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The Speeches That Helped Save Western Civilization
By Winston S. Churchill, Prime Minister of Britain (1940-45)
Reviewed by Francis P. Sempa, Contributing Editor
Text and audio:

When a nation is at war, its spirit, confidence, and will to achieve victory can be enhanced by the speeches of its leaders. Sixty-nine years ago, the civilized world, including Great Britain, was menaced by the seemingly unstoppable Nazi onslaught. On May 10, 1940, as German panzers thrust through the Ardennes Forest on their way to Belgium and France, the conservative government headed by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain fell from power. Britain now turned to the one statesman who repeatedly had warned of the folly of appeasement – Winston Churchill.

In his war memoirs, Churchill wrote that despite the dangers and trials ahead, he took the reins of power with calm and confidence. “I felt,” he wrote, “that I was walking with destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.”

During the next 40 days, Churchill made a series of speeches designed to prepare the British people for a perilous future, but also to rally Britain and the civilized world to fight on to victory. Those speeches may have been among the most important speeches in world history, for as John Lukacs has noted, the fate of Western Civilization was at stake during these crucial days. Much of the British political elite sought to make the best deal possible with Hitler. Churchill, however, would not relent.

On May 13, 1940, in an address to the House of Commons, Churchill announced the formation of a bipartisan War Cabinet, and offered the nation nothing but “blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” The government’s policy, said Churchill, was to “wage war by sea, land, and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us...” The government’s aim, he said, was “victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory however long and hard the road may be.”

Six days later, in a broadcast to the nation, Churchill detailed the early German military successes and expressed the hope that the French army would stabilize the war front. He warned, however, that German aggression would soon be directed toward Britain, and expressed confidence that Britain was “ready to face it; to endure it; and to retaliate against it.” In the battle for Britain, Churchill stated, “we shall not hesitate to take every step, even the most drastic,” to defend the homeland. Hitler had already conquered the Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Danes, and Belgians, “upon all of whom the long night of barbarism will descend...unless we conquer, as conquer we must, as conquer we shall.”

The impending defeat of France and the successful evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from Dunkirk led Churchill to address the House of Commons on June 4. He called German victories in France and Belgium “a colossal military disaster,” and warned British citizens that they must focus on “home defense against invasion.”  It was necessary, he said, to “take measures of increasing stringency” against aliens, suspect British subjects, and Nazi Fifth Columnists. The government would use domestic security powers “without the slightest hesitation until we are satisfied that this malignancy in our midst has been effectively stamped out.” Churchill closed with some of his most memorable remarks:

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous states have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender, and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and the liberation of the old.

The last in this series of speeches – perhaps the most famous – was made on June 18, 1940, four days before France formally surrendered to Germany.  Churchill warned his colleagues against efforts to assign blame for the military disasters in France. “There are many who would hold an inquest ...on the conduct of Governments and of Parliaments...,” he lamented. “They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs.” He called this “a foolish and pernicious process,” and warned that if “we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.” The country must focus, instead, on resisting the inevitable Nazi onslaught:

[T]he Battle of France is over. I expect that the Battle of Britain is about to begin. Upon this battle depends the survival of Christian civilization. Upon it depends our own British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and our Empire. The whole fury and might of the enemy must very soon be turned on us. Hitler knows that he will have to break us in this Island or lose the war. If we can stand up to him, all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands. But if we fail, then the whole world, including the United States, including all that we have known and cared for, will sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science. Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that, if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour.’

Rallying citizens for a civilizational struggle. Explaining the necessity of securing the homeland. Warning against partisan inquests in the midst of war. Establishing an uncompromising goal of victory. Churchill’s words echo in our own time.bluestar   

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May 26, 2009

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