January 1, 1970

Finest Hour 139, Summer 2008

Page 54

Education – Lion’s Roar: Churchill’s Words and Vision in World War II

By Jessica Hart

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Ms. Hart is a 2008 National Security Affairs candidate at the Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University. This article, adapted from a thesis, was recommended to us by Allen Packwood, Director of the Churchill Archives Centre in Cambridge. The author acknowledges the advice and assistance of Professor of English Paul Alkon, University of Southern California.

Asked to list the greatest political leaders, few including his critics omit the name of Winston Churchill. His period as Prime Minister in World War II must rank as a prime example of wartime leadership. As we consider that leadership we see images of his famous speeches and broadcasts to his embattled countrymen. More than sixty years after the war ended, “We shall fight on the beaches…we shall never surrender” and “Men will still say, ‘this was their finest hour’” resound in the conscience of free peoples. Churchill changed the world with words.

To accept that Churchill’s words were influential is however only a first step in understanding their impact. How did he, as broadcaster Ed Murrow and President John F. Kennedy said, “mobilize the English language and send it into battle”?1 How did he craft speeches that served as an indispensable cornerstone of his wartime achievement?

The answers to such questions are nuanced and varied, but one fact stands out. Churchill was foremost a student of the English language: a man who mastered the art of the written word in ways that few achieve. Yet being a great writer did not guarantee great leadership; it did not even guarantee that his political speeches would be particularly effective—and certainly not on such a grand scale. It thus remains to discover how his literary skill and political leadership were intertwined.

Churchill’s writing talent allowed him to articulate vision, a key aspect of leadership. Widely considered a key component of political leadership, particularly in a time of conflict, vision is an admittedly broad concept.2 But a leader’s vision is demonstrated by his ability effectively to frame or define the conflict and the combatants on his own terms, and in the context that he wishes to portray them.

Sir Martin Gilbert defined Churchill’s “astonishing vision” as “clarity as to the purpose of the war…that it was a just war, a war being fought against evil.”3 In that context, it was necessary to define the enemy, the nature of the conflict and the character of his people. Churchill’s vision shaped the way Britain, her Allies, Germany, and the war itself were understood, and his speeches conveyed and articulated that vision. By studying and cataloguing the images, phrases and words Churchill used to define the enemy from 1932 (his first mention of Adolf Hitler) to the conclusion of his premiership, a much more coherent explanation for the power of his speeches emerges.

A study of Churchill’s definitional strategies4 reveals two salient facts. First, he displayed remarkable consistency in the specific images and phrases he used to define the actors and the conflict. His several leitmotifs and array of common descriptions were used both to emphasize his vision and to provide a sense of continuity to his listeners. Second, despite his consistent image patterns, there was a noticeable evolution in the strategy in which he utilized those images. In other words, he maintained the same arsenal of images but deployed them with varying emphasis according to the time and context, reflecting his keen understanding of the political and world situation.

For example, in the years before the conflict began, his focus was defining Germany as a threat, a task complicated both by Britain’s reluctance to face another war so soon after World War I and by his unpopular standing with the British government. Once the war had begun, his emphasis turned to defining the British people in their struggle for survival. Similarly, defining the conflict took a central role in Churchill’s definitional strategies as the war moved into full swing. The identity and threat of the enemy was clear, though the nature and outcome of the war had yet to be established, and he varied his strategies accordingly. In short, there was a noticeable evolution in his strategies, but it lay more in emphasis than in form.

What image patterns made up that definitional arsenal? Churchill’s first image patterns concerned Germany and its leaders—to show his countrymen that rising Nazi power was a threat to national security. When the threat became painfully obvious, he had to show that Hitler could be defeated. Churchill used numerous images to define the enemy, but the most enduring were his characterizations of the Third Reich’s barbarism and soullessness; blood imagery; and his separation of the German people from the Nazi government.

To characterize German barbarity he often referred to its military “machine,” driven by soulless science; here he saw a nation of great intellect and technology that had been corrupted by an autocratic regime. The German military machine became the personification of the hated Nazi ideology, as on 4 March 1937, when he implored: “Let us not ignore what they are doing. They are welding entire nations into war-making machines.”5

Closely related to his characterization of Germany as barbaric and soulless was “blood imagery”: a constant and vivid reminder of the death and destruction Germany was wreaking, and a reminder that, while the Allies had not “bled Germany” during World War I, Germany was now bleeding the rest of the Continent. Indeed it was the German “military organism” that was bleeding the rest of the world dry. In 1933 he crafted the disturbing image of a “philosophy of blood lust being inculcated into their youth in a manner unparalleled since the days of barbarism.”6

Here he accomplishes two things. He continues the image pattern of blood, pairing it with the image of youth to create a description of Germany as a barbaric country fueled by the blood lust of its youth. This barbarism will later be strongly contrasted with the “civilization” of England and the Allies. Similar was his declaration that a “dark stream of blood flows between the Germans and almost all their fellow men.”7 The “bloodiness” of the German government became all the more apparent as the days passed, and Churchill missed no opportunity to drive it home.

Finally, separating the German people from the Nazi government was one of Churchill’s most inspired and effective literary strategies.8 As Martin Gilbert points out, “It was not ‘Germany’ or the German people, but a perversion of all that was decent, human, modern and constructive in human society” that was the enemy in the fight.9

It was the Nazi name that was to be hated and despised, and the “Hitlerites” or “Nazidom” that had to be destroyed. A prime image came on 30 March 1940, when he described Hitler as “a haunted, morbid being, who to their eternal shame, the German peoples in their bewilderment have worshiped as a god.”10 While Churchill did fault the German people for buying into the Nazi ideology, it was Hitler who was portrayed as the true perversion.

One of Churchill’s main purposes behind these definitional strategies was to ensure that the British would immediately and irrevocably recognize the threat and inherent evil of the Nazi regime. When he began defining Germany, his characterizations were vehement and bold, focusing largely on the physical threat that a rearmed Germany would pose to Europe and to England. But once the threat had emerged, he chose to focus on the evil nature of the regime. This spurred his countrymen to continue the fight. By successfully portraying the Nazis as evil, he convinced Britain of his ultimate vision: that the good must triumph.

Because the majority of Churchill’s war speeches were directed at the people, his responsibility was also to define Britain itself. He looked upon Britons as a valiant people, full of honor and strength, willing to sacrifice for a purpose and a cause greater than themselves. They were everything the Nazis were not and could never be.

Churchill used two main strategies to define his country. The first was an antithetical image of a Britain in total opposition to the Nazis. While Germany was characterized as greedy and barbaric, Britain to Churchill was the leader of “Christendom” and the savior of civilization.11 When they stood alone the British were the last hope of civilization, and it was their honor to defend Christendom. In contrast to the “pagan barbarians,” he offered “Christian civilization,” not in a religious sense, but as antithesis—one of the most familiar and enduring of Churchill’s definitional strategies.

His second pattern of national definition was when Churchill referred to the “Island Race.” Far from being simply a geographical statement, the term represented a history of triumph and resilience in the face of adversity. By invoking British history, he inspired pride and enthusiasm for the task ahead. Thus he linked Britain’s survival with the survival of civilization. Because he told his people that they carried with them “the larger hopes of mankind,” they were yet more willing to take risks and to accept sacrifice. The island people were “an undefeated people,” capable if necessary of standing alone—as indeed they did for twelve of the most crucial months of the twentieth century.12

They were a nation capable of standing up for themselves, a nation used to going it alone. And when he said that “Nearly a thousand years have passed since we were subjugated by external force,”13 he was paving the way for his later speeches that would have to convince the British people that they could and would continue to live free by defeating the menace of Hitler.

While Churchill often referred to Britain’s allies, his definitions of the United States are of particular interest. American entry into the war was one of his aims, so he used such images as “a far greater champion has drawn the sword” to describe the power of the United States.14 But his most important definitional strategy was his linking of British with American interests.

One of the ways he did this was through his characterization of Britain and the United States as the “English-speaking peoples,” playing on shared history and values inextricably to intertwine the two nations. He began making such connections in his wartime speeches as early as 1940, when he attempted to persuade the U.S. to offer aid, and he strengthened the comparisons as the war progressed. By tying the fate of Britain to that of the United States, Churchill gave his people confidence that the united power of two powerful nations would defeat Hitler even more swiftly.

Churchill’s definitional strategies for the war itself combined image patterns already noted. Once again, this was a mainly antithetical construct, comparing the barbaric enemy with the goodness of Allied civilizations. To personify their conflict he used light versus dark imagery. One of the most enduring of these images occurred on 18 June 1940, when he warned that if Britain fell the world would “sink into the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more protracted, by the lights of perverted science.”15

The light vs. dark motif was used to bring Churchill’s war-time speeches to a powerful and moving conclusion. The Allies carry the “light of the world,” from which they are erecting “a structure of peace, of freedom, of justice and of law.”16 The light of victory has paved the way for the forward march of mankind, and it is the light of freedom and justice that will light the way for future advances on the world stage. Light has defeated darkness: “Total war has ended in absolute victory.”17

Sixty years removed from the Allied triumph, it seems absurd that anyone in Churchill’s time might have contemplated anything other than total victory. Looking back, we think it inevitable that the war would be won, that Hitler and the Nazis were evil personified and doomed to fall. But not everyone was so sure at the time, and the downfall of the Third Reich was not inevitable. Just as easily, the tide could have turned, and all of Europe could have fallen under the Nazi regime. Indeed the world could have slipped into the “abyss of a new Dark Age,” and might well have done so, without the vision and words of Winston Churchill.


1. winstonchurchill.org.

2. See Wolin, Sheldon S., The Study of Political Vision: Continuity and Innovation in Western Thought (Boston: Little Brown, 1960). Vision has long been considered a key part of political leadership. The importance of possessing vision is heightened in a crisis situation such as a war, and scholars (Gilbert for one) speak of vision as a necessary component of wartime leadership.

3. Gilbert, Sir Martin. Winston Churchill’s War Leadership (New York: Random House, 2003), 38-39.

4. I use the phrase “definitional strategies” to refer to the image patterns, word choices, and phrases Churchill employed to define the various actors.

5. Rhodes James, Sir Robert, ed. Winston S. Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1897-1963, 8 vols. (New York: Bowker, 1974), V: 5385.

6. Ibid., V: 5297.

7. Ibid., VI: 6675.

8. Manfred Weidhorn refers to this as the “name” category in his Churchill’s Rhetoric and Political Discourse (Lanham, Maryland: University Press of America, 1987).

9. Gilbert, op. cit., 42.

10. Rhodes James, op. cit., VI: 6201.

11. Ibid., V: 5234.

12. Ibid., V: 5832.

13. Ibid., V: 5832.

14. Ibid., VI: 6585.

15. Ibid., VI: 6328.

16. Ibid., VII: 7101.

17. Ibid., VII: 7209.

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