, arranging and emphasizing historical facts as he did he wasexpressing a tacit opinion, an argument that did not persuade every critic.
“I’m not a theoretical historian, seeking to guide the reader to a general conclusion,” Mr. Gilbert told The Jerusalem Report in 1996. “I’m quite content to be a narrative chronicler, a slave of the facts.”
A hallmark of Mr. Gilbert’s work was his interest in writing history from the bottom up, incorporating the stories of ordinary people caught up in the sweep of epochal events. Even in writing the life of the top-down Churchill, he sought out the prime minister’s former secretaries, chauffeurs and other employees to lend the narrative a populist perspective.
In the opinion of many reviewers, he used these techniques to memorable effect in “The Holocaust” (1986) and “The Boys: The Untold Story of 732 Young Concentration Camp Survivors” (1997).
“The Boys” tells the stories of hundreds of survivors — mostly men but some women as well — who had been rescued together as children and who, though now grown and scattered around the world, remained united by this deep personal bond. Reviewing the book in The New Leader, Lore Dickstein wrote:
“Gilbert acts as the filter, the medium through which the narrative unfolds. Seamlessly, he stitches together the eyewitness accounts and organizes them by time, place and common experience.” She added, “The result is a superb, accessible, vibrant historical text.”
A jeweler’s son, Martin John Gilbert was born in London on Oct. 25, 1936, to an observant Jewish family. As a toddler, he was evacuated to Canada for much of the war. He earned a bachelor’s degree in modern history from Oxford in 1960 and began graduate work in history there.
While he was still a graduate student, he came to the attention of Randolph Churchill, who was overseeing a team of historians researching his father’s biography. The younger Mr. Churchill summoned Mr. Gilbert for a meeting.
“I was loath to go because I had seen him drunk and loudmouthed at the Randolph Hotel bar and had heard about his unpleasant, extreme right-wing views, views bordering on the fascist,” Mr. Gilbert recalled in a 2007 interview with The Sunday Telegraph of London. “He had a reputation for being what was then known as a fascist beast.” But in 1962 Mr. Gilbert agreed to join his research team.
When Randolph Churchill died six years later, only the first two volumes, which took his father up to the age of 40, had been published. Mr. Gilbert assumed authorship of the rest, an enterprise that lasted until 1988, when Volume 8 was released, and entailed the combing-through of 15 tons of archival papers.
Mr. Gilbert’s first marriage, to Helen Robinson, ended in divorce, as did his second, to Susie Sacher. His survivors include his third wife, the former Esther Goldberg; a daughter, Natalie Gilbert, from his first marriage; two sons, David and Joshua, from his second marriage; and a sister, Margaret Gilbert.
His other books include “Auschwitz and the Allies” (1981), about the West’s early response, or the lack of it, to reports of Nazi death camps, and “Shcharansky, Hero of Our Time” (1986), a life of the Soviet Jewish refusenik.
One of Mr. Gilbert’s most personal books was “In Search of Churchill: A Historian’s Journey” (1994), a metanarrative in which he recounted the steps he took in assembling the biography. But despite the fact that Churchill occupied Mr. Gilbert’s waking life for decades, he rarely invaded his sleeping one.
“I’ve only twice dreamt about him,” Mr. Gilbert said in the Sunday Telegraph interview in 2007. “Once when I was having a real problem with the Dardanelles chapters, and I was walking along the seafront and there he was in front of me. I rushed up to ask this pedantic question that was bugging me. The other time was a few weeks ago. He was being affable and pleased to see me.”