Study Guide

Winston Churchill in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

By William L. Shirer

Winston Churchill

Sir Winston Churchill replaced Neville Chamberlain as the British Prime Minister in May of 1940. He's gone down in as one of the great heroes of WWII, the man who refused to surrender to Hitler.

We also named our dog after him, but that's neither here nor there.

Although historians other than Shirer have proven that Churchill's colonial policies during and after the war were devastating to millions of people, Shirer shows us only Churchill's heroic side as a capital-G Great Defender of Democracy and Freedom. Churchill himself wrote a six-volume history of WWII (aren't you glad you're not reading that one?), and Shirer draws on those books for insight into Britain's role in the war.

For Shirer, Churchill was one of the few men in Britain who had the intelligence and far-sightedness to see the consequences of Hitler's early aggressions in the Rhineland, in Austria, and in Czechoslovakia. For instance, when he describes the German occupation of the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936, Shirer remarks that Churchill was the only man in England—and possibly even the only man in Europe, other than Hitler—who seemed to understand the significance of the Fuehrer's power play.

Churchill was strong in his opposition to the Munich Agreement, even as Chamberlain returned home triumphantly waving the signed "peace agreement." Shirer calls Churchill a "voice in the wilderness" when said, "We have sustained a total, unmitigated defeat" (3.12.368).

After the French signed an armistice with Germany, when his small country seemed to be standing alone in the world in opposing the Third Reich, begging a reluctant U.S. to come to their aid, Churchill gave some of the most inspiring wartime speeches in history. On June 4, 1940, he gave one of them:

We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight in the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and strength in the air, we shall defend our island, what ever the cost may be, we shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight in the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender […]. (4.21.114)

It sounds even better in person.

Churchill persuaded Roosevelt to come to Britain's aid with weaponry like tanks, guns, and fighter planes. Roosevelt agreed even though America still was not at war. Because of his brave opposition, Churchill got a lot of attention from Hitler, who made him the object of derision and ridicule in many of his raging speeches. Hitler consistently underestimated Churchill's resolve to keep fighting.

Britain took a pounding from the Luftwaffe during the Battle of Britain in 1940. But the Royal Air Force managed to prevail, forcing Hitler to give up the idea of invading Britain by land. While the air battle was raging and the British weren't sure of the outcome, Churchill told the House of Commons that, "never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few" (4.22.166).

Churchill repeatedly refused offers of "peace" with Britain from Hitler if it meant the continued enslavement of the other countries of Europe. He was convinced that historians would look back in wonder at Britain's resolve to go to war against Hitler.

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 say, "This was their finest hour." (4.21.167)

By 1941, Churchill was pleading with Roosevelt to enter the war. Britain had sustained serious losses in Egypt and the Middle East, and he knew that without U.S. help, the war would be a long, hard slog for Britain. He didn't get his wish until the U.S. was attacked at Pearl Harbor.

Churchill gets Shmoop's vote for MVP of WWII. Sorry, Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. Churchill was in it from the beginning.