Martin Gilbert, who documented the life of Winston Churchill, the events of World War II and the Holocaust, the founding of the state of Israel and the course of the 20th century in more than 80 volumes that made him known as a preeminent historian of his era, died Feb. 3 in London. He was 78.
The cause was sepsis, according to his wife, Esther Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert had previously suffered a brain injury caused by a heart arrhythmia.
The grandson of Eastern European Jews, Mr. Gilbert grew up in England during the momentous events that he would later document, meticulously and tirelessly, as one of the most prolific scholars of modern history. “He writes books,” a reviewer once observed, “the way the rest of us write shopping lists.”
“He had a unique way,” said Holocaust historian Deborah Lipstadt, “of absorbing a plethora of details, personalities, facts, figures and weaving them into a coherent whole and making them utterly accessible both to the historian who would learn tremendous detail from his work and to the layperson who . . . would be captivated by his style.”
Mr. Gilbert’s oeuvre encompassed British, European, Jewish and Israeli history. In the realm of biography, he was regarded as a foremost expert on Churchill, Britain’s wartime prime minister.
Churchill selected his son, the writer Randolph Churchill, to be his official biographer. As a young Oxford don, Mr. Gilbert assisted the younger Churchill on the first two volumes of the biography, covering the period from Churchill’s birth through his years in the early 1900s as a young statesman.
Randolph Churchill died in 1968, three years after his father, having covered only four decades of his father’s 90 years. Mr. Gilbert confessed to some trepidation when he was confronted with the chance to pick up, as the prime minister’s official biographer, where Randolph Churchill had left off.
“I knew this phrase ‘official biographer’ would be tacked on to it,” he once told an interviewer, “and therefore it would be assumed that it would contain an element, or even a dominance, of apologia.”
Mr. Gilbert also said that if he had known the task would consume the better part of 20 years, he might have declined. “The Challenge of War, 1914-1916,” the first volume written by Mr. Gilbert alone, appeared in 1971. Later volumes covered the interwar period, Churchill’s leadership during World War II, and his later years. The eighth and final volume in the series, “Never Despair, 1945-1965,” was published in 1988.
Mr. Gilbert said that at no time did the Churchill family ask to approve his writing. He also noted that the project required a degree of sleuthing as he sorted through a reported 15 tons of material. One stash of correspondence was unearthed at the New York Public Library, filed under the American novelist also named Winston Churchill.
After their publication, the contents of the eight volumes, containing some 9 million words, were condensed into a one-volume edition, which the writer and journalist Herbert Mitgang described as “the most scholarly study of Churchill in war and peace ever written.”
Mr. Gilbert produced shelves of books documenting Jewish history and, in particular, the Holocaust. Those volumes included “Auschwitz and the Allies” (1981) and the thousand-page book “The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War.”
“Martin Gilbert tells the story from beginning to end,” Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel wrote in a Chicago Tribune review. “This book must be read and reread.”
Widely regarded as a master of archival materials, Mr. Gilbert also availed himself of the privilege, unique to modern historians, of interviewing people who witnessed the events he documented. A London taxi driver who told Mr. Gilbert that he survived the Holocaust later was mentioned in one of the author’s books.
Mr. Gilbert wrote several books about Soviet Jews who were denied permission to emigrate during the Cold War, and with whom he maintained extensive correspondence. He was in Israel during the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and later charted the history of the state and of Zionism. His book with the broadest historical sweep was the multi-volume “A History of the Twentieth Century.”
If there was criticism of Mr. Gilbert, it was that he followed chronology too closely, at the expense of analysis. But chronology “is the key to understanding everything,” he once told the New York Times. “I regard the term ‘chronicler’ as the highest praise.”
Martin John Gilbert was born Oct. 25, 1936, in London. His father, a jeweler, had acquired the surname from relatives who immigrated to England and received an Anglicized name.
As a child during World War II, Mr. Gilbert was evacuated for a period to Canada. He returned to England in time for V-E Day in 1945 and witnessed a bonfire that consumed effigies of Mussolini and Hitler, he told the Jerusalem Post. Mr. Gilbert later devoted books to V-E Day and D-Day.
Mr. Gilbert served briefly in the British army in the 1950s. He received a bachelor’s degree in 1960 and a master’s degree four years later, both from the University of Oxford, where his tutors included the noted historian A.J.P. Taylor.
Mr. Gilbert’s first book, “The Appeasers” (1963), written with historian and journalist Richard Gott, focused on prime minister Neville Chamberlain and British foreign policy during Hitler’s rise to power.
As an instructor at Oxford, Mr. Gilbert became skilled at drawing maps on chalkboards. He later produced numerous volumes of cartography.
Mr. Gilbert was knighted in 1995. At the end of his life, he was serving on an official panel investigating Britain’s role in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
His marriages to Helen Robinson and Susan Sacher ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 10 years, the former Esther Goldberg of London; a daughter from his first marriage, Natalie Gilbert of London; two sons from his second marriage, David Gilbert of Leeds, England, and Joshua Gilbert of London; two stepchildren, Shoshana Israel of Jerusalem and Mirit Poznansky of Canmore, in Alberta, Canada; a sister; and two grandchildren.
Mr. Gilbert said that he once visited the grave of Mandell Creighton, a 19th-century British historian.
“It is always worth visiting the graves of historians,” Mr. Gilbert told an interviewer. “It makes you realize they are as finite as their subjects — and there was a wonderful inscription: ‘He tried to write true history.’ I often ponder that.”