Seventy Years Later, Churchill’s ‘Finest Hour’ Yields Insights





...Seventy years ago, on June 18, 1940, Winston Churchill, barely six weeks in office as Britain’s prime minister and confronted with the threat of invasion from Nazi-occupied France, rose in the House of Commons and, in 36 minutes of soaring oratory, sought to rally his countrymen with what has gone down in history as his “finest hour” speech....

The original 23-page typescript of the speech, heavily edited by Churchill in scrawls of blue and red ink, rests now in one of 2,500 boxes of documents and artifacts, numbering more than a million in all, that cram the carefully guarded upper floors of the Churchill Archives Center of Cambridge University’s Churchill College, founded in 1960, five years before Churchill died.

In recent days, the speech and other related documents, including an admonishing letter about his ill-tempered behavior toward his staff from Churchill’s wife, Clementine, and diary entries from the time by his private secretary, John Colville, have been pulled together and put on display for visiting scholars, journalists and others for the insights they offer into how Churchill wrote the speech — intensively redrafting it right up to the minute he rose to deliver it — and into his fractious and quarrelsome state of mind at the time....

Churchill, after all, was already an iconic, if controversial, figure when he took office, and has long since taken his place in history’s pantheon. In a poll of more than one million television viewers in 2002, he was voted the greatest Englishman or woman who ever lived (outranking, among the first 10 finishers, Isaac Newton; Admiral Lord Nelson, Diana, Princess of Wales; and John Lennon).

What the Churchill College documents reveal, perhaps surprisingly for those accustomed to the confident sweep of Churchill’s oratory, is the last-minute reworking that he applied to his speech, adding phrases here, rewriting others and adding yet others on the fly as he delivered the speech.

In the famous last passage of the speech, the phrase he used to describe the world into which Europe and the United States would be plunged if Hitler prevailed — “the abyss of a new Dark Age made more sinister, and perhaps more prolonged, by the lights of perverted science” — were amended, perhaps in the last moments before he rose in the Commons, with red-ink handwriting that perfected the alliteration....




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