Q&A

The history maker

Sir Martin Gilbert reflects on Churchill, Charles Bronfman and post-Sept. 11

March 18 2002
Q&A

The history maker

Sir Martin Gilbert reflects on Churchill, Charles Bronfman and post-Sept. 11

March 18 2002

The history maker

Q&A

Sir Martin Gilbert reflects on Churchill, Charles Bronfman and post-Sept. 11

At 65, and with 68 books to his credit, British-born Sir Martin Gilbert is one of the world’s most respected—and prolific— historians. Best known for the 17 volumes he has produced on the life of Sir Winston Churchill, Gilbert—who first visited Canada as a child evacuee from Britain during the Second World War—is also acknowledged for his expertise on subjects ranging from the Soviet Union to the Middle East and the history of theJewish people. His most recent book is Dearest Auntie Fori: 5000 Years of Jewish History. During a visit to Toronto, he spoke with Maclean’s Editor Anthony Wilson-Smith:

Maclean’s: Canada was a much different place in many ways when you arrived in 1940. What do you recall of that time?

Gilbert: I’m grateful, because I was let in, but I wasn’t let in as a Jewish child, I was let in as a British child. We had some difficulties at the beginning. I learned to read pictographs. There was a word, “restricted,” which meant that Jews couldn’t go into a place, and I learned to read “restricted” before I could read. I knew that those pictures meant that we couldn’t go in.

I used to go to [Toronto’s] Centre Island, and my aunt and her kids and I were there and I brought my bucket down, and for some reason, I hadn’t brought my spade. There was a boy there with a bucket and spade, so I went up and said, ‘Could I borrow your spade?’ And he said, ‘My mother said never to lend things to Jews, they won’t give them back.’ And I didn’t quite know what he meant, except clearly we were not people to whom spades should be loaned.

Maclean’s: Still on things Canadian, there are suggestions you’ll do a book with Charles Bronfman.

Gilbert: What I have in mind is a book called Conversations with Charles Bronfman. Increasingly, in my Churchill work

and other work, I’ve found that to be able to sit with someone for a few hours and talk produced a quite different type of history. So, what I hope to do is sit with Charles Bronfman and ask questions, and let him answer, and clearly guide the conversation, but not guide it in too disciplined a way, so that we can talk about the things which interest him. We had a very good session together in Jerusalem recendy. I think we got along well. It could be a format which works.

Maclean’s: Within the post-Sept. 11 context, do you see Israel as finding itself in a new, particularly dangerous situation?

Gilbert: In a way, Israel has been a beneficiary—if one can use beneficiary in this context. Israel’s predicament is now better understood. People, I think before Sept. 11, didn’t fully understand the difference between Islamic fundamentalism and Islam, so that, in a way, the fundamentalist aspects of Islam benefited from a general sort of modern-day reluctance to see anybody as really being different in a negative sense. And the fundamentalists hid under this. Now the fundamentalists have been exposed. This has fortunately reduced their numbers—they’re seen for what they are; it’s not mainstream Islam.

Maclean’s: How religious do you consider yourself to be?

Gilbert: First of all, because I’ve written quite a lot which involved the Jewish religion, I feel many affinities. I’m not Orthodox, I’m not practicing, in any deep sense of the word. I don’t keep the Sabbath. But I keep the holidays, the festivals. I try to light the candles every Friday night, say the prayers. But I think that’s inevitable. Maclean’s: When you wrote your history of the 20th century, you remarked that some people complained it had “too much war” in it. Was there a comparable period ofthreat in the last century to what exists at present? Gilbert: The Thirties are very similar. What

has changed now is that the lesson of the Thirties has been learned. Can you conceive nowadays in this circumstance where Britain is being bombed every night by Germany, and thousands of Londoners killed every night, and the United States remains neutral? And yet, that’s what happened from September, 1939 until December, 1941. Nowadays it is inconceivable. The moment London was bombed once, the United States would feel that somehow it had to intervene. So I think in that sense there has been a lesson learned, and a very definite change. I felt that the coalition against terror, the events after Sept. 11, the movement against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban, at a great distance and with great difficulty— the speed with which all that was carried out is remarkable.

Maclean’s: If you had to briefly describe the subject of 20 years’ work, how would you characterize Churchill?

Gilbert: [lengthy pause] A man who never allowed the magnificent generalization to get in the way of hard, cold facts. A total realist. A total pragmatist. And a man who really understood the subjects he involved himself in, really got to the bottom of them. He could spend, if he had to, two or three or four hours listening to an expert. He was not interested in showing off to that expert his skills. If it was a real expert, he had the time to listen, and the ability to absorb and act on it. His favourite phrase was, “Ponder, and then act!”

Maclean’s: You have been very modest about the fact you are consultedfrom time to time by various British prime ministers. Does your phone still ring often?

Gilbert: [laughs] Basically, I’ve been very lucky to have been a fly on the wall on one or two occasions. I’m very conscious of the gap—and this has helped my writing of history—the tremendous gap between what you, I and the general public, and

even the well-informed journalist, or the well-informed public, think is going on, and what is actually going on.

It used to stagger me, if I went with John Major to the Middle East, and things would happen during the day, negotiations, and then at the end of the day, there would be the press conference. It seemed to me the questions bore no relation to what had happened, and of course the government had no interest in conveying to the journalists what had happened. 1 would sit there bewildered, because all I was was a note taker, so it seemed peculiar to me that one set of things was happening, and another set of things was being discussed.

Maclean’S; Prominent people used to routinely

keep diaries, which are of great use to historians. This is no longeras ofien the case. How will this affect the history of the present we read in the future?

Gilbert: It may be different, it may be difficult. But if you read the Starr report on the Clinton-Lewinsky incident, in the appendix, there is a reference that says something to the effect of: “Letters from Miss Lewinsky to President Clinton retrieved by the FBI from the delete file from her computer.” So if you can retrieve from the delete file of a computer, there is perhaps hope still for a historian, as long as he has a friend in the FBI.

The nature of things may change, but almost every prime minister and president whose archives I’ve seen or know

about has tried to keep a record. Churchill, at a time when the telephone was not used very widely and no recordings were made, insisted all conversations be recorded. And this was annoying to his staff. And he did it, because, he said, “What happens if in two weeks’ time, someone says, ‘I gave the Order X,’ and you say, ‘No, no, not at all, it was Y, and where is the record?’ ”

Maclean’s: Is there one of your books in particular that gives you the greatest emotional satisfactioni

Gilbert: I’d say the Churchill biography. And that’s not finished yet. I’m still doing the document volumes. I’ve published 1941: The Ever-widening War last year—so I’ve got five more to go. ED