Churchill’s Oratory in Britons’ Hearts

Winston Churchill’s oratory fascinates me. His wartime speeches, broadcast on the BBC from his underground War Rooms, sound like a bulldog looks. As though unmoved by bombings and setbacks, his voice steadily reassures the listener. The Imperial War Museums (IWM) gave great attention to his steeling of Britain’s will during World War II (especially by those speeches), but their focus on his personage makes me question whether they credit him or the “people” more for surviving the Battle of Britain.

The three IWM museums I visited—the Churchill War Rooms, IWM London, and the HMS Belfast—prominently feature testimonies from civil servants, Holocaust survivors, and sailors. Recordings in the War Rooms tell us that Churchill was demanding, picky, and easily irritated. Every cot in that cramped bunker borders a working room, and one air conditioning pipe connects them all. Anyone with wooden floors and central air may understand the problem: when Churchill took his daily “siesta” (an hour-plus nap), the entire complex quieted down. The museum leaves it unclear whether that silence arose from fear or respect.

Since Hitler hoped to topple Britain by terror and revolution, the War Room exhibit gives great credit to Churchill’s four wartime speeches for redoubling Britons’ will to defend their “island home.” Speech snippets are piped in to a lounge through a vintage radio, as though one is with family in the sitting room. Indeed, the War Rooms exhibition thrives on the “great man” theory of history: Churchill inspired the people to persevere and pushed his staff to excel. Churchill did not do everything, but life in the War Rooms did revolve around him.

The curators make little attempt to critique his policies or demonstrate that his speeches had a significant stabilizing effect on the populace. His speeches very well may have, but the curators, in their enthusiasm, just took it for granted that they did. Clearly, Churchill seared his words into the national memory on those nights, but the population was already steeled against Hitler, without egging-on from Churchill, from the very first bombing of the East End in September 1940. Britain has not forgotten the slight: in London, only the Blitz’s constellation of memorials rivals that of Trafalgar. Fire-bombing a poverty-stricken neighborhood can do that. Britons united through years of collective effort for victory, to be sure, but it is suffering which united them most.


Spray Paint and Air Raids

Just a few blocks from downtown London the street signs read in both English and Bengali. Historically, it is an immigrant community. One building, originally a Protestant church built by French Huguenots in the 1700s, has also been used as both a synagogue and a mosque (The Brick Lane Mosque). The streets themselves are narrow and littered with garbage, and the sidewalks are in disrepair. While the buildings are newer, they are a dim juxtaposition to the rest of London’s prim apartment buildings. Despite this decay, the area is famous for its street art, which is the illegal use of paint on the outside of buildings. While much of the art is incredibly skillful, it is symbolic of weak local rule of law in Whitechapel. Some artists choose to remain anonymous, but each has their own distinct style. The subjects range from pop culture to political commentary to original artistic inspiration. Pieces last anywhere from a few weeks to several years.

A street portrait of an ordinary local community worker, portrayed as powerful and unique.

This art attracts tourists from all over the world, but the East End also has unique significance in WWII history. This area bore the brunt of the Blitz and endured near-total destruction because of German raids. However, White Chapel has no infrastructural memory for WWII. In fact, this largely Bengali community is undergoing a struggle against gentrification and displacement. It was once an affordable place for immigrant families to start businesses and save enough to eventually move to the suburbs. However, it is slowly being taken over by hip and trendy coffee shops, boutiques, and other outside businesses. Not only is the cost of living on the rise, but the unique blend of culture is being chipped away by commercial business. Companies like Adidas and Gucci now own walls in the area and have created advertisements that mimic the style of street art. The local opposition to this commercialization is apparent: “tourists go home” is written on a nearby wall.

Local commentary on the gentrification of the neighborhood.

London’s wartime experience is often conveyed as the “People’s War”—the idea that the common man, woman, and child came together to achieve victory both at home and abroad. Perhaps in the 1940s WWII was the “People’s War,” but its modern-day legacy only belongs to some.  Westminster Abbey, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Parliament Square, the National Portrait Gallery, Hyde Park, the Victoria and Albert Museum. World War II memorials are as easy to find in London as tourist attractions and are often incorporated into sidewalks and walls. Westminster Abbey, an active site of worship, houses memorials to the Women’s Voluntary Service, to British and French soldiers, and even contained a U.S. Congressional Medal of Honor. Wartime legacy is casually featured in infrastructure all over the city—a city that withstood the German Blitz for several months. Hidden in posh and historical buildings are memorials, royal decrees, and commissioned works of art that commemorate the valor and loss of World War II. Generally, London and the West End of London are clean and trendy, yet still possess enough historical significance to maintain a powerful tourism industry.

An homage to the Jewish restaurant that used to operate in the building.

There are many possible reasons why the residents of the East End have never benefited from WWII tourism, unlike the city of London and the West End. The residents of the East End are probably not of the same families that endured the Blitz in the 1940s, so perhaps they do not share that cultural history with the rest of London. Perhaps the city of White Chapel chose not to commemorate such a devastating event when rebuilding. Perhaps in British memory it is only significant that iconic sites—like Westminster Abbey—managed to survive the Blitz. While the Germans valued the East End as a wartime target due to the manufacturing and shipping centers in the area, Britain’s collective memory of WWII fails to dignify the area as a site worth remembering.