It was one of the darkest months in European history — a darkness in June, prompted by how the Nazis, already in possession of Austria, Czechoslovakia and Poland, and moving through the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg and much of France, forced Paris to capitulate. A French hero of the First World War — a savior transformed into a scoundrel — sued for peace in the second war. The prime minister of Great Britain addressed the House of Commons of a nation that seemed to stand alone against Nazi tyranny in Europe.
That day he spoke of a “colossal military disaster,” of “heavy odds” and of “the worst possibilities.” Britain’s troops, dispatched to Europe to fight the onrushing Germans, were rescued at Dunkirk and ferried home across an angry channel, a triumphal achievement until you confront the stubborn, dark fact that it was but a successful tactical retreat, among the most desperate in European warfare. Of good news there really was none. And then a man known to suffer from the blackest bouts of depression issued the most optimistic statement of his century:
“Let us therefore brace ourselves to our duties, and so bear ourselves that if the British Empire and its Commonwealth were to last for a thousand years, men will say, ‘This was their finest hour.’”
It is now 70 years on — the anniversary is Friday — and the world, in awe that grows from year to year, still believes that the years 1939 to 1945 were Great Britain’s finest hour, and one of the finest in history.
That phrase — finest hour — is the title of one of the six volumes of Winston Churchill’s war memoirs, perhaps not the most accurate account of World War II, but surely the most satisfying reading experience growing out of it. That phrase also provided the title of countless chronicles of Britain’s war years. “Finest hour” is to British rhetoric what “ask not” is to American rhetoric — the crispest expression of a nation’s hope and idealism, the way “fear itself” is the distilled essence of American determination and “better angels” is the purest form of American civic faith. Never underestimate the power of two words to move a nation.
“Finest hour” came to characterize Churchill’s speech at Westminster on June 18, 1940, and they were words of challenge. But what preceded them were words of defiance, seldom quoted but nonetheless forming a passage of verbal mastery that reminds us of what lay ahead for Britain:
“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.”
That penultimate paragraph and remarks like them prompted the great British philosopher and historian Isaiah Berlin to describe the Churchill of this period — there were other Churchills in a life that spanned nine decades, and not all of them pointed to sunlit uplands — as “a great actor, perhaps the last of his kind, upon the stage of history.” He said Churchill spoke his lines “with a large, unhurried and stately utterance in a blaze of light, as is appropriate to a man who knows that his work and his person will remain the objects of scrutiny and judgment to many generations.”
Churchill thrived on the crisis of his time, repeatedly telling colleagues that they must relish the history they were making rather than despair of the history they were experiencing.
There was, to be sure, cause for great despair, especially in Paris, sometimes called the City of Light. The day Marshal Petain made peace with Germany and became a symbol of French infamy, the American journalist William L. Shirer was in the Place de la Concorde, where the sentinel of American idealism, Woodrow Wilson, stayed during the Paris Peace Conference that opened with such hope in 1919 and caused such despair in the 1930s. Here is an excerpt from Shirer’s diary:
“This evening Paris is weird and, to me, unrecognizable. There’s a curfew at 9 p.m. — an hour before dark. The blackout is still enforced. The Paris of gay lights, the laughter, the music, the women in the streets — when was that?”
It was in another age, shoved swiftly into the past, along with the tales of the military glory of France (which collapsed in six weeks) and of Great Britain (which hurried out of Europe on the fabled “little ships of Dunkirk” only to face Nazi bombers in the Battle of Britain).
Within days of his “finest hour” speech, Churchill would be ordering the destruction of the remainder of the French fleet, which had fled to northern Africa. The price of keeping the French fleet out of the war: the death of 1,300 French sailors. The hurt lasts to this day, and the word “Oran” — the port in Algeria where the ultimatum and confrontation occurred — is today in France a byword perhaps even more bitter than “Waterloo” or “Dien Bien Phu.”
Not everyone found inspiration in the speech, of course. Kingsley Martin of the New Statesman, a left-leaning publication often skeptical of Churchill, claimed the prime minister misjudged the temperament of the British people in calling this its finest hour. “To talk to common people in or out of uniform,” he wrote, “is to discover that determination to defend this island is coupled with a deep and almost universal bitterness that we have been reduced to such a pass.”
Reduced to that pass, perhaps — but gazing at sunlit uplands.
“In 1940, there was a call for a quality of war leadership such as never existed in the First War,” said former Prime Minister Harold Wilson in one of the great understatements of a people known for understatement. Seventy years later, we still marvel at how Churchill alchemized disaster into determination and underlined the value of valor. It was a gift for the ages, envied in every age, especially our own.