Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

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Reviews, recommendations, books to avoid. What have you been reading?

Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » September 11th, 2011, 3:51 pm

A few weeks ago, I went into my local Waterstones to see what they had in the way of general histories of world war two: I read one decades ago, the book of a T.V. series, but that book is no longer on my shelves, and I don't really remember much about it. What I wanted was a book long enough to give plenty of detail, but no so long as to be intimidating: not, therefore, Churchill's history of the war, which runs to six volumes, I think. In short, I wanted a single, but fat, volume. There are surprisingly few general histories of the whole war: innumerable books about aspects of it, such as the North Atlantic convoys, the war in the far east, Dunkirk, and D-Day, but not many of the whole war. They did have one, though; Martin Gilbert's (actually, Sir Martin Gilbert, though he doesn't use the title much, I gather) 'The Second World War: a Complete History', which was a satisfyingly bulky 846 pages, so I bought it. From the back-cover blurb, I gathered that it had a companion volume about the First World War, so a week later, I bought that as well. That's 614 pages, so also long enough to be reasonably detailed, and Gilbert has a first-class reputation as a historian.
Anyway, I've now started reading the WW1 volume, and will follow it with the WW2 one. I'll report on what I think of them as I read them. Anyone else read them?
Gilbert's website.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby GregB » September 11th, 2011, 9:16 pm

Yes, I have both volumes, which I bought some years ago. They're particularly useful as they give a straightforward narrative account of the two conflicts in chronological order, though not lacking in human interest as Gilbert mentions a host of different participants from the leaders down to the foot soldiers. He's very good at managing the whole mass of data in as clear a form as can be hoped for. Another good point is that he doesn't seem to have any particular political or ideological axe to grind, as some historians do. They're also useful for reference as, obviously, with the indexes one can look up any specific aspect of the wars.

Talking of Churchill, Gilbert was appointed at an early age as his official biographer after Randolph Churchill had produced the first volume of the projected series, but then had inconveniently died. There were several volumes, as I recall, but I wasn't tempted to wade through them. I see from his website, though, that a one-volume version was produced. His book on the Holocaust is very good (he's Jewish, of course, as is evident from the site.)
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » September 11th, 2011, 9:29 pm

I noticed a marked interest in the history of Jews and Israel in his bibliography,and wondered if he was Jewish: Gilbert isn't an obviously Jewish name, but neither are many others. Anyway, glad you think highly of them, as St Thad's resident historian.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby GregB » September 11th, 2011, 9:40 pm

Well, thanks for the accolade, though I'm not sure I deserve the title. History is certainly my main interest, though, and as if to demonstrate that, on the table beside my computer now is Dominic Sandbrook's* splendid recent history of Britain in the early 70's, more about which at some later date, perhaps...

[*His two volumes on the Sixties, 'Never Had It So Good' and 'White Heat' were excellent.]
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Pondero » September 12th, 2011, 1:22 am

GregB wrote:Well, thanks for the accolade, though I'm not sure I deserve the title. History is certainly my main interest, though, and as if to demonstrate that, on the table beside my computer now is Dominic Sandbrook's* splendid recent history of Britain in the early 70's, more about which at some later date, perhaps...

[*His two volumes on the Sixties, 'Never Had It So Good' and 'White Heat' were excellent.]


A columnist in the Catholic Register this week said that the decline in British morality started with the Beatles songs in 1963,followed by the law allowing sexy jokes to be shown on British BBC TV. It just went down hill from then on she said, people stopped going to Church ( she means I think the C of E). Oh,she mentioned "Honest to God" ( a book written by an Anglican bishop) as being partly responsible for it too I would say "Apres ce, le deluge" ( bad french I think) . Is she right or wrong:?? She is a Canadian called Dorothy Cummings McLean and has only lived in Scotland for two years, and is married to a Scottish bloke. She writes for the Canadian Catholic Register. Nothing to do with the world wars, I realize that, but it is a conversational piece.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » September 12th, 2011, 7:20 am

I think that the decline in British morality (if that's what it was; in some ways, I think we've become more moral, since there's much more to morality than who shags whom) was mainly the result in greater affluence, and the death of deference which (quite rightly) began after WW1, and gained more force after WW2. It's much more complicated than that, though. I'm afraid your columnist was being both very simplistic and deeply unoriginal.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby GregB » September 12th, 2011, 7:29 am

Her thesis is quite simplistic in my view. There is not a sudden sea-change in religion and morality because of a few songs by a pop group or a book by a bishop, though they may well represent the more public face of general shifts in those areas which had been taking place over a number of years, particularly the post-war years. Greater personal freedom (eg. women's suffrage and greater employment opportunities) had been one of the consequences of the First World War and after the initial austerity of the immediate post-WWII years, the affluence boom of the 50's and 60's - for good or bad - furthered that individual liberty allowing people to make their own choices in areas such as religion and personal morality, increasingly unfettered by the restraints of tradition and social class. It's a complex question, though, and cannot be reduced to a mere handful of factors, such as pop song lyrics ( in any event, most of those of The Beatles' songs were quite innocuous.) History doesn't work like that.

Edit: Just seen Steve's post. Clearly great minds think alike!
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Pondero » September 12th, 2011, 10:13 am

Theodore Dalrymple would disagree with you both , I think, as his articles are full of doom and gloom.
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby Sprocket » September 12th, 2011, 10:52 am

Well, I disagree with Mr Dalrymple.
Anyway, back to the topic. Anyone else read Sir Martin's books about the world wars? If so, what did you think of them?
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Re: Martin Gilbert's histories of the world wars

Postby GregB » September 12th, 2011, 12:07 pm

Sorry, but I have to add a further comment. I've read many of Dalrymple's writings (books and articles) and I agree with his view of society today, but that has nothing to do with the question posed about Mrs. McClean's simplistic theories concerning the origins of a downturn in morality since the 60's, which I've answered in an objective, analytical way with no hint of approval or disapproval. I'm sure Dalrymple (really Anthony Daniels*) wouldn't demur.

So, back to Steve's question:
Anyone else read Sir Martin's books about the world wars? If so, what did you think of them?

[* http://standpointmag.co.uk/node/4055/full
Interesting to read about his background.]
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