Winston Churchill’s ‘Gestapo’ speech (4th June 1945)

In June 1945, Britain resumed competitive politics for the first time since 1931. Churchill, who had spent five years surrounded by sycophants, reverted to toxic reactionary Victorian conservatism. His wartime rhetoric had been inspirational but his first peacetime broadcast demonstrated hostility to change. Five years of unendurable stress with complete immersion in foreign affairs meant that Churchill was a ‘stranger’ in Britain. He was oblivious to the impact of war on Britain’s political psychology. The British people demanded a new social order and Churchill was demonstrably not the person to deliver that change. His ‘Gestapo’ speech was born in ignorance and hubris, amply demonstrating the truth of that belief.

Churchill’s use of ‘Gestapo’ (see appendix below) was vitriolic abuse. As he spoke, former Gestapo officers were being hunted throughout Europe. Their crimes were widely publicised and the horrors that their victims suffered were daily news. Churchill was attacking the leadership of the Labour Party and, as he saw it, their over-weaning undemocratic tendencies.

Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader, was a First World War hero. He was an Oxford graduate, a barrister and a London university lecturer. He carried the Labour Party through each and every twist and turn of the politics of war. Adding to British incredulity was the fact that the leader of the Labour Party was, as Churchill spoke, the de facto deputy Prime Minister. Churchill’s trusted deputy Prime Minister, throughout the war, was being libelled a Nazi! This was so bizarre as to appear demented.

So why did Churchill make this catastrophic error of judgement? Churchill was a functioning alcoholic and a narcissistic rhetorician who believed this broadcast was a golden opportunity to halt the electoral tide sweeping Labour to victory. Unfortunately for Churchill, the British public had a long electoral memory. Those memories included Churchill’s bellicose behaviour during the 1926 General Strike, means tested unemployment benefits and fatally, the Conservative policy of appeasing Hitler. His speeches are now seen as masterpieces but they sounded like bombastic preachy monologues to many people at the time**. Labour was a modern political party dedicated to sweeping away failed pre-war politics. It had a worked-out social and industrial policy, which was bold and imaginative. Churchill’s ‘Gestapo’ rhetoric was the flailing about of a politician entering the gutter.

Churchill was castigated for his emotional spasm and the Conservatives rightly lost the 1945 election. But it wasn’t Churchill that lost the election. The Conservatives had no chance of winning as they had too much negative baggage. This speech reminds us that even the greatest of politicians suffer from hubris.

*The modern (2015) comparison would be for David Cameron to declare that the Labour Party is synonymous with Muslim ISIS including public decapitation.

**Richard Toye The Roar of the Lion: The Untold Story of Churchill’s World War II Speeches 2013. For a full discussion of both the content and impact of Churchill’s wartime speeches.

                                                                         APPENDIX

Winston Churchill, 4th June 1945, this is the relevant paragraph from his speech

 “No Socialist Government conducting the entire life and industry of the country could afford to allow free, sharp, or violently-worded expressions of public discontent. They would have to fall back on some form of Gestapo, no doubt very humanely directed in the first instance. And this would nip opinion in the bud; it would stop criticism as it reared its head, and it would gather all the power to the supreme party and the party leaders, rising like stately pinnacles above their vast bureaucracies of Civil servants, no longer servants and no longer civil.”

 Clement Attlee’s response (5th June 1945)

 “The Prime Minister made much play last night with the rights of the individual and the dangers of people being ordered about by officials. I entirely agree that people should have the greatest freedom compatible with the freedom of others. There was a time when employers were free to work little children for sixteen hours a day. I remember when employers were free to employ sweated women workers on finishing trousers at a penny halfpenny a pair. There was a time when people were free to neglect sanitation so that thousands died of preventable diseases. For years every attempt to remedy these crying evils was blocked by the same plea of freedom for the individual. It was in fact freedom for the rich and slavery for the poor. Make no mistake, it has only been through the power of the State, given to it by Parliament, that the general public has been protected against the greed of ruthless profit-makers and property owners. The Conservative Party remains as always a class Party. In twenty-three years in the House of Commons, I cannot recall more than half a dozen from the ranks of the wage earners. It represents today, as in the past, the forces of property and privilege. The Labour Party is, in fact, the one Party which most nearly reflects in its representation and composition all the main streams which flow into the great river of our national life.”

(Chris)

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11 Responses to Winston Churchill’s ‘Gestapo’ speech (4th June 1945)

  1. ray emmett says:

    Another great piece. Not much changed with the conservatives between 1945 until 2015
    Labour has of course lost its way

  2. billellson says:

    Oh Dear! Where to start on such an ill-informed unresearched pile of crap?

    “Churchill, who had spent five years surrounded by sycophants,..”
    Clement Attlee, Herbert Morrison and Field Marshal Alan Brooke sycophants? I do not think so.

    “complete immersion in foreign affairs”
    Urban myth, see Churchill’s ‘After the War’ broadcast of 21 Mar 1943.

    “Clement Attlee, the Labour Party leader, was a First World War hero. He was a Cambridge graduate, a solicitor and a London university lecturer.”
    Clement Attlee was an Oxford graduate, a barrister and a London School of Economics lecturer.

    “the leader of the Labour Party was, as Churchill spoke, the deputy Prime Minister.”
    When Churchill spoke the coalition had ended and an interim Conservative government was in power.

    • odeboyz says:

      (1) Sycophant. I sense that you are being too narrow at this point. The War Cabinet was not the totality of the inputs that Churchill was receiving in relation to his day-to-day feedback. The War Cabinet was indeed a Coalition where each member was given discrete responsibilities and very wide delegated powers. As a consequence many War Cabinet meetings were more like reporting back meetings as opposed to cut and thrust discussions about policy. Elsewhere Churchill was lauded to the point that ‘sycophant’ becomes entirely appropriate. One only has to reflect on his reception in the US; the British and international mass-media; most MPs and , inevitably his ‘cronies’. The fact that not everyone swooned at his feet doesn’t make the comment inappropriate.

      (2) Foreign Affairs. It’s hard to accept that he wasn’t immersed in this activity. It was an all consuming focus and the post-war settlement was very much driven by the Labour Party along with the magnificent liberal Beveridge of course.

      (3) Attlee. I’m humbled to make these two errors and will correct them immediately. LSE is a university college and so I don’t think that an change is required at that point.

      (4) Attlee was the de facto deputy PM this is evidenced by his attendance at the Potsdam Conference. Churchill knew the game was up but Attlee’s attendance was more than a pragmatic courtesy it was also a recognition that the Coalition, although formally ended, had a continuing presence.

      Thank you for your comments.

  3. Pingback: Political Campaigning Lessons from the 1940s UK General Election | P(ART) POLITICAL

    • odeboyz says:

      I sense that the Churchill led Conservative government already knew they had lost prior to the ‘gestapo’ speech. It was mean spirited and showed astonishing lack of political guile by Churchill. The wind of change in 1945 was unstoppable especially after the experiences of 1919-22 where there was a wide-spread feeling of betrayal. Thank you for your comment.

  4. Jonathan Scion says:

    Hello
    Thanks for the post. I wanted to ask you: where do you look up specific speeches and the responses to them, as you’ve done here? I got into the following source: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1940s but as I check june 4th 1945, I don’t see the speech you were talking about. Would you know why its not there, and would you tell me where you took Atlee’s response from? This would be invaluable for me in a research Im doing right now. Thank you!

    • odeboyz says:

      Thank you for this. It’s some time ago since I did it but neither are in Hansard or Parliamentary Papers. So far as I remember I took them from newspaper articles, or from google searches. If you’re doing research & you wish to drill down to the original sources for reference purposes I’m afraid that I’m going to be disappointing.
      Bon chance Chris

  5. BobP says:

    Revisionist nonsense. One has only to witness the Left’s shouting down and even violently repressing free speech both in the U.S and the U.K. Churchill’s only error was in supposing that the disloyal opposition would need Gestapo-like organization. Rather, it seems mob action suits the Left well.

    • odeboyz says:

      “Revisionist nonsense”.
      I don’t think so. The Conservative Party at the time were horrified by Churchill’s speech, which appeared to confirm that he had buckled under the strain of the previous years as the leader of the free world. Churchill was in a mentally fragile state at the end of the war and reverted to the rhetoric of the 1920s.
      “violently repressing free speech in the US and the UK.”
      I don’t think so. Taking the US first the principal attack on free speech was orchestrated by Hoover, which created an atmosphere where McCarthy could flourish. The UK had undiminished free speech as can be easily seen with an examination of newspaper archives.
      Thank you for your comment even though I cannot accept its conclusions

  6. cxesar says:

    *The modern (2015) comparison would be for David Cameron to declare that the Labour Party is synonymous with Muslim ISIS including public decapitation.

    Im not sure if this is correct Ode as i have searched it online and cannot find any mention of that.
    Many Thanks.

    • odeboyz says:

      I was trying to make a vivid comparison. It was deeply shocking to say that Clement Attlee was more-or-less a Nazi. He had been deputy Prime Minister and all it showed was that Churchill had totally lost it. You wont find my analogy elsewhere because I made it up.

      Thank you for your comment

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