George VI’s Royal Christmas Message of 1939: Words of Hope for Humankind in Tumultuous Times

George VI, King of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, seated at a table before two microphones and wearing the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet (above). The staged photo was taken on September 3, 1939 at the Royal residence at Buckingham Palace. It resembles a similar scene on December 25, 1939 at the Royal country house at Sandringham, when George VI delivered the Royal Christmas Message via radio. His message was so inspiring that it established the broadcast as an annual tradition. During his message, the King shared four lines from Minnie Haskins’ poem “God Knows” which since has been popularly referred to as “At the Gate of the Year” or “The Gate of the Year.”

King George VI of the United Kingdom and the Dominions of the British Commonwealth, never imagined being king nor had any ambitions to be monarch. Born Albert Frederick Arthur George, he was second in line to the throne to his brother, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David. As a consequence of the decision of his brother, crowned Edward VIII, to abdicate on December 10, 1936 in order to marry Wallis Simpson, a US citizen and socialite, who was twice divorced. Despite his misgivings, George VI became the very king of that his people needed in the tumultuous years of World War II. He established himself as a true leader in broadcast speeches in 1939. Among the most memorable was his Christmas message in which he recited lines from the poem “God Knows” written by Minnie Haskins in 1908 and expanded in 1912. The poem has been popularly referred to since George VI’s 1939 message as “At the Gate of the Year” or “The Gate of the Year.” As all countries whether facing challenges from external or internal elements peering into the New Year, there must the same degree of hope, as expressed by George VI, that they will see their way through to a positive, prosperous, and peaceful 2020. In a post published on December 8, 2014, greatcharlie shared the lines spoken by George VI in the Royal Christmas Message, broadcasted in 1939. Cognizant that the people of many countries will continue to face crises from varied internal and external sources going into 2020 and desiring to offer words of comfort, greatcharlie is again presenting the lines from George VI’s Christmas message along with some background that will hopefully help put the speech in context.

Traveling back to the Fall of 1939, one finds Germany under Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler already on the march in Europe, overwhelming neighboring countries. Through the Anschullus of March 12, 1938, Germany annexed Austria. Under Hitler’s threat to start a war with Czechoslovakia, United Kingdom Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, French Prime Minister Édouard Daladier capitulated to Hitler’s whims and signed the Munich Agreement of September 29, 1938, allowing Germany to freely occupy Czechoslovakia’s Sudetenland from October 1, 1938 to October 10, 1938. The agreement sent all of the wrong signal to Hitler. In Hitler’s view, might made right. Will stood in place of reason. After seeing how easily the United Kingdom and France ceded to his will on the Sudetenland, he was convinced he could pursue his plans of conquest without real opposition from the other European powers. The Munich Agreement was a consequence of a dreadful policy of appeasement. The notion was that through diplomacy and agreements, Hitler could be contained. The main aim of the policy was to keep the United Kingdom out of harm’s way, out of another war, before Hitler’s pursuit of the sovereign territory of other countries truly got to a gallop. However, rather than mollify Hitler, he was emboldened by the appeasement policy and essentially encouraged him to pursue his ambitions.

The main proponents of appeasement in Parliament were the Tories, led by Chamberlain. However, there was divergence among political leaders on the manner in which to cope with Hitler. Although he too was a conservative Member of the House of Lords, Winston Churchill challenged Chamberlain’s assertions about Hitler. He saw Hitler as a positive serpent who would not adhere to any agreement that might be reached wits him. From a bad mind only bad designs could be expected. Churchill suggested that an abundance of caution should be exercised with Hitler, and that considerable preparations should be made to deal with him militarily. Opponents of Churchill’s point of view, characterized him as a warmonger, and gratuitously reminded everyone that he was the mastermind of debacle at Gallipoli during World War I. The reality was that Hitler posed more than a danger to Europe, but an existential threat to civilization. Very publicly, Hitler expressed a belief that the German people were a special Aryan race, and thus superior to all others. Even darker and more foreboding was Hitler’s insistence that it was the German people’s destiny to rule over the lesser people of the world. He declared that the German people’s confinement to the limits of Germany frustrated their ability to flourish, and exercise their will and power. Up from the ashes of defeat after the World War I, Hitler promised that under his leadership, the German people would reach the height of their greatness to include world domination. Yet, despite this and more, Chamberlain, Edward Wood, Lord Halifax, who became his Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs in February 1938, Nevile Henderson, the United Kingdom’s ambassador to Germany, Horace Wilson, Chamberlain’s closest advisor and head of the British Civil Service, and many others, saw nothing but what they pleased. They failed to draw rational inferences from what Hitler was saying and doing.

Much as Churchill warned, Hitler proved too dodgy for Chamberlain and Lord Halifax to understand. Chamberlain’s diplomacy with Hitler failed. The remainder of Czechoslovakia was occupied by Hitler’s Army. With Germany’s invasion of Poland, the United Kingdom was plunged into war a very sinister adversary. Churchill would eventually assume the proud place as prime minister that his merits had won him on May 10, 1940. Yet, as 1939 ended, Chamberlain was still prime minister. Making amends for the sin of appeasing fascism proved impossible for Chamberlain. He would never be absolved of his responsibility for the crisis. Among the people of the United Kingdom, the prayer was that God by some gracious change would restore the situation to the condition it was in before Hitler and Germany went on the march.

Although Chamberlain and his following among Members of Parliament were left dazed and confused over events on the continent, George VI was determined to stand upright and with sangfroid in the face of danger. He was ready to bear whatever fate might bring with a firm and equal mind, resolved and confident. The radio broadcast of the Royal Christmas message was tradition had been started in 1932 by George V, the father of George VI. In his Christmas message in 1939, George VI raised his gaze toward what is most important to monarchs of the modern era, the people of the United Kingdom and across the Commonwealth. He would offer a message of reassurance and encouragement. He wanted them not to surrender to despair but rather to hold fast and stay strong. There was a potential obstacle to his aims. George VI suffered from a speech impediment, a stutter, and severe anxiety over public speaking. His struggle to overcome that problem was immortalized in the 2011 American Academy Award-winning film for Best Picture, “The King’s Speech.” Yet, on December 25, 1939, George VI rose to the occasion. The message was broadcasted from the Royal Residence at Sandringham, England. The King’s 5 feet 9 inch frame was immaculately dressed in the uniform of the Admiral of the Fleet as he sat before two microphones. While he could not be seen by listeners, on that day, in the minds of his subjects, George VI stood about 8 feet tall. He superbly united king and country in a common cause.

George VI began his nine minute Christmas message by explaining that while no one wanted war, others who sought conquest insisted upon tearing their country away from peace. He informed that they were at war with a very different enemy whose evil ideas were contrary to those of the civilized world. He stated: “it is the tragedy of this time that there are powerful countries whose whole direction and policy are based on aggression and the suppression of all that we hold dear for mankind.” On the point, he went on to say: “We feel in our hearts that we are fighting against wickedness, and this conviction will give us strength from day to day to persevere until victory is assured.”

Speaking to soldiers and sailors in France and across the Commonwealth, he offered words of inspiration reminding them that they in the thoughts of everyone. While so much was expected of them, the king let them know that he had confidence in them that the people were aware that they were serving with valor, and he knew those would soon face battle would do the same. George VI relayed: “The gallant Air Force, which, in cooperation with the Navy is our sure shield of defence. They are daily adding laurels to those that their fathers won.” He continued: “I would send a special word of greeting to the armies of the Empire, to those who have come from afar, and in particular to the British Expeditionary Force. Their tasks is hard.” On that point, he remarked further: “They are waiting, and waiting is a trial of nerve and discipline. But I know that when the moment comes for action they will prove themselves worthy of the highest traditions of their great Service.”

Speaking across the territories of the Commonwealth  creating hope but also tempering expectations. He explained: “I believe from my heart that the cause which binds together my peoples and our gallant and faithful Allies is the cause of Christian civilisation.” Going further, he urged the people to remain resolved to stand together no matter what comes. George VI entreated: “A new year is at hand. We cannot tell what it will bring. If it brings peace, how thankful we shall all be. If it brings us continued struggle we shall remain undaunted.”

Added at the end of his broadcast was its most memorable aspect when the King read lines from the Haskins poem. As the story is often told, his 13-year-old daughter, Princess Elizabeth, shared the poem with him. However, according to the Telegraph, contrary to popular belief, the poem was brought to the attention of the King by Queen Elizabeth. The lines were recited again at her own funeral 63 years later. The poem was from a collection, The Desert, published in 1908. Neither the poem nor its author were popular at the time. The few lines recited by the King were chosen to stand on their own. The remaining lines do not possess such a compelling quality.

George VI introduced the poem in his message by stating: “I feel that we may all find a message of encouragement in the lines which, in my closing words, I would like to say to you:

I said to the man who stood at the Gate of the Year,

‘Give me a light that I may tread safely into the unknown.’

And he replied, ‘Go out into the darkness, and put your hand into the hand of God.

That shall be to you better than light, and safer than a known way.’ ”

George VI concluded his speech with the blessing: “May that Almighty Hand guide and uphold us all.” Hopefully, the blessing of George VI has managed to echo through the years to our time, and it is greatcharlie’s wish to all of its readers in particular that all will be well and that all will receive the very best of everything in the new year.

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