One of the symbols that had a profound effect on history is the ‘V’ sign associated with Winston Churchill. After Hitler’s armies had overrun France and other European countries, things looked very bleak indeed for England. They were not prepared for battle and could see no ally in sight. Alone they would have to stand against the might of the German armies. It was at this point that Churchill became PM.
John Kennedy said of him, “In the dark days and darker nights when England stood alone and all men save Englishmen despaired of hope; he mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.” It has been pointed out that Kennedy’s speech writers reached back in time and borrowed the most important part of that statement from one of the radio broadcasts of Edward Murrow of the CBS.
Churchill was a master of the remark or gesture that would inspire and connect with the common man. He knew his image as a drinker resonated well with the populace in a society where drink was very much part of every social occasion. Incidentally, it underscored the philosophical differences between him and his antagonist — Hitler, the vegetarian teetotaller. At the time when the bombs first began to fall on England, Churchill was always on the street — talking to anyone he could meet. The PM standing next to a bombed out area looking resolute and defiant, weeping on occasion — but never defeated or overcome by despair became a familiar sight in the newspapers. His most inspired gesture of all, was the ‘V’ for victory sign.
The origins of the V sign are very interesting. It started when the head of the BBC Belgian section urged Belgians to mark ‘V’ in public places in defiance of the Germans. The symbol caught the imagination of everyone, everywhere. In France it stood for Victorie (Victory); in Flemish, Vrijheid (Freedom); in Serbian Vitestvo (Heroism); in Dutch Vryheid (Freedom); in Czech Vitezstoi (Victory). Most surprisingly in what must rank as one of the great blunders in public relations, the Nazis too, adopted the symbol.
It boomeranged in a way they did not anticipate. In all the conquered nations the local populace would flash the V sign at the German soldiers who could not take offence at the sign — even though the body language of the local people said it all. People have an inherent need to believe in their leaders. They believe that their leaders understand their aspirations and know how to meet them.
This is true of leaders and followers of every nation and every political hue. Commingled with this need is everyman’s love for his country. This combination is a potent force. A leader whose vision meets the need and whose manner taps into the feeling can channel this force, and thereby, change the course of history.