“Their Finest Hour”: Did WINSTON CHURCHILL Make the Greatest Speech Ever…?

Posted: January 30, 2015 in (All Things) CULTURE, (Politics) CURRENT AFFAIRS, HISTORY (From a Certain Point of View)
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Yesterday was the 50th anniversary of the state funeral of Winston Churchill. Whatever people’s personal view of Churchill based on political biases and leanings or his overall career analysis, there is no refuting the very singular place he holds in the cultural and historical consciousness of Britain and perhaps the world.
Nor of the absolutely central and inspirational role he played in the defense of European civilisation and the fight against Nazism.

The first thing I, and probably most people, think of when Churchill is mentioned is the legendary “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech. Delivered by Churchill to the House of Commons on 4th June 1940, Churchill had at that point been in office as war-time Prime Minister for less than a month.

Is it, as some regard it, the greatest speech in history? This was the second of three major speeches Churchill delivered in the period of the Battle of France; the others being the “Blood, toil, tears and sweat” speech of 13th May and the “This was their finest hour” speech of 18th June. The problem is that a lot of people today tend to think of these three separate Churchill speeches as the the same speech and therefore take stirring lines from each and blur them together into one mighty oration; when you do that, the entire thing (all taken together) becomes even more powerful and is virtually impossible to argue against. This is largely, however, because of the historical context.

As to whether it is the greatest oration in history, it’s a very subjective question of course and therefore unanswerable. For one thing, we can’t hear audio of Cicero, Demosthenes or Abraham Lincoln, in order to compare to the great, celebrated orators of the past. We might know what Cicero or Socrates, for example, said, but we don’t know what it sounded like, what the scene looked like or exactly how those present reacted; the same being true for many of the other historical orations regarded as being either highly resonant or of great significance. There were other remarkable, evocative speeches given in the twentieth-century too, of course; among them JFK’s 1961 inaugural address (and several other Kennedy speeches), Franklin Roosevelt’s 1933 first inaugural address, scattered moments of genuine oratorical eloquence or power from various political leaders like Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, and of course there was Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech of August 28th 1963, which many consider the finest speech of the century.

Dr King’s is certainly one of the most poignant and is a speech that continues to resonate with so many people. King’s is easier in some ways to permanently idealise, as its sentiments are entirely liberal and noble, with no element of violence or enmity, nor any stigma of empire or of territorial interests.

Churchill’s speeches were delivered amidst the onset of war, however, and could be nothing less than a call to arms. That being so, what’s also remarkable about the speeches is that, like Martin Luther King’s, they could be argued to represent not just a reaction to events of the time but also a universal ideal beyond the specific circumstances of the day: that of the need to oppose, at all times, to march of tyrannical or immoral forces. And just as Dr King’s most famous speech envisions an idealised future, a “promised land”, where there is justice and equality, Churchill too looks to a better future that needs to be fought for when he talks of the day “all Europe may be free and the life of the world may move forward into broad, sunlit uplands.”

Great orations aren’t concocted in a vacuum, but emerge from a historical context; and you couldn’t find a more dramatic, emotive or critical context as a world at war and a perceived struggle for the survival of civilisation itself. It is difficult to think of a more engaging orator than Churchill being there at that time and place to deliver those speeches; or to imagine another Prime Minister other than Churchill being in office in those days. On the other side of the equation, Hitler too was an extraordinary orator – almost mesmeric, in fact. Hitler was able to galvanise, inspire and embolden in a way that no other20th century leader could lay claim to. But where Hitler was all anger and indignation, aggressive hand movements and hypnotic stares, Churchill was all quiet fortitude, poetic refrain and sedate subtlety.

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For me it isn’t the ‘We Shall Fight them on the beaches’ speech, but rather the “Their Finest Hour” speech that is the most stirring. The “Their Finest Hour” speech was given in the House of Commons on June 18th 1940. On May 10th the Germans had begun their invasion of France. On June 14th Paris had fallen. In a matter of days, France would surrender and Britain would stand as Europe’s lone bulwark against the twin evils of Fascism and Nazism. At this critical moment in time, Churchill gave this third and final speech during the Battle of France. “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.’”

I get goosebumps whenever I hear Churchill speak those words. Curiously for a man regarded as one of the great orators of history, Churchill, like the Emperor Claudius some two-thousand years earlier, had been born with a speech impediment and had worked for years to counter those difficulties in order to become a powerful speaker. What Churchill’s speeches at that time did is what most of the great historic speeches do, according to those who study the art of oratory; offered encouragement and hope to the weary in the midst of despair, lifted spirits during dark times, inspired people to brave and highly demanding feats, paid fitting tribute to the sacrifices of the dead, and most of all effected the course of history.

Personality of course plays a highly significant part. Despite our distaste for ‘personality politics’, we often tend to see people who are too polished, too immaculate and too charismatic as somehow ‘untrustworthy’ or false. If you look at the political figures of the past hundred years who are regarded to have delivered the most powerful speeches, none of them fall into that category. John F. Kennedy spoke with a heavy regional accent, as did Martin Luther King. And you couldn’t accuse Gandhi, Nelson Mandela or Malcolm X of being overly polished or the products of clever spin or media-savvy image-making. There was so much of Martin Luther King’s personality in his speeches – as powerful as they might’ve also been on paper – that it is difficult to objectively separate the man from the words (nor the words and  the man from the time). The same is true for Churchill. Churchill to some was a bumbling, overly flamboyant, overly old-fashioned figure (and speaker), considered by many as a relic of the past; but at that time and hour this perceived relic of the past was needed and his manner of inspiring and evocative speech-making was needed too.

Churchill’s own love of oratory, largely based on his study of history, was well known; he had moulded himself into  the great orator that was needed for those dark, desperate days. Concerning his love of oratory and language, one of my favorite stories about Churchill is one told by the actor Richard Burton while being interviewed by Michael Parkinson, recounting how the by-then elderly Churchill would often be in the front row for Burton’s legendary stage run as Hamlet. The former Prime Minister would audibly speak along with all Burton’s lines, therefore somewhat upstaging the actor. But of course, being Winston Churchill, he was just about the only person who could get away with it.

This video is of Richard Burton reciting one of those enduring Churchill speeches of 1940; speeches that are almost as powerful today as they must’ve been in 1940.

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