This Is Their Finest Hour
“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.’” Winston Churchill
More than seventy years have passed since the battles have ended, but World War II continues to resonate in the world today. After Poland, Norway, Denmark, Belgium, the Netherlands, and France fell one by one under Nazi control, the sole territory standing in between German political leader Adolf Hitler and his full control over Europe was Britain. At the time, the late British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, who had only been Prime Minister for six weeks, led his people into battle (International Business). In this paper, I will examine Winston Churchill’s This Was Their Finest Hour speech he gave in the House of Commons on June 18, 1940 as invasion threatened Britain. Historians have claimed this speech to be “one of the greatest speeches ever delivered in the English language” (International Business) as it aided to inspire Britain to its eventual victory.
Winston Churchill excelled as a communicator which benefitted him greatly as a World leader, for how can one lead if one cannot communicate to, and with, the people? The politician was a master orator who, in recent years, has been a model for rhetoricians in regards to his “rhetorical ability to dismantle the traditional barriers between political parties and unite them in one cause during wartime, his ability to relieve fear and anxiety amongst people, and his ability to inspire and convince them to fight with resolution” (Hyde, 1). By exploring ideas and concepts from communication approaches, such as Aristotle’s “modes of proof” (pathos, logos, and ethos), the sociological perspective, and the psychological perspective, I will demonstrate how Winston Churchill’s rhetoric kept Britain’s courage alive during WWII.
Throughout history, the world of rhetoric had been strongly influenced by Aristotle’s modes of persuasion: ethos, pathos, and logos. In Churchill’s Their Finest Hour, credibility, emotional appeal, and logical reasoning were used for social justice during wartime. Communicators have studied the power of ethos ever since the Greek period, notably Aristotle who believed ethos was the most effective means of persuasion (McCroskey, 82). James C. McCroskey, author of An Introduction to Rhetorical Communication defines ethos as “the attitude toward a source of communication held at a given time by a receiver”. In this case, it is Winston Churchill’s, the source, character which will be conveyed through Their Finest Hour in order to influence his audience’s emotion towards the impending Battle of Britain.
The ethos of a source tends to vary greatly from hearer to hearer in an audience, and a source’s ethos tends to vary from one point in time to another. Like attitudes, beliefs, morals, and values, ethos usually changes due to events experienced by the source, or the rhetor, and sometimes ethos can change due to one single communication act. There are many examples of this in Churchill’s dialogue. For example, “They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine,” demonstrates to his audience, the people of Great Britain and the House of Commons to whom he was immediately addressing, that he is a socially conscientious Prime Minister.
Churchill further demonstrates his concern for his people by saying: “I should not think it would be very advantageous for the House to prolong this Debate this afternoon under conditions of public stress. Many facts are not clear that will be clear in a short time.” Thirdly, he proves his expertise, devotion, and knowledge of government functions by reassuring his country that he is well-educated and prepared for events of war: “The disastrous military events which have happened during, the past fortnight have not come to me with any sense of surprise.” Regarding ethos, we tend to believe and relate to people whom we respect (Ethos, durhamtech.edu); his authoritarian attitude makes Churchill worthy of respect. In regards to ethos and its credibility, we often refer to the line “actions speak louder than words.” While ethos is demonstrated strongly in Their Finest Hour, it is enforced through Churchill’s actions outside of the House of Commons.
There are many photographs of Churchill among rubble of destroyed cities displaying the V for victory sign that has widely came to be known as his signature hand gesture. The simple gesture so proudly shown by Churchill indicates his optimism and acted as an easy way for people to imitate his positivity that Britain could, and would, be victorious over Germany (Howells). The Finest Hour strategically presents arguments as to why Britain can be victorious against the German army whether it be battle by land, sea, or air. Reassurance, of course, is not necessarily action; therefore, Churchill communicated rational appeal, known as logos, in order to subdue and address the concerns of his audience.
First, “I have thought it right upon this occasion to give the House and the country some indication of the solid, practical grounds upon which we base our inflexible resolve to continue the war […] But I can assure you our professional advisers of the three Services unitedly advise that we should carry on the war, and that there are good and reasonable hopes of final victory.” Next, he backs up his rational appeals by advising his audience that he does plan on acting on irrational, impulsive war strategies: “Those are the regular, well-tested, well-proved arguments on which we have relied during many years in peace and war.”
As mentioned, pathos evokes the emotional appeal of a rhetor’s speech. In this case, Churchill evokes mainly nationalism, pride, and confidence in his audience as a way to encourage them believe in their country, themselves, their military, and perhaps most importantly, in him; Churchill plants “a deep-seated British pride” (Hyde, 14). To do so, he brags about the quality of people that exist in Britain, and that no country is comparable to them: “I do not at all underrate the severity of the ordeal which lies before us; but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona, and will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, at least as well as any other people in the world.” What makes Churchill such a successful orator is his method of linking these modes of persuasion in order to maximise their power (Hyde, 13).
For example, in Their Finest Hour he substantiates his pathos with logos; in other words, he substantiates his emotional appeals in logical arguments. He uses statistics and experiences to provide his audience with the confidence to trust in the military’s action, and he links this evidence with emotional appeal in order to encourage his audience to trust in their decisive action because he does: “Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion but none whatever for panic or despair.” He uses “I am happy,” and “I look forward confidently” to describe how confident he feels about the actions being taken. As for what concerns the sociological perspective of communication, many elements can be can be applied to Churchill rhetoric.
This perspective is used to empower a group of people in order to make a change, encourage, and unify them (Cudahy, Chris). Churchill’s Their Finest Hour is a great example of his ability to effectively deliver a message to his audience to empower them and encourage them during wartime. In a time of crisis and uncertainty, the sociological perspective allows a group to “soak up” its leader’s attitudes whether the leader be aggressive, passive, encouraging, inspiring, or reassured (Cudahy, Chris). We can observe how Churchill manipulated certain cultural symbols relating to British patriotism to increase it and to generate some perseverance. For example, he calls upon their Christian society, a society where God is present, and where God is good: “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.” He manipulates the long continuity of the British Empire, which underlines its monarchs, faith, family, and indeed its freedom. He also made reference to Andrew Marvell, an English metaphysical poet and politician who on occasion sat in the House of Commons: “He nothing common did or mean, Upon that memorable scene.” This quote is an ode to Oliver Cromwell, whom Marvell had loyalty, who was an English military and political leader during the mid-1600; it reflects an utter loathing of political violence (Marvell, Patterson, and Dzelzainis). While being universally resonating, the line ultimately applies to the British who must do what they have to do to protect their country.
By connecting Churchill’s logos – logical arguments as to how Britain can be victorious over Germany – and the unifying elements he used in what can be applied sociologically, we are able to paint “the big picture” of Churchill’s vision for his nation. His speech is purpose-driven and forward-looking, thereby establishing continuity and strength. In Their Finest Hour, he even gives the people a chance to individually be a part of the “long haul”: “every man and every woman will have the chance to show the finest qualities of their race, and render the highest service to their cause.” The final aspect of the sociological perspective to examine of Their Finest Hour is the element of social construction of reality.
On June 18, 1940 in Great Britain represented “the calm before the storm.” The looming German invasion represented a threat to Great Britain’s territory, morale, and culture. It would normally be viewed as danger and intimidating, but in this time of uncertainty and fear, Churchill chose to manipulate “threat” and transform it into and opportunity (Hyde, 15). By doing so amidst great chaos, he induces feelings of excitement and confidence. He declares that his people will “have the chance” to use their “finest qualities” and “render their highest service” to the war because it is through their competence that they will prevail. He emphasizes this in the very last line of his speech for “their finest qualities” are what depends on their British life, and the long continuity of our institutions and the British Empire.
Next I will be exploring the psychological perspective by examining the psychology of Churchill’s audience. Churchill’s obvious audience of his Their Finest Hour speech on June 18, 1940 was to the House of Commons. While he addresses other groups in his speech, such as his allies, Christians, and the Nazi/German population, his primary audience was the House of Commons and the British nation. As previously mentioned in this paper, Churchill manipulated the wartime situation into an “opportunity” for his people, and inspired his audience the same way. He chose to create a courageous and competent audience rather than addressing what would have been a frightened distressed one. To do so, he confronts the seriousness of the situation by stating the facts of their wartime reality and follows up with a strong statement, previously cited, evoking his pathos: “but I believe our countrymen will show themselves capable of standing up to it, like the brave men of Barcelona, and will be able to stand up to it, and carry on in spite of it, at least as well as any other people in the world.”
He declares his audience capable and important. The next and final element of the psychological perspective I will examine concerns mass movements – in this case, the Battle of Britain or the British army versus the German army – and how they draw appeal from a common enemy. This element can also affect a sociological view of communication because it induces British drive and devotion to their own country and to their society, thereby “hardening” their resolve against the German army (Cudahy, Chris). That is to say, while World War II was not a cult or an institution, each party strived for self-advancements, fought against common hatreds, and unified under their common goals. In Their Finest Hour, Churchill identifies Hitler as the common enemy, employing devilish characteristics by using terms like cruel and ruthless. Also, in a more aggressive statement, he says: “the enemy is crafty and cunning and full of novel treacheries and stratagems.”
What is especially impressive of Churchill’s rhetoric is that he established Hitler, and Hitler alone, as the enemy of war – not the Germans as a whole. It is possible that Churchill did this because it creates a more vivid image of a nation’s victory against one sole opponent. To conclude, Winston Churchill’s address to the House of Commons on June 18, 1940 is a historical speech that now, represents more than just a wartime speech. Its final statement, “if the British Empire and its Commonwealth last for a thousand years, men will still say, ‘This was their finest hour,” now signifies a nation’s pledge to exploit all of its resources to victory no matter the cost and no matter the odds. In his rhetoric, he applied elements of ethos, pathos, and logos in order to create a speech that epitomizes freedom and liberty.
Their Finest Hour provided the people of Great Britain an encouraging push during a time of great chaos and confusion, but Churchill was not going to allow Hitler’s “totalitarianism” influence into the hearts of the people of his beloved nation, so he encouraged them and reassured them that, despite the overwhelming fear, Britain would win. Churchill’s skills as an orator became essential when he was instated into Parliament just six weeks before the war began but the nation relied on his leadership. Their Finest Hour is a sole example of how Churchill gained British people’s confidence by motivating them to join the war effort as a whole population, not a lone soldiers. He managed to keep British morale afloat by stressing the importance of unity of a society during wartime by unifying them against the enemy – Hitler. He was unambiguous and well-focused, and his leadership epitomized perseverance.