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.