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Seventy-four years ago today, on September 3, 1939, World War II began. Yes, the shooting started two days earlier when Germany invaded Poland, but Great Britain and France did not declare war on Germany until two days later. On that day–it was a Sunday–King George VI addressed the British people, the Commonwealth and the world. Above is the audio recording of that speech.
If you saw the wonderful 2010 film The King’s Speech, you know the story behind this remarkable address. King George VI, or “Bertie” as he was known to his friends and family, suffered from a terrible stammer for much of his early life. The prospect of being King of England terrified him, but he thought he didn’t have to worry about it. After all, he was the younger son of his father, King George V, who died in January 1936, and Bertie’s older brother David took the throne as King Edward VIII. The problem was that David/Edward was in love with a woman who had divorced, Wallis Simpson. In the 1930s this was thought scandalous and unacceptable. Given a choice between abdicating the throne and giving up his lover, David/Edward shocked everybody by choosing abdication. On December 11, 1936, Bertie became King.
The King’s Speech takes some liberties with history. It is true that Bertie did see speech therapist Lionel Logue (played in the movie by Geoffrey Rush), but he began seeing him in the 1920s, not the 1930s, and his speech impediment was largely gone by 1939. Nevertheless, the basic facts of the movie are pretty much accurate; Bertie was reluctant to be king, he was surprised (as was everybody) by David’s abdication, and the speech of September 3, 1939 was a major milestone in his life and in the history of Britain during the war. Despite its inaccuracies, The King’s Speech is my favorite historical film of the 2010s so far, and I highly recommend it.
But I also recommend hearing the words of King George VI as they really sounded, and that’s why I’m doing this blog. Speeches do matter. What public figures say can affect and even change history. King George VI was arguably as important to the British war effort, spiritually speaking, as Winston Churchill. I know a lot of Britons who think the monarchy is pretty silly and archaic, but its effect on history is pretty undeniable, especially in moments–like Britain’s entry into World War II–when the people do need someone to rally behind.