Winston Churchill: A Hush Over Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

On the threshold of the outbreak of World War II, British statesman Winston Churchill addressed the American public, giving his analysis of the international situation and appealing for solidarity between democracies facing the threat of invasion from aggressive, militaristic dictatorships. He paints the situation in stark terms, enumerating the aggressive acts of Japan, Italy, and particularly Germany against their neighbors and pointing out that they have not been checked and are continuing their advance. Churchill mocks the claims that these dictatorships are acting in self-defense and vigorously condemns one-man, dictatorial rule. The liberal tradition of the English-speaking countries, he claims, is far superior, and he appeals to the cultural and political commonalities between the United States and Great Britain to call for solidarity in peace or in war.

Summary Overview

On the threshold of the outbreak of World War II, British statesman Winston Churchill addressed the American public, giving his analysis of the international situation and appealing for solidarity between democracies facing the threat of invasion from aggressive, militaristic dictatorships. He paints the situation in stark terms, enumerating the aggressive acts of Japan, Italy, and particularly Germany against their neighbors and pointing out that they have not been checked and are continuing their advance. Churchill mocks the claims that these dictatorships are acting in self-defense and vigorously condemns one-man, dictatorial rule. The liberal tradition of the English-speaking countries, he claims, is far superior, and he appeals to the cultural and political commonalities between the United States and Great Britain to call for solidarity in peace or in war.

Defining Moment

By August 1939, Adolf Hitler had overseen a series of successful territorial acquisitions in Europe, beginning with the takeover of Austria on March 12, 1938. By late 1938, Nazi Germany had annexed portions of Czechoslovakia following the Munich Agreement, which was signed by Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy, and authorized the annexation of Czechoslovakia's predominantly German-speaking Sudetenland region. The failure of the Munich Agreement to end Nazi aggression by “appeasing” Germany was clear to all by March 1939, when Germany annexed the remainder of Czechoslovakia in violation of the agreement, and many saw that war with Germany was becoming increasingly unavoidable. The German dictator had set his sights on his next target–Poland, a country that had recently regained its independence after World War I and had acquired considerable territory from Germany in the Versailles Treaty that ended that war. German anti-Semitism had also made itself manifest in unmistakably violent terms, in the nationwide pogrom known as Kristallnacht (called, in English, the Night of Broken Glass) on November 9–10, 1938. The horror of Kristallnacht had been extensively reported and had turned British and American public opinion even more firmly against Hitler. Europe's other leading fascist dictator, Italy's Benito Mussolini, had taken over the small kingdom of Albania and was continuing the forcible “Italianization” of the German-speaking population of Italy's South Tyrol region. Japanese aggression in China, a subject of particular concern to Americans, was proceeding largely unchecked.

The British government under Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, formerly viewed as the great champion of German appeasement, was taking diplomatic steps to stop the Nazi advance, but with little success. (There was still hope among some in Chamberlain's cabinet that Germany could be satiated at Poland's expense, in order to avoid war.) The Anglo-Polish Alliance was established in 1939, but had little in the way of military teeth. An alliance between Britain and France remained firm, but the hopes of an anti-Nazi alliance between the Western powers and the Soviet Union to stop further German aggression in Eastern Europe were fading fast. (Just two weeks after Churchill's radio address to the American public, representatives of Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union formalized the Nazi-Soviet Nonaggression Pact to establish a collective-security agreement between the two nations.) Without the aid of the Soviets, Britain and France had little hope of intervening effectively to protect Poland, and they could only face a long war with Germany. Although the sympathies of the US government and most Americans with an interest in foreign affairs were with the British, French, and Poles against Hitler's Germany, the United States was not taking an active role in opposing Germany either.

Domestically, British rearmament measures were continuing, and plans were being made to reintroduce national conscription. Churchill, who had criticized Chamberlain's policies of appeasement, had been vindicated to some degree by the collapse of the Munich Agreement, but he remained outside the cabinet and political power.

Author Biography

The son of a British politician and an American mother, British statesman Winston Spencer Churchill was a lifelong believer in a close Anglo-American partnership. During World War I, he had served as first lord of the Admiralty, the British cabinet minister responsible for the Royal Navy, and in several other positions. In the 1930s, Churchill, although a member of Parliament from the ruling Conservative Party, was excluded from the cabinet of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. A “voice in the wilderness,” he argued tirelessly for a more confrontational policy against the German dictator Adolf Hitler. Although frequently criticized as a warmonger, the failure of the Munich Agreement resulted in Churchill's views becoming increasingly mainstream. Churchill became prime minister in 1940 and served in that role for most of the war. He lost the premiership in the 1945 general election, but he remained active in politics as the leader of the opposition. He was reelected prime minister in 1951 and served in that position until 1955. Churchill died at the age of ninety on January 24, 1965, in London. He remains one of the most popular British politicians in the United States.

Document Analysis

Churchill begins his radio address by acknowledging the ongoing Second Sino-Japanese War, in which he places himself firmly on the side of the Chinese and urges the American people to do the same. He describes the Chinese as “fighting for what the founders of the American Constitution in their stately language called: ‘Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.’” Churchill then plunges into a description of a very tense moment in Europe. He enumerates the instances in which Hitler and Mussolini have taken over weaker regions and countries–describing the annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia by Germany and the occupation of Abyssinia (now known as Ethiopia) and Albania by Italy, actions that Churchill compares to the aggression of Japanese militarists in China. However, Churchill avoids discussing the most imminent specific threat–the German aggression against Poland–in this address, perhaps fearing that Poland's authoritarian and anti-Semitic dictatorship would not seem very sympathetic to his American listeners.

The bonds of the “English-speaking” peoples are a theme frequently invoked in Churchill's writing and oratory. In “A Hush over Europe,” he contrasts the safeguards against one-man rule found in the United States Constitution and the British Constitution with the absolute power of one man, Hitler, over Germany. As he often does, Churchill emphasizes the similarities of British and American political institutions and traditions rather than dwelling on their considerable differences.

Churchill sets the stage in Europe by vividly evoking the image of millions of German and Italian soldiers marching, suggesting that, though these soldiers are allegedly performing routine training maneuvers, war is imminent. Churchill mocks the claims of the Nazis to be acting for defensive purposes, pointing out that none of the smaller states surrounding Germany poses any conceivable threat to it, let alone the stateless Jewish people. He asserts that “if Herr Hitler does not make war, there will be no war.” His evocation of the German peoples of the Italian region of the Tyrol and their persecution suggests that not even “Germanic” peoples themselves were safe from the menacing power of the new dictatorships.

Despite the grimness of the situation, Churchill still holds out hope for peace through the collaboration of the big and small powers threatened by Germany. He does not link the Soviet Union to Nazi Germany as an aggressive “totalitarian” power in this address, as he had in previous statements, perhaps because he had not yet abandoned hopes for an alliance to contain Germany between the Soviets and the Western powers.

Essential Themes

Just a few weeks after Churchill's address, Hitler's aggression culminated in a German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The German attack was followed by British and French declarations of war on Germany and led to another Great War in Europe, which merged with the war in East Asia between Chinese and Japanese forces to become known as World War II. The Soviet Union divided Poland with Germany, but the Soviets later allied with Britain and France after being attacked by Germany in June 1941. Despite Churchill's urgings, the United States, while supportive of the anti-Nazi cause and cooperating with Britain in keeping the Atlantic shipping lanes clear, did not enter the war as a combatant until December 1941, following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. Decades after World War II, the most common perception of its beginning in Europe remains shaped by Churchill's picture of a failed appeasement policy.

The idea Churchill put forth of an Anglo-American alliance based on a shared tradition of democratic and constitutional values, an idea with its roots in World War I, persisted for decades into World War II, the Cold War, and the War on Terror. Churchill in particular became an iconic figure for those who support closer relations between the United States and Britain and also for those supporting a muscular foreign policy.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Gilbert, Martin. Churchill and America. New York: Free, 2005. Print.
  • _________. Winston Churchill: The Wilderness Years: Speaking Out against Hitler in the Prelude to War. London: IB Tauris, 2011. Print.
  • Macdonald, C. A. The United States, Britain and Appeasement, 1936–1939. New York: St. Martins, 1981. Print.
  • Manchester, William. The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill: Alone, 1932–1940. New York: Bantam, 1983. Print.
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