Britain had declared war on Germany after the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939. But not much happened on the western front for the next eight months. Brits called it the "phoney war." They dropped some leaflets and made some threats, but the fight hadn't really come yet to the western front.
But by the time of Churchill's speech, the phoney war (we know, we know…British spelling) had become all too real. Eastern Europe was toast, and Britain had miserably failed to prevent the German invasion of Holland and Norway. Britain was the real prize for Hitler, and Churchill knew they'd be next. WC's job was to present a convincing rationale for war and buck up the people's confidence that the Brits could do the job. He also had to convince Parliament that he was the guy to lead the country in wartime.
Churchill knew that building a government that represented all parties was the only way to get everyone united behind the war effort. He promised that a united Britain could kick Nazi butt, and that he'd take the fight to them in every way possible.
The speech worked.
Parliament approved the new government by a vote of 381-0. Time magazine called the speech one of the 80 days that changed the world.
They were right.
Without the war, Winston Churchill wouldn't have become prime minister in May 1940, and this speech wouldn't exist. Neither would this Learning Guide, and how sad is that?
"Blood, toil, tears, and sweat" just about says it all about war.
Generally, when people are at war with a country run by fascists with a massive army and a psychotic, homicidal dictator, they worry. In this speech, you can see/hear Churchill addressing his audience's fears. Those fears are related most obviously to the war, but also to the way the war has affected Britain's politics.
He's talking to MPs who have just seen an abrupt change in leadership, but Churchill doesn't waste any time trying to appease them. He tells it like it is: there will be blood.
You can't call it fear-mongering because he was right: the war would bring death, destruction, and economic panic to Britain. But by laying the unvarnished truth out there, he was preparing his government to cope with it.
Paradoxically, that was reassuring.
Churchill didn't have to scare anyone; the Brits already knew they were next on Hitler's hit list.
Pre-Churchill, the government's problem was that it wasn't as afraid of the Nazi regime as they should've been. Thanks, Neville Chamberlain.
Nazis. We hate those guys.
Churchill did, too.
World War II has been characterized as a battle between good (the Allies) and evil (the Axis powers, especially the Nazis). Unlike other controversial wars—Vietnam or Iraq, for example—the citizens of the Allied countries were all in with the cause of freedom and justice against tyranny and fascism.
Shmoop knows that nothing is really all that black-and-white in any conflict, but if you're going to paint your opponent as the embodiment of evil, you could sure do worse than choosing Adolf Hitler.
Churchill lays out this worldview pretty clearly in the second half of his first speech to Parliament: No need for equal time or fairness in broadcasting, folks; make no mistake, we're fighting the Evil Empire and the survival of the world is at stake. And this was even before the world fully learned about extermination camps and crematoria.
Fortunately, Good won big-time over Evil in this one.
Here's a thought: Was the German effort to conquer Europe and gain territory considered more evil than Britain's imperialist policies because the conquered people were white?
Countries with democratic governments tend to see themselves as the good guys when they fight countries without democratic governments—which is always, because no two democracies have ever technically gone to war with each other (source).
There was a lot changing for Great Britain in 1939-1940. The war they'd been trying to avoid for years had begun, which led to the resignation of their highest-level government official. Britain was staring down the barrel of a very serious conflict against a better-armed foe who'd overrun Europe and had its sights set on Britain.
Ever hear the expression "Don't change horses in the middle of the stream"? Democratic countries often avoid changing leadership during wartime, which is why FDR ran for a third term (source). Such a change can destabilize an already precarious situation. But the Brits changed their head of government at a most critical time. Faced with global war, they needed someone who'd recognized the threat of Germany all along.
Churchill was the right horse—we mean man—for the job.
When the fate of the world is at stake, maybe it's preferable to just leaving things as they are. We're sure this crossed the minds of Parliament in 1940.
Churchill was actually a force for consistency, since he'd held the same attitude about Germany all along, as opposed to some other PMs we might name.