WWII was a time of great struggle for millions of people all over the world. It was a time of pain, suffering, loss, but eventually a victory that helped to shape the world as we see it today. It is hard for us to truly understand how communication as well as the spreading of important information worked before the computers and smart phones. When we read speeches and other texts from the 1940s or any other period in the past, it can often seem much more formal and sophisticated than some of the speech and “slang” that has crept into our everyday speech. Military and political leaders often gave speeches to large audiences about the war and what exactly was happening on the home-front and elsewhere. Winston Churchill is known today for his role in the war and for the numerous speeches he gave to a national and international audience. His “Their Finest Hour” speech was given after France had fallen and the Nazis were making their way to finish off England. In order to appeal to a mass audience, Churchill had to use language and style that would get his points across and rally the nation together. However, if he had used a completely simplistic style, his credibility and professionalism would have been completely lost as the speech went on. The strategies of the Official Style that Churchill uses, which include euphemism, slow sentence openings, and bureaucratic speech, allow for professionalism to show, but these strategies also make Churchill sound pretentious, and almost too smart in some cases, and this could have deterred some people from actually listening to what was actually being said.
Before analyzing Churchill’s speech more closely, I wanted to explain how I came across this text and why I chose to critique it. Originally I had planned on finding an article or text that had something to do with my English major, or a text about book publishing and editing because that is a career I am thinking of pursuing. However, I was coming up short when it came to finding such texts that I felt I could analyze and critique properly. I then decided to think about my interest and passion for history since I chose that area as my minor. I have always been fascinated with the WWII era, and how dictators like Hitler and Stalin, or military and political leaders like Churchill or Roosevelt could influence and inspire the masses of people that they often did. While making speeches and presentations isn't a strong suit of mine, I admire those who can have presence and confidence in front of large groups of people, and it was easy for me to incorporate this with a historical era filled with such individuals.
Obviously it is in Churchill’s interest to address the public about what occurred in France prior to his speech and to explain why not more was done by the British military to help their allies. However, he uses a slightly slower opening when informing the public about France. He begins by stating that he spoke about this subject “the other day”. So, if at least some of the public already knew what had happened, they could lose interest in what Churchill was saying even before making his overall point of the address. On one hand, he is trying to be factual and straight forward as any public figure should be, but his extensive opening description about the battle almost clouds the point he is trying to make: that more troops could have been sent to aid France, but those troops were making repairs from a previous battle at the time. Churchill slowly builds up what he wants to actually say and almost over-elaborates on the subject. This strategy does have its advantages in other circumstances, but here it doesn't help Churchill to address England’s general population.
However, this particular speech was originally given to the House of Commons, not to the general public. So because of this fact, Churchill could have written his speech focusing more on this political audience rather than Great Britain as a whole.
Another strategy that I have noticed throughout this address is the “dressing up” of certain terms or words, or “euphemistic” phrases. Following his opening statement, Churchill goes on to explain that he wasn't saying those things for “recrimination”. This isn't a word that I see in everyday, plain language. If he wanted to connect more to his audience, he could have said that he didn't want to blame someone else for the battle in France. That phrase, though longer than one word, makes much more sense than a more sophisticated word. Maybe he is trying to sound completely sophisticated and professional like any political leader should. However, that could work better among other political leaders and officials. The question is whether this did I fact work when he addressed the House of Commons. In his article that directly analyzes this speech, John Burns states that Churchill was “a man who raised the art of speech making to high literature” (8). Churchill is and was known for speeches like this one, but how did he become so popular if he had a limited or very specific audience in mind? Burns also explains how Churchill was revising this speech up until the very last minute before he spoke. Since he was newly elected to office, I think he was trying to impress the House, but also inspire them and rally them together in a time when it was needed. Another example of this strategy can be found when he says, “I should not think it would be very advantageous for the House to prolong this debate this afternoon under conditions of public stress.” This sentence could be changed to a more plain style in various ways, but I thought of it as “I don’t think the House should continue this debate because of the stress the public is facing.” To me, this makes more sense, but it still straight to the point. It may seem less professional, but if the public was to understand fully what Churchill was trying to say, it would have helped him to simplify some of his statements. To citizens of England and other countries, some simplicity would be more beneficial.
A third strategy that I noticed occurring throughout Churchill’s speech was some bureaucratic speech. While it wasn't as noticeable as the previous two strategies, there were instances in his speech where Churchill’s choice of words and tone made it seem like he was above the general public he was addressing. While this is technically true, I feel that it is important for leaders and orators to be on a similar level as the people to whom they are speaking. In one instance he says, “People seem to forget that we have an army.” This may be a mere fact that Churchill is stating, but the context and overall tone surrounding this statement make it seem like people should obviously know that Britain has a fully functioning army. In this period it is possible that not every single person knew of military strategies or the Navy was ready battle. Even today I wouldn't consider myself an expert in military knowledge. Again here you could argue that he is addressing fellow political leaders or members of the military rather than England as a whole. On the other hand, since it is known that he was originally addressing the House, this type of speech can be a little more justified. What was striking to me was that there were various accounts made by close family of Churchill and other politicians that he possessed some negative personality traits. He was said to be ill-tempered and rude on various occasions. In his article “Words as Weapons for Mass Persuasion” Eliecer Crespo- Fernandez talks about the idea of “overt propaganda”, and how Churchill could have used this type of speech in order to persuade the House to believe in his words and believe that they could defeat Germany and end the war. In general, Churchill used this among other Official Style strategies to boost national morale.
Overall, Winston Churchill does a fairly good job of showing England that he is aware of the situation and speaking calmly about it to the people. His speech has a mix of plain as well as a more official style. There are clear instances where sentences or phrases could be changed to appeal to a wider audience. You also have to consider communication during this era. It’s one thing to read this speech on the internet decades later, but I’m sure most people were listening to this speech on the radio or in a public setting. When listening to a speech like this, it could be harder to pick up the language and military terminology that is brought up throughout. So in that case, the speech was moving and could rally up the British population for more battle, but in some cases it could have turned them away because of how simple information was worded and morphed into the Official Style. Analyzing one of Winston Churchill’s most famous speeches has led me to conclude that the Official Style can often be used to get a main point across and to persuade a larger audience into believing in a certain fact or cause. However, if the style is not used in a correct or skillful way, the audience can receive the wrong message and begin to discount and scrutinize what the speaker is saying.