Winston Churchill: “The Lights Are Going Out” in Europe Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

In this speech, British politician Winston Churchill gives his view of the international situation after the Munich Agreement and appeals to an American audience for solidarity against the “totalitarian” powers–particularly Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler–in the wake of the French and British abandonment of Czechoslovakia to occupation by Germany. Although the statement is full of gloomy imagery, Churchill still holds forth hope that the dictators Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini can be stopped by united action, portraying himself as a lover and supporter of peace rather than a warmonger. He points out that America cannot isolate itself from this struggle, but must arm to join the other democracies, led by Britain and France, in a common fight against dictatorial aggressors.

Summary Overview

In this speech, British politician Winston Churchill gives his view of the international situation after the Munich Agreement and appeals to an American audience for solidarity against the “totalitarian” powers–particularly Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler–in the wake of the French and British abandonment of Czechoslovakia to occupation by Germany. Although the statement is full of gloomy imagery, Churchill still holds forth hope that the dictators Hitler and Italy's Benito Mussolini can be stopped by united action, portraying himself as a lover and supporter of peace rather than a warmonger. He points out that America cannot isolate itself from this struggle, but must arm to join the other democracies, led by Britain and France, in a common fight against dictatorial aggressors.

Defining Moment

The National Socialists, or Nazis, led by Adolf Hitler took power in Germany in 1933, and–in addition to destroying German democracy–quickly began to reverse many provisions of the Versailles settlement reached at the end of World War I. The military limitations the peace treaty had placed on Germany–such as strict limits on the size of the army and navy–were repudiated, and in 1938, Hitler began an aggressive program of territorial expansion with the annexation of Austria, an act forbidden by the Versailles settlement but one in which the German dictator faced little opposition. His next major target was Czechoslovakia, a Central European state created in the Versailles settlement out of Slavic-dominated portions of the Habsburg Empire. Hitler's initial target was the Sudetenland, a German-speaking region in western Czechoslovakia that Hitler claimed was oppressed by the Slavic majority in the rest of the country. The major democratic powers of Europe–Britain and France–were reluctant to go to war after the horror of World War I, and hoped that Hitler's territorial demands would be limited and not worth opposing with force. This policy became known as “appeasement.” Appeasement reached its height with the Munich Agreement in September 1938 between Germany, France, Italy, and Britain, which gave the Sudetenland to Germany. The mountainous Sudetenland was Czechoslovakia's first line of defense against Germany, and its loss rendered Czechoslovakia so vulnerable that it was regarded by many, including Churchill, as continuing to exist only at Germany's pleasure. In Britain and much of the rest of the world, the Munich Agreement was associated with British prime minister Neville Chamberlain. The agreement was initially quite popular in the United Kingdom, where it was viewed, in Chamberlain's words, as guaranteeing “peace in our time.” However, the hopes of Chamberlain and other appeasers proved fruitless, as continuing German rapacity in Central Europe made another big war seem inevitable.

Germany was not the only power that seemed to present a threat to peace. Fascist and militarist aggression was also apparent in the actions of Fascist Italy, which under dictator Benito Mussolini had conquered and annexed Ethiopia, and Imperial Japan, which was fighting a bloody war of conquest and expansion in China. Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany had also intervened effectively in the Spanish Civil War in support of the Fascist general Francisco Franco. Franco and his allies had faced little or no effective opposition from Britain and France, who theoretically supported the cause of the legitimate Spanish Republic, but, in practice, did nothing to help it defend itself.

Author Biography

British statesman Winston Churchill, the son of a British politician and his American wife, was throughout his long career a firm believer in the Anglo-American alliance. He served as first lord of the admiralty, the cabinet member with responsibility for the Royal Navy, and in several other positions during World War I. In the late 1930s, Churchill, although a member of the ruling Conservative Party, was excluded from the cabinets of Conservative prime ministers Stanley Baldwin and Neville Chamberlain, although he continued to serve in Parliament. As an outsider, he vigorously critiqued British policy as failing to stand up to the aggressive demands of Hitler and was particularly scathing in his critique of the Munich Agreement. Churchill was regarded as vindicated by the outbreak of World War II and served as prime minister for most of it. He remained a popular figure in the United States for the rest of his life and after.

Document Analysis

The title of this address is a reference to the quotation attributed to British foreign secretary Sir Edward Grey at the dawn of World War I: “The lamps are going out all over Europe; we shall not see them lit again in our lifetime.” Evoking this quotation lends gravity to Churchill's statement and summons the image of imminent disaster, quite possibly in the form of another European war. Churchill's address is both a lament for lost opportunities to stop Hitler and an exhortation for the future. Hitler can still be stopped, but it requires solidarity among the great and small powers of Europe in the face of German aggression, as well as American preparation for war.

In addressing Americans, Churchill had to confront the common American belief that events in Europe posed little threat to Americans–an idea reinforced by the feeling among many Americans that intervention in World War I had been a mistake. He flatters his American audience by suggesting that Americans have a better understanding of the issues at stake than did the ordinary citizens of Britain and France. He suggests that Nazi power is already reaching into the Americas.

Churchill places the struggle against Hitler in the context of the defense of liberal values and a way of life common to democratic countries. He particularly identifies the value of liberal institutions with the “English-speaking peoples” of Britain, the British dominions, and the United States, but admits the value of the tradition of the French Revolution and French democracy as well. Churchill was a Francophile in addition to feeling a kinship with America.

He says that the loss of Czechoslovakia is particularly painful, as it is the loss of a democratic multiethnic state. Churchill links Nazism to Communism as examples of complete one-party rule, “totalitarianism.” Although Churchill mentions the Soviet Union–“Russia”–as a potential member of an anti-Nazi coalition, it is clearly not the type of ally he prefers. Churchill was a strong anti-Communist, who had supported vigorous intervention against the Russian Revolution, and it is possible that his emphasis on similarities between Nazism and Communism was designed to appeal to anti-Communist Americans.

Churchill warns that the coming war will be more terrible than previous wars because of technological advances, particularly the invention of the airplane and aerial bombing. The horror of aerial bombing was particularly effective in addressing British and American audiences, as it emphasized that their isolation from Continental Europe would not necessarily save them from the full horrors of war as it had in World War I.

Essential Themes

Czechoslovakia was unable to resist a full German military takeover in March 1939. The picture of the late 1930s given here by Churchill has dominated most popular thinking on the subject of the causes of World War II, and the British and French abandonment of Czechoslovakia to Hitler has come to be seen as the classic example of the failure of appeasement. The idea that Churchill was right about the failure of appeasement when others supported it would contribute much to his role as an iconic figure in both the United Kingdom and the United States (Churchill was made an honorary American citizen in 1963). Harkening back to Churchill's example in opposing appeasement has been a staple for Americans advocating more confrontational policies in both the Cold War against the Soviet Union and the War on Terror following the attacks of September 11, 2001. Churchill's linkage of the Nazi and Communist states as totalitarian and presenting a similar danger to Western democracy would also have a long future, particularly during the Cold War.

The war Churchill anticipated did indeed begin the following year, as a result of German aggression against Poland. And though America provided considerable aid to the Allied cause against Germany, it did not enter the war until the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the German declaration of war against the United States late in 1941. Anglo-American victory in the war required a close alliance with the Soviet Union, but this would fall apart quickly after the war, and Churchill himself would popularize the term “Iron Curtain” to describe the division between Soviet-occupied and Western Europe.

Churchill also proved an accurate prophet of the terrors of aerial bombing directed at civilian populations, although the British under his leadership proved enthusiastic adopters of the technique in the war against Germany.

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: Tauris, 2011. Print.
  • Macdonald, C. A. The United States, Britain and Appeasement, 1936–1939. New York: St. Martins, 1981. Print.
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