Winston Churchill

June 17, 2012

“Their Finest Hour”

On June 18, 1940, Winston Churchill rose in the House of Commons to deliver what would become one of his most famous speeches. The speech, delivered only six weeks into Churchill’s tenure as Prime Minister of England, came on the heels of the Battle of France, during which France fell to Nazi occupation. On June 17, 1940, Phillipe Pétain publicly announced that France would ask for an armistice with Nazi Germany, signaling the fall of France and the erection of Pétain’s puppet government full of Nazi sympathizers.

Churchill’s speech, on the heels of the fall of France, conveyed England’s determination to continue the war and emerge victorious. Churchill, with his usual bravado and elegance, declared that:

However matters may go in France or with the French Government, or other French Governments, we in this Island and in the British Empire will never lose our sense of comradeship with the French people. If we are now called upon to endure what they have been suffering, we shall emulate their courage, and if final victory rewards our toils they shall share the gains, aye, and freedom shall be restored to all. We abate nothing of our just demands; not one jot or tittle do we recede. Czechs, Poles, Norwegians, Dutch, Belgians have joined their causes to our own. All these shall be restored.

This renewed resolve on Churchill’s part is often cited as the moment when Britain as a whole gathered its courage to pursue the war and eventually defeat Nazi Germany. The historical importance of such a speech cannot be understated when one contemplates the question of morale in relation to World War II. In encouraging his countrymen, in warning them of the dark days to come while also providing them with hope, Churchill rallied his fellow countrymen to the cause, and, with their support, the nation was able to emerge victorious.

The most famous portion of the speech comes at the very end:

What General Weygand called the 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.”

–Mariah Dunsing is a recent graduate of the Ashbrook Scholar Program having majored in History and Political Science.

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