Seventy-five years ago, Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood before Parliament and delivered his “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech, arguably the finest oration of his career.
Churchill had long warned of Adolf Hitler’s threat to the free world and of Nazi Germany’s looming tyranny. He implored the people of Britain to stand up to the Third Reich, and was convinced that his country, along with their American cousins across the Atlantic, were the only hope to stop this unquenchable evil. He warned the House of Commons in 1932, just months before Hitler took power, that the members should not “delude themselves” into believing that Germany simply required equal status or a few diplomatic concessions.
He noted the dangerous changes taking place in German society.
“When we read about Germany, when we watch with surprise and distress the tumultuous insurgence of ferocity and war spirit, the pitiless treatment of minorities, the denial of the normal protections of civil society to large numbers of individuals solely on the ground of race,” he said in a 1933 speech, “when we see that occurring in one of the most gifted, learned, scientific, and formidable nations in the world, one cannot help feeling glad that the fierce passions that are raging in Germany have not found, as yet, any other outlet but upon Germans.”
At a time like that, Churchill was convinced the only policy that could possibly keep the peace was maintaining the military strength of Britain and its allies, but the leaders of Europe would have none of it and could not conceive of another terrible war like the one that had ended in 1918.
When Churchill biographer Virginia Cowles met with Churchill shortly before the war, he showed her a few stacks of papers that were part of a manuscript for a history of the English-speaking peoples. “I doubt I shall finish it before the war comes,” Churchill said glumly, “and if I do, the part the English-speaking people will play will be so decisive I will have to add several more volumes.” He added, “And if it is not decisive no more histories will be written for many years.”
Churchill’s ascension to power on May 10, 1940, coincided precisely with the German invasion of Belgium and Holland, initiating its warpath through Western Europe. This invasion ended the “phoney war” period of World War II marked by much tension and growing calls for peace. But this was merely the quiet before the storm. Upon hearing the news of the sudden German attack, Churchill met with Lord Halifax and Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in what Churchill called the “most important” interview of his life.
The British government was in turmoil, and Chamberlain conceded the country needed a more uniting and dynamic figure to lead the nation in what was clearly becoming a massive and catastrophic war. Churchill was informed in this meeting that the duty to lead the British people must fall to him. This was the moment Churchill had been waiting for his entire life.
Churchill said in the The Gathering Storm, the first volume in his World War II memoir:
During these last crowded days of the political crisis, my pulse had not quickened at any moment. I took it all as it came. But I cannot conceal from the reader of this truthful account that as I went to bed at about 3 A.M., I was conscious of a profound sense of relief. I felt as if I were walking with Destiny, and that all my past life had been but a preparation for this hour and for this trial.
The pugnacious Churchill had wandered in the political wilderness through most of life, had been in almost perpetual war with party establishments, and had almost always followed his passions and principles rather that taking the safe path to leadership. The great man entered the arena in the free world’s moment of greatest desperation, and he did not disappoint.
Cowles wrote of this moment in her book Winston Churchill:
Never in history have the people of Britain been so solidly behind a Prime Minister. Mr. Churchill did not fail them. At last the canvas was high and broad enough to work on; at last his brilliant colours were needed to depict the terrible and majestic glow on the horizon. He thrilled the western world to its mission as no man could have done. … When he spoke of Man, he was thinking of Mankind; and the future of Mankind hung in the balance.
In the month after Churchill became Prime Minister, the German war machine stunned the world by quickly conquering most of Western Europe and quickly setting the French Republic—which had fought tenaciously for four long years during Great War—on the brink of collapse.
The events of May and early June of 1940 cleared all doubts about what had to be done; appeasement of the Nazi regime had failed to secure peace or security. The free people would now have to fight it out in what would become the bloodiest war in human history.
The badly outnumbered British Expeditionary Force could do little to stop the relentless advance of Hitler’s legions and had been making a continual, hasty retreat. Trapped and perilously close to destruction, the BEF launched Operation Dynamo, a daring and last ditch attempt to escape from continental Europe at Dunkirk. The evacuation across the English Channel has gone into legend as the nearly miraculous deliverance of the seemingly doomed Allied army. Over 335,000 British, French, and other European troops escaped to Great Britain, far exceeding even Churchill’s wildest hopes.
Churchill historian Roy Jenkins wrote, “The return to home shores by a quarter of a million of the still small British army was of hard practical importance.” He continued, “But it had even greater psychological significance. It amounted almost to a regathering of the family around the domestic hearth. It was Christmas come early in June.”
It was at the conclusion of this heroic effort that Churchill decided to make an address to Parliament. Reminding his countrymen in their exuberance that an evacuation was not a victory, he nonetheless—in stirring fashion—gave an ultimatum to Germany that the British Empire, though broken and bloodied, would never capitulate. He called on his people to fight no matter what the cost. And ever the far-seeing statesman, he made sure to exclaim at the end of his speech exactly from where the conquered people of Europe would receive their deliverance. The New World would have to “step forth” and unleash its economic might in “liberation of the old.”
Churchill had spent nearly a decade warning of the totalitarian aspects of Nazi Germany, for which he was mocked and shunned. The rise of a strident and increasingly militant China putting its tentacles around increasingly large amounts of the South China Sea is just one example of how weakness from the West and the United States is creating a more dangerous world.
But the even greater evil, too often dismissed and ignored, is the perpetual looming threat of the radical Islamist ideology that now operates freely in the Middle East and, with increasing frequency, appears on the soil of countries all over the world. Those who have recognized this evil have too often been derided and mocked. The free people of today have much to learn from studying the life of Churchill, a great man who recognized the dangers of allowing evil to flourish and always stood for liberty and Western civilization.
Listen to the final dramatic moments of Churchill’s speech: