May 2, 2013



Dr. Weidhorn, of Fair Lawn, New Jersey ([email protected]) is Guterman Professor of English Literature at Yeshiva University, a CC academic adviser, and author of four books on Churchill’s rhetoric and literary work. Among his recent books is the well-received Person of the Millennium.

We praise Churchill’s courageous oratory because we assume that the cause over which one will not surrender is just. We are jolted when we hear Hitler using similar rhetoric.

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Everyone knows that from May 1940 to June 1941 there took place one of the great duels in history. Perhaps forgotten is that it was a case of what is now called an “asymmetrical war”—between the premier military power in the world and the premier naval power. Hence, the fighting was transferred to the one realm in which symmetry was possible—the air. The combatant
nations were, moreover, led by two men who were also, at first glance, asymmetrical.

Setting aside the obvious difference that one of them obtained and exercised power through the democratic process, while the other was among the most oppressive dictators, a few of the inconsequential differences were that one was clean shaven and the other sported a distinctive mustache; one was chubby and the other trim; one was a patrician, with all the requisite tastes and acquaintances, while the other came from the lower middle class and was even homeless for a while: a “bum.” One would be named the Personality of the Century, while the other is frequently portrayed as the incarnation of Satan.

Yet Churchill and Hitler had a few interesting traits in common, traits which the other pivotal leaders of World War II—Roosevelt, Stalin, Chiang, Mao, de Gaulle, Tojo, Mussolini—mostly did not share. Each was short. Each during the war spent mornings in bed. Each had direct experience of the trenches in World War I and consequently had strong convictions on military matters during World War II. Each crusaded against Bolshevism.

Politically, both had reservations about universal suffrage, with Churchill tentatively suggesting modifications to save the system and Hitler simplifying matters by destroying the system. Neither attended college; both engaged in a program of self-directed reading, primarily in history. Each painted, one in middle and late life, the other only in early life. Each depended on writing for his major source of personal income. Each wrote an important book about himself before coming to power: Mein Kampf is more about the writer’s political philosophy and ambitions than about his personality and life, while My Early Life is the reverse.

Another shared trait is that both men had a drive for fame so intense that it could be fulfilled, as Churchill nicely put it, either by “notability or notoriety.” Negative notices, that bane of normal politicians, were grist for their mill. Young Hitler’s attitude to his Communist foes was that “it makes no difference whatever whether they laugh at us or revile us, whether they represent us as clowns or criminals; the main thing is that they mention us, that they concern themselves with us again and Again.”[1]

Churchill arrived at a similar counter-intuitive conclusion: “Politicians get used to being caricatured. In fact, by a strange trait in human nature they even get to like it. If we must confess it, they are quite offended and downcast when the cartoons stop.”[2] Bad publicity, for either man, was still publicity—a line of thinking that bespeaks either political sagacity or a personal insecurity that hogs the spotlight.

Both men indulged in curiously similar hypothetical flourishes. In his maiden speech in the Commons, Churchill famously said, “If I were a Boer, I hope I should be fighting in the field,”[3] even as Hitler, while railing at the French as Germany’s perennial enemy, stopped long enough to concede, quite remarkably for him: “If I were a Frenchman, and if the greatness of France were as dear to me as that of Germany is sacred, I could not and would not act any differently from Clemenceau.”

Years later, before developments made them mortal enemies, Churchill returned to that hypothetical by declaring, in a last-ditch attempt to avert the inevitable with a bit of flattery: “I have always said that if Great Britain were defeated in war I hoped we should find a Hitler to lead us back to our rightful position among the nations.”[4]

Those are simple exercises in identity swapping or sympathetic identification, but Hitler, in a speech of 1928, carries the hypothetical into the realm of the fantastic: “If Satan were to come today and offer himself as an ally against France, I would give him my hand.”[5] Churchill, whether or not he ever heard of this remark, famously used it with reference to Hitler and added typical impishness: “If Hitler invaded Hell I would make at least a favourable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.”[6]

But the major common trait was that both were the most powerful orators of their age. To be sure, Hitler’s speeches—even if one ignores the delusions, lies, paranoia, and hatred—do not read well these days as compositions, while many of Churchill’s are in all the anthologies. Yet for elocution, body language, histrionics, hysterics, and audience response, Hitler was unique. As he put it himself, “I gradually transformed myself into a speaker for mass meetings [and] I became practiced in the pathos and the gestures which a great hall, with its thousands of people, demands.”[7] Here was one of those rare moments when Hitler told the truth.

Equally curious is that both men, again unlike the other giants of World War II, have had something to say on oratory—and these statements are not so far apart. Hitler, in particular, celebrated the power of speech: “All great, world-shaking events have been brought about, not by written matter, but by the spoken word.”[8] He therefore paid close attention to the psychology and the circumstances of speech-making.

The time when the speech is made, for instance, matters greatly—evening is better than morning or afternoon[9]—as does the hall in which it is given. Indeed a 1922 Nazi memo, no doubt inspired by Hitler’s insights, urges that “one should, for the first time, not rent a too-large hall. Better to have a small, fully packed hall than a large room only half full or even conspicuously empty.”[10]

That is exactly the thinking behind Churchill’s 1943 speech on rebuilding the House of Commons Chamber: “It should not be big enough to contain all its Members at once without overcrowding….If the House is big enough to contain all its Members, nine-tenths of all debates will be conducted in the depressing atmosphere of an almost empty or half empty Chamber.”[11] In other words, when it comes to size of audience, most people simplistically believe that bigger is better, but both leaders realized that political psychology is often counter-intuitive: Not size but context and appearance matter.

Churchill and Hitler did take different routes to discuss the challenge of speaking in front of an audience to be won over. Churchill does so in fictional form, and the performance of the hero of his early novel Savrola is a fantasy— prophetic, to be sure—about someone the author would like to become. Hitler devotes many pages to his actual performances during the early 1920s, when he discovered his vocation, and, concurrently, the Nazis, under his imperious control, first became a force to be reckoned with.

Both men insisted on the need to eschew rhetoric that might engage the more influential and therefore better educated audiences rather than the proverbial little man. In preparing his important speech, Savrola aims for “that correct diction which is comprehensible even to the most illiterate, and appeals to the most simple.”[12] Likewise Hitler notes that the successful speaker “will become so primitive and clear in his explanations that…even the weakest members of the audience is not left behind.” To persuade the doubters, he will repeat the argument “over and over in constantly new examples.”[13]

Hitler goes so far as to express profuse admiration for British Prime Minister David Lloyd George, whose wartime speeches “testified to a positively amazing knowledge of the soul of the broad mass of the people…[as in his] use of easily intelligible examples of the simplest sort.”[14] Dare one wonder why, two decades later, Hitler could not, “across the havoc of war” (Churchill’s words about Rommel in 1942), appreciate the far greater achievement of Lloyd George’s one-time lieutenant?

One way of pitching rhetoric to the level of the audience is to flatter it by contrasting the beauty of the nation and the nobility of its people with the corrupt government which the people do not deserve. Here is Savrola’s version:

When I look at this beautiful country that is ours and was our fathers’ before us, at its blue seas and snow capped mountains,
at its comfortable hamlets and wealthy cities, at its silver streams and golden cornfields, I marvel at the irony of fate which has struck across so fair a prospect the dark shadow of a military despotism.[15]

And here is Hitler’s oddly similar version:

Millions of men are diligently and industriously at work….The blacksmith stands again at his anvil, the peasant guides his plow, and the scholar sits in his study, all with the same painstaking devotion to duty….If today all this is not yet expressed in a rebirth,…it is the fault of those who…have governed our people to death since 1918.[16]

Having found the right verbal wave length, the speaker faces the second challenge: hostile hecklers. Political oratory differs from lectures meant to educate the audience and from speeches to the converted (like those of Hitler in power) meant to turn agreement into zeal and activism. In electioneering politics, by contrast, one often must contend with audiences to be persuaded, as well as enemies to be neutralized.

Hence Savrola, addressing a large meeting, was interrupted by “a man in a blue suit, one of a little group similarly clad, [who] shouted out: ‘Traitor and toady!’ Hundreds of voices took up the cry; there was an outburst of hooting and groaning; others cheered half heartedly.” Savrola turns on the noisemakers by demonizing them as “paid agents of the government,” with the result that “fierce looks turned in the direction of the interrupters, who had, however, dispersed themselves unobtrusively among the crowd.”[17]

Hitler had a—shall we say—more forceful way of handling opposition. Initially he accepted the fact that the entire audience might not necessarily be sympathetic to him. “Nearly always it came about that in these years I faced an assemblage of people who believed the opposite of what I wanted to say and wanted the opposite of what I believed.” Observing thousands of “hostile eyes,” he had to work hard at converting them. “And three hours later I had before me a surging mass full of the holiest indignation….Again a great lie had been torn out of the hearts and brains of a crowd numbering thousands, and a truth imparted in its place.”[18]

According to the unwritten book of crowd psychology, color symbolism is apparently important in the political setting. If Savrola’s opponents were dressed in blue, Hitler for a while dabbled in red. He had his followers show up with red posters partly in order to “infuriate and provoke our [Communist] adversaries,” partly to make the “run-of-the-mill bourgeoisie” wonder whether the Nazis were a species of Marxists, and partly to attract leftists to the meetings “if only to break them up.”[19]

Hitler’s opponents were not “paid agents of the Government,” but they were formidable all the same. He was in a life or death struggle with a powerful rival faction equally intent on seizing control of the country. “How often, indeed, they were led in, literally in columns, our Red friends, with exact orders, poured into them in advance, to smash up the whole show tonight and put an end to the whole business.” Unlike Savrola, Hitler had his Myrmidons (newly named “Storm Troopers”) to defend him. “An attempted disturbance was at once nipped in the bud by my comrades. The disturbers flew down the stairs with gashed heads” or had “their skulls bashed in.”[20]

Using simplified language and disposing of hecklers are mere preliminaries to the goal, not of persuading the audience but creating a sense of communion, a sense of solidarity, almost a mystic trance. Some sort of bond is indeed achieved by Savrola’s speech:

There was only one mind throughout the hall. His passions, his emotions, his very soul appeared to be communicated to the seven thousand people who heard his words; and they mutually inspired each other….Each short sentence was followed by wild cheering…..When the last words fell, they were greeted with thunders of assent….For five minutes everyone shouted wildly; the delegates on the platform mounted their chairs and waved their arms. At his suggestion the great crowd would have sallied into the streets and marched on the palace.[21]

Hitler is somewhat more analytical of the process. The mass meeting, he asserted, is important for making each individual feel part of a large community and feel sheltered from a “thousand arguments” to the contrary. The goal is to have the individual listener “swept away by three or four thousand others into the mighty effect of suggestive intoxication and enthusiasm; when the visible success and agreement of thousands confirm to him the rightness of the new doctrine and for the first time arouse doubt in the truth of his previous conviction—then he himself has succumbed to the magic influence of what we designate as ‘mass suggestion.'”

During one speech, Hitler’s followers at first battled the disturbers and gradually restored order. Hitler wrote later: “After half an hour, the applause slowly began to drown out the screaming….The interruptions were increasingly drowned out by shouts of applause” [sic] and at the end “there stood before me a hall full of people united by a new conviction, a new faith, a new will.” After a half hour into another long speech, Hitler sensed that he had captured his audience, and “after the
first hour the applause began to interrupt me in greater spontaneous outbursts.”[22]

The observations and ideas adduced so far are not too removed from what one would expect similarly situated people to evolve for themselves. In other words, there are certain universals of crowd psychology and rhetorical performance, and few striking deviations are likely. Churchill and Hitler merely appear to be the only World War II leaders to regard the matter important enough to be addressed in print. But more controversial is the concurrence of the two men with reference to one of Churchill’s most famous utterances. Speaking in 1941 at Harrow, he said that the lesson of the Battle of Britain was “never give
in, never give in, never, never, never, never….”[23] This assertion has become ubiquitous. It is quoted in all forms of morally uplifting discourse. At the risk of being of being a killjoy or contrarian, one must insist that the statement has been misinterpreted in two crucial ways by being (1) universalized and (2) moralized.

Most people are not heroic and, tending to be “sunshine patriots,” lose heart too easily. Only a few souls have the grit to live up to that slogan, and if they are leaders, they may be able to carry the nation with them to heroic heights. That “never surrender” statement reflects the spirit of Valley Forge and of 1940, of Russia in September 1941 at the edge of the abyss or the U.S. in early 1942 battered by a succession of military disasters (or, in sports, the Boston Red Sox in 2004 facing a daunting 3-0 deficit in the seven-game American League play-offs). Against all odds, the underdogs would not surrender and went on to victory.

The truth is, however, that such life or death struggles are relatively rare. In the course of normal democratic politics, negotiations between the major parties of the left and the right are necessary for a government to function. Negotiations mean compromise, not surrender. The radicals on both sides may yell “never,” and, when they for once had their way, America had a bloody civil war. So one must carefully and infrequently choose one’s last-ditch stand.

Churchill’s “Never Surrender,” like all proverbs, indeed like all generalizations, must be applied with nuance. Because of the many who lived by it and went on to ignominious defeat, it cannot be mindlessly invoked.

If the “never surrender” statement turns out to have limited application, it is even more vulnerable to the charge of being morally simplistic. We praise the assertion because we assume that the cause over which one will not surrender is just. If only that were so! We are jolted when we hear Hitler using similar rhetoric. And even more unsettling is the thought that, depraved as he was, he nevertheless thought that he was fighting for a righteous cause—the God- or nature-ordained ascendancy of a superior people.

And even if he did not believe that, or is accounted insane, he certainly imbued his armies, composed of “normal” people, with the sense of a noble mission that should not be compromised. So we find him in the Churchillian “never surrender” mode time and again in Mein Kampf and later. A good German, he asserts, must be “trained in rigid discipline and fanatical faith in the justice and power of his cause and taught to stake his life for it without reservation.” The Nazis are “fighting for a mighty idea, so great and noble that it well deserves to be guarded and protected with the last drop of blood.” The Nazis entered a lecture hall with the resolution “that not a man of us must leave the hall unless we were carried out dead…. Those who attended our meetings knew full well that we would rather have let ourselves be beaten to death than capitulate.”[24] Thus does the Devil cite scripture.

And, indeed, Hitler was as good as his word. When the Nazi empire began to contract and the generals repeatedly urged prudent retreats for the purpose of achieving better logistical conditions and of reconstituting the demoralized German forces, Hitler overrode them and ordered that they hold every inch of territory and fight to the last man. So it was in Tunisia, at Stalingrad, and at other places in Russia and France. Hitler held out until, unlike in World War I when Germany surrendered intact, all of Germany was in ruins and the invading “barbarians” were a few blocks away from his bunker. So many lives thrown away, so many cities leveled, to no purpose other than one powerful man’s “never surrender”!

In 1940, facing possible doom, Churchill had spoken of carrying his own pistol and being prepared to fight on until he choked in his own blood. Fortunately, Churchill did not have to do so, and five years later, Hitler turned out to be the one who did.

So when someone blurts out, “never surrender,” the wise observer must ask, “On behalf of what cause?” In 1940, it was glorious; in 1945, unspeakable.


1. Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, tr. Ralph Manheim (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1943), 485.
2. Winston S. Churchill, Thoughts and Adventures, ed. James W.
Muller (Wilmington, Del.: ISI, 2009), 22.
3. Winston S. Churchill, A Roving Commission (New York: Scribner’s, 1941), 364.
4. Mein Kampf, 674; see also Hitler, Hitler’s Second Book, ed. Gerhard Weinberg, tr. Krista Smith (New York: Enigma, 2003), 192.
Churchill, House of Commons, 6 November 1938, Richard M. Langworth ed., Churchill By Himself (New York: Public Affairs, 2009), 346.
5. Hitler’s Second Book, xx.
6. Winston S. Churchill, The Grand Alliance (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1950), 370.
7. Mein Kampf, 468.
8. Ibid., 469.
9. Ibid., 473-75.
10. B. C. Sax and Dieter Kuntz, Inside Hitler’s Germany (Lexington, Mass.: D. C. Heath, 1992), 70.
11. Winston S. Churchill, Onwards to Victory (Boston: Little Brown, 1944), 317-18.
12. Winston S. Churchill, Savrola (New York: Random House, 1956), 64.
13. Mein Kampf, 471.
14. Ibid., 476-77.
15. Savrola, 107.
16. Mein Kampf, 631.
17. Savrola, 103-05.
18. Mein Kampf, 466, 468.
19. Ibid., 366, 483-84.
20. Ibid., 483, 358, 487-90, 505.
21. Savrola, 108-09.
22. Mein Kampf, 478-9, 369-70, 500.
23. Winston S. Churchill, The Unrelenting Struggle (London: Cassell, 1942), 275.
24. Mein Kampf, 456, 490, 504, 488 


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