Sir Martin Gilbert, Jewish Historian Who Defended Pius XII, Dies

The noted scholar, also the official biographer of Winston Churchill, was called ‘an inspiration for all of us who seek the truth.’ He was 78.

Sir Martin Gilbert
Sir Martin Gilbert (photo: Pave the Way Foundation)

ROME — Sir Martin Gilbert, a widely respected British-Jewish historian who strongly defended the wartime record of Venerable Pope Pius XII, died Tuesday at the age of 78. He had been suffering from cancer for some time.

“Sir Martin Gilbert was an inspiration to all of us who seek the truth,” said Gary Krupp, the Jewish founder of the Pave the Way Foundation, an organization that has sought to uncover the truth about Pius XII and his efforts to save Jews in World War II.

The official biographer of Sir Winston Churchill, Gilbert wrote the book The Righteous: The Unsung Heroes of the Holocaust, which documented the action of the Church and Pope Pius XII in rescuing Jews from Nazi persecution.

He also wrote numerous books on the Holocaust, the First and Second World Wars and Jewish history. In the last years of his life, he became best known in Britain as a member of the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq War. The panel, which began in 2009, is investigating how U.K. forces came to participate in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, according to the BBC.

The Times of Israel described Gilbert as “a passionate Jew and Zionist,” who repeatedly used “his forensic skills to unpick telling details of the Jewish experience of the 20th century.”

Born in London on Oct. 25, 1936, Gilbert studied at Magdalen College, Oxford, and was tutored by the famous historian A.J.P. Taylor. After two years of postgraduate work, he was approached by Randolph Churchill to assist on a biography of his father, Sir Winston Churchill. When Randolph died, Gilbert took over the task and completed the remaining six main volumes of the biography.

Among his prodigious number of publications was a well-received, single-volume history on the Holocaust, as well as single-volume histories of the First and Second World Wars. His work on World War I was described as a “stunning achievement of research and storytelling.”

He described himself as an “archival historian,” who made extensive use of primary sources in his work. Gilbert also dismissed theories denying the Holocaust, saying in an interview with the BBC that he believed the tireless gathering of facts about the Holocaust would ultimately consign the deniers to history.

In 1999, Gilbert was awarded a doctorate from Oxford University “for the totality of his published work.” From 2002, he was a distinguished fellow of Hillsdale College, and between 2006 and 2007, he was a professor in the history department at the University of Western Ontario.


Praise for Pius XII

Pave the Way’s Krupp credits Martin with taking a leading role in highlighting Pope Pius XII’s actions to spare Jews from the horrors of the Nazi Holocaust.

“As one of the world’s leading experts on the Holocaust and WWII, Sir Martin was well aware of the lifesaving efforts of Pope Pius XII, most especially to save the Jews from the barbarism of the Nazi regime,” Krupp told the Register. “It was Sir Martin who encouraged me to nominate Eugenio Pacelli (Pope Pius XII) to Yad Vashem to be named ‘Righteous Among Nations.’”

In an interview in 2007, Gilbert explained how the wartime pope’s interventions and protestations directly helped to save 4,700 Jewish lives in Rome and that 477 Jews were given refuge in the Vatican. He also documented other ways in which Pius XII rescued Jews persecuted by the Nazis.

In an earlier interview in 2003, he hoped his research would “restore, in a way, on the foundation of historical fact, the true and wonderful achievements of Catholics in helping Jews during the war.”

Pave the Way Foundation also filmed an interview with Gilbert, during which he discussed his personal research on the actions of Pope Pius XII during World War II.

He was eager to see the Holocaust museum Yad Vashem open a file on Pius to study his worthiness to be included in the institution’s “Department of the Righteous.” He also wanted to see the wartime archives opened to the public so that historians could better understand Pius’ role.

Krupp said he once asked Gilbert why so many historians disagree on the wartime acts of the Vatican under Pius XII’s pontificate.

“He answered simply by telling me that one of his greatest heroes and role models, while at Oxford, was an Anglican minister who was a renowned historian,” Krupp said. “In a most gentle way, Sir Martin explained why there is so much controversy among historians. He said his role model’s tombstone simply said: ‘He tried to get history right.’ We will miss Sir Martin, his intellect and his wisdom.”

Edward Pentin is the Register’s Rome correspondent.