In the introduction to Herbert Samuel: A Political Life, historian Bernard Wasserstein offers a general warning to biographers:
After several years cohabiting with a historical figure, the biographer must guard against the dangers of unwittingly adopting his subject’s angle of vision, of exaggerating his importance, or of executing a mere celebration.
Historian Michael Cohen cites Wasserstein in his dismantling of Martin Gilbert’s 2007 Churchill and the Jews: A Lifelong Friendship. Fit with Wasserstein’s boding, Cohen neatly displays how Gilbert has as Churchill’s biographer adopted the man’s “angle of vision,” and how this process “reflects a symbiosis” between biographer and subject: Gilbert, forty years Churchill’s biographer, can no longer be considered an academically relevant historian. And this is very sad. Gilbert’s output (the Churchill volumes, dozens of other texts) alone makes him a considerable figure in modern British historiography.
But Churchill and the Jews is a text unworthy of any praise or mere consideration, an example of how fawning admiration can muddle potentially serious work, and call into question the work of a highly regarded historian.
(Now we could get really technical here and talk about how postmodern studies of history basically dismiss the notion that anyone can be even remotely unbiased or objective—but I’m not talking about that, as that’s a big ol’ quagmire that none of you fine readers signed up for. Flyover: there’s no such thing as unbiased or objective opinions in historical scholarship because there’s no such thing as unbiased or objective people! We all bring to the table our own innate feelings or emotions, some of which might affect how we approach historical subjects. Gilbert, however, is a special case: There are pro-Churchill historians who go to great lengths to bury or rationalize Winston’s racism or sexism or flip-flopping or interwar failures, and then there are those who stop just short of erecting statues of Churchill on every corner in the UK; Gilbert being the latter.)
Gilbert has, in the twenty-first century, churned out some pro-Churchill shlock quite regularly. From Churchill and America to Churchill’s War Leadership, Gilbert’s books are very clearly aimed at those who wish to lionize the British leader, to recount his actions while assuming a virtuous intent for all. Of course, Churchill was foremost a politician, and acted so, changing parties and alliances with the wind.
But in Churchill and the Jews, Gilbert argues that Churchill’s admiration for the Jewish people was a constantly prevalent theme in his ninety-one years. From his first forays into elected government in the early 1900s to his time as Secretary of the Colonies to his premiership, Churchill was a constant and vocal supporter, Gilbert argues, of the Jewish people. Cohen destroys this reasoning, however, and with such grace! All one needs to dismiss Gilbert’s servile assertion of Churchill’s lifelong friendship with an entire people is one of Gilbert’s previous volumes: cross-checking parts of Churchill and the Jews against Volume Four: The Stricken World (1917-1922) is surreal. In Churchill and the Jews, Gilbert asserts that Churchill spent the years between the Balfour Declaration (1917) and the White Paper meant to clarify the Declaration (1922) working hard to ensure that the Lloyd George government not abandon its vague, wishy-washy, kinda-sorta promise to the Jewish people. But in Volume Four, Gilbert does not conceal the fact—as he does in Churchill and the Jews—that Churchill was foremost concerned, as Secretary of the Colonies, with the entire empire; that is to say, he made numerous suggestions (almost nagging Lloyd George) that Britain abandon the Declaration and give Palestine to the Americans.
Gilbert’s evolution from academic historian to pop-history shlockmaster could not be more evident than in this side-by-side comparison: three decades and a whole hell of a lot of credibility stand between the Volume Four Gilbert and the man who wrote Churchill and the Jews. Setting the baseline of scholarship and then going against it three decades later; it’s amazing, really.
This is a very long, circuitous way of discussing Joe Posnanski and his supposed-to-be-upcoming biography—commissioned by the good folks at Simon & Schuster—of the embattled, fired, and now lung cancer-stricken Joe Paterno. Continue reading