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A few months after Britain officially declared war on Germany and its allies in September, 1939, Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain resigned. Chamberlain had been disgraced by his previous policy of appeasement toward German leader Adolf Hitler. By the time he realized his tragic mistake, everyone knew he wasn't the man to lead the country into war with Germany.
Winston Churchill, Lord of the Admiralty, a man who'd warned about the German threat for years, was chosen to take his place and form a new government.
By the time the new prime minister gave his "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat" speech in 1940, Hitler and his Nazi regime had overrun much of Europe, had just invaded Holland, and were about to break through into France. It seemed that Great Britain was the last country standing, and they knew Hitler wanted to take them down, too.
On May 13, 1940, Churchill addressed Parliament for the first time as prime minister to deliver a speech that would become known as "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat." Churchill was pretty well known for his speeches, as well as for his one-liners. By this point, he was already famous in Britain for his lengthy political and military career and the books he wrote about that lengthy political and military career.
The speech he gave to Parliament on May 13 had two primary aims. First, he took care of some business and talked about the new government he was forming. He was making an effort to create a true coalition government that included people from all parties. If you're wondering why he was creating a government, here's a guide on the British parliamentary system to help explain.
His second aim? To get everyone amped up for the coming war.
Unlike his predecessor, Churchill was ready and willing to fight. He'd been telling people for years that Germany was a serious threat. But the government leaders kept saying "We'd rather not fight; this Hitler guy isn't so bad as long as he keeps it to the German-speaking part of the world." Chamberlain, the previous PM, got the boot for being conned by Hitler's promises to stay out of Europe and as a result pretty much handing Czechoslovakia over to the Nazis (source).
Yeah, if this wasn't an occasion for an "I told you so," we don't know what is.
Of course, Churchill was classier than that.
This speech was Churchill's grand entrance to the prime ministership—yes, it's a word; look it up—and a rallying cry to Parliament. Churchill used the speech to inspire a group of MPs who were very worried about the coming conflict, were still loyal to Neville Chamberlain, or had mixed feelings about Churchill. Churchill employed his famous way with words to express serious political ideas but also get a bunch of politicians unified for the huge challenges that lay ahead.
Adolf Hitler, consider yourself on notice.
Have you ever heard an elderly man say something along the lines of "If it weren't for me, you'd be speaking German right now"?
Maybe not in real life, but you've definitely seen it in a movie. Or on that episode of Gilmore Girls where Taylor Doose's family is in town and one of them gives Michel a hard time for his French accent…
Anyway, the reason people say stuff like that is because Nazi Germany was rapidly trying to take over Europe, and had the Allies not stopped them, they'd have taken over way more than Europe. Global domination was their game. (Which, btw, is also the premise of The Man in the High Castle.)
The "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat" speech represents a turning point in World War II, when the Nazis' main opponent finally stood up and declared its will to fight. It established Churchill as an unshakeable wartime leader. He's still beloved primarily because of these five years of his political career, which overshadow some of his less attractive policies. For example, people tend to overlook his whole "colonialism is a good thing" philosophy since he helped save the free world.
In other words, this speech wasn't just a turning point for the war, but for Churchill himself.
World War II dominates 20th-century history. You can't turn a corner without seeing a new book about it, or a billboard for a new documentary, or a store selling George Patton action figures.
For a while, the Nazis were doing pretty well at conquering and imposing fascism on the rest of Europe. Then Britain slowed them down.
Here, in front of Parliament, Churchill really throws down the metaphorical gauntlet, getting the Brits braced for future battles and pulling no punches about the war that would affect not just their nation, but the whole world.
So the next time you hear those words from an old soldier (and there aren't many of them left) believe him. The U.S. rode to the rescue in 1941, but if it hadn't been for Churchill's version of "let's roll," we might all be living under fascism right now.
And that's no fun. No fun at all.
The International Churchill Society
You know you're important when you've got your very own international society. It's got information, documents, even myths about the man.
Pretty much exactly what it sounds like. A one-stop shop for all things Churchill, including photos, a timeline, and quotes.
Winston in Hollywood
No, he never went there, but plenty of actors have portrayed him. Here's some of the more famous ones.
The Miller Center, "Franklin D. Roosevelt"
The Miller Center's a great source of information about major figures in American political history. The section on FDR, especially the part about Foreign Affairs, helps you understand the larger context of World War II, especially if you just can't manage without having the American perspective. FDR and Churchill were great buddies, btw.
The King's Speech (2010)
We'll watch pretty much anything with Colin Firth in it (hellooo Mr. Darcy), but the fact that he won the Oscar for this one is a testament to how good it is. Oh, it also won Best Picture, which is apparently a big deal. Anyway, it tells the story of King George VI learning to speak publicly with a stutter, focusing on the couple years leading up to his speech announcing the declaration of war with Germany. Churchill only makes a brief appearance, but you can't have it all.
The Gathering Storm (2002)
Although the title is taken from Churchill's own book about World War II, this TV movie was focused on Churchill and his wife, Clementine. Just in case you want to get a little more insight into his personal life. It stars Albert Finney and Lynn Redgrave, two acting legends—you can't go wrong with those guys.
Into the Storm
Also based on Churchill's book, this TV movie looks at the war years.
John Lithgow is awesome as Churchill in this 2017 Netflix series about the early days of Queen Elizabeth II's reign.
Walking with Destiny
A documentary film that asks the question: What if the world had listened to Churchill's warnings about Hitler?
"1915: An Interview with Winston Churchill," The New York Times (January 24, 1915)
There are surprisingly few interviews with our guy, and this one goes way back to when he was First Lord of the Admiralty (the first time), during World War I. Not surprisingly, there's a lot about the British Navy in there.
"Churchill Backed By 'Full War' Vote," The New York Times (May 14, 1940)
You gotta figure that a major change in leadership in a country like Great Britain has to make the news. Well, it did, as did that little speech he gave—something about sweat and tears?
New Yorker essayist Adam Gopnik writes 70 years after Churchill's other famous wartime speech about Churchill's background, his supporters and detractors, and what made him a master speechmaker in 1940.
QEII Negotiating with Churchill
Here's a clip from the recent Netflix series The Crown, in which John Lithgow plays Winston Churchill pretty fabulously during his second tenure as prime minister.
Churchill gives his "Now we are Masters of Our Fate" speech
Here's video footage of Churchill giving a speech to the U.S. Congress in 1942. Always fun to see the real people—plus you see how he charms the crowd.
The Complete Churchill
If you can't get enough Winston, here's a 4-hour documentary about him, including lots of video from throughout his life.
Winston Churchill giving the "Blood, Toil, Tears, and Sweat" speech
Thanks to the invention of recording technology, we can actually hear all these famous World War II-era speeches. You get to hear all those wonderfully posh British accents.
Winston Churchill giving the "We will fight on the beaches" speech
Since this is probably the most famous of Churchill's speeches, it can't hurt to give it a listen. We promise, it won't hurt.
This is one of the most iconic images of Churchill, taken in 1941.
Neville Chamberlain declaring "peace in our time"
Here's Chamberlain holding up the Munich Pact, which he had just signed with Germany. Monty Python said it took second place on the list of "the world's funniest jokes."
BFFs…even dressing alike.
The Big Three
WC, FDR, and Stalin deciding the fate of the world. Really.
Here's our guy reprising his speech to Parliament for the BBC.
Churchill as Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1941
Churchill's portrait on the cover of Time when he was named "man of the year," although he'd be on the cover several other times.
Hitler as Time Magazine's "Man of the Year" in 1939
Yup, that happened because of the Munich Pact. They explained their choice by saying, "Hitler became in 1938 the greatest threatening force that the democratic, freedom-loving world faces today.".