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10 speeches that have changed the world (for better or worse)

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By men such as Kennedy, King, and Castro

A good speech can change the course of history. Since the days of Jesus Christ and Seneca, we’ve known that the word—oral or written—has enormous power. With that power comes great responsibility: a speech can provoke a war, or bring peace; it can move people’s hearts, or awaken hatred; it can lift spirits, or bury hopes. It can create or destroy.

Here, we present 10 famous speeches that have left their mark on recent world history, from Lenin to Charles de Gaulle and Hitler. At the end of the article, we include 10 characteristics which help make a good speech, according to Christophe Boutin, a law professor and expert in oratory.

1. Vladimir Lenin. April theses, pronounced in two speeches and subsequently published in the Pravda newspaper on April 7, 1917. The text was promulgated in the context of the beginnings of the Russian revolution against the Tsar and the establishment. In these theses, Lenin call for peace by “overthrowing capital” and the beginning of the collectivization program. Russia suffered the consequences for the next 100 years.

2. Charles de Gaulle. June 18 Appeal to the French, Broadcast on BBC radio on June 18, 1940. Having been named Under-Secretary for War that same month, General De Gaulle took to the BBC to respond to France’s “surrender” to the Nazis under General Pétain. The speech called for resistance after the French defeat by the Nazi invasion. If France could be counted among the victorious powers in 1945 and not as a collaborationist country, it was thanks to him.

3. Winston Churchill. Blood, toil, tears, and sweat. May 13, 1940. The British prime minister pronounced this speech in the House of Commons, in London, calling for citizens’ cooperation and sacrifice to defeat Germany, 8 months into the Second World War. The phrase “blood, toil, tears and sweat” has gone down in history, and Churchill repeated it on various occasions. This speech literally changed the course of the war because it managed to restore hope to a terrified country.

4. Adolf Hitler. Speech on the “Winter Help Scheme”. Berlin, October 3, 1941. In this speech, Hitler evaluates his work and refers to the British enemy as “mad fools.” Hitler was a true master of oratory, capable of firing up the masses with his voice. We don’t need to explain here the effects of his “art”…

5. Juan Domingo Perón. “I want to continue being Colonel Perón.” Buenos Aires, October 17, 1945.

Speech given when the labor unions rose up calling for his release, because he had been jailed on Martín García Island. He thanks the workers for their support and announces his desire to call elections. Perón has been called an incredible speaker, who knew how to adapt to his audience, and managed to be both pragmatic and conciliatory. His words still inspire many Argentinians.

6. David Ben Gurion. Israeli Declaration of Independence. Tel Aviv, May 14, 1948. Ben Gurion (1886-1973), Polish by birth, emigrated to Palestine in 1906. With this speech in 1948, he proclaimed the creation of the State of Israel. The text begins by stating that “the Land of Israel was the birthplace of the Jewish people” where “their spiritual, religious and political identity was shaped.” According to the Jewish calendar, this declaration was signed on the 5th day of the month of Iyar in the year 5708. This positive and conciliatory speech favored the positive reception of the new State of Israel by (almost) the entire world—although 24 hours later, the first war with the country’s Arab neighbors would break out.

7. Mao Zedong. On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among the People Beijing, Febrary 27, 1957. This speech establishes the theses of the Communist Party and explains that the counter-revolutionaries have been “eliminated” because it was “absolutely necessary.” Faced with dissidence, Mao recognizes in this speech that “it is not only futile but very harmful to use crude methods in dealing with ideological questions among the people, with questions about man’s mental world. You may ban the expression of wrong ideas, but the ideas will still be there.”

8. Fidel Castro. The Revolution Begins Now. Santiago de Cuba, January 1, 1959. This speech is an example of the charismatic style of Fidel Castro, in which he declares that the “Revolution… is beginning now. Our Revolution will be no easy task, but a harsh and dangerous undertaking.” Castro says he has “the greatest satisfaction in the knowledge that [he] believed so deeply in the people of Cuba,” and tells his compatriots that the revolutionary fighters will always bee “faithful servants” whose only badge is that of “service.”

9. John F. Kennedy. “Ich bin ein Berliner” (I am a Berliner). West Berlin, June 26, 1963. President Kennedy visited Berlin two years after the wall was built. This speech is a validation of Chancellor Adenauer (“who for so many years has committed Germany to democracy and freedom and progress,” in Kennedy’s words). The American president declares, “There are many people in the world who really don’t understand, or say they don’t, what is the great issue between the free world and the Communist world. Let them come to Berlin.” The wall, Kenney says, “is the most obvious and vivid demonstration of the failures of the Communist system.”

10. Martin Luther King Jr. I Have a Dream. Washington, August 28, 1963. Five years before being assassinated in Memphis, Rev. Martin Luther King spoke before 200,000 people in Washington, DC. His speech is full of biblical references, and is a plea for equality of all people, in the context of non-violence. This speech is a watershed moment in the history of the United States for the defense of civil rights.

Behind all of these discourses, there are ten underlying characteristics. French law professor Christophe Boutin explains them in his book Grands discours du XXe siècle (“Great speeches of the 20th Century”):

1. A speech should be convincing, above all.

2. The speaker should do everything possible to make his audience feel special.

3. Politicians know very well the workings of the collective subconscious.

4. A great speech is, above all, an example of calculated ambiguity.

5. The speaker prefers to strengthen unity with his followers around shared ideals.

6. The speech lends itself to all sorts of flattery (“Only you understand me, only you are aware of what’s at risk”).

7. To the extent that a speech is aimed at a large public, it should include various elements that appeal to sentiments more than to reason.

8. The speech is woven together of well-codified formulas.

9. When pronouncing the speech, everything is controlled, even the apparent signs of passion at an emotive moment of the discourse.

10. The speaker, for a few moments, shares a revelation with the multitude of his listeners.

Of course, these criteria don’t solve the problem of whether a given speech will bring peace or war. However, having at least some knowledge of the internal mechanisms of a powerful speech can help those who listen not to let themselves be carried away quite so easily by emotion.

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