July 25, 2017

NIALL FERGUSON: The meaning of Dunkirk.

The release of Christopher Nolan’s film “Dunkirk” provides a welcome reminder that there have been bigger disasters in British history than last year’s referendum vote to leave the European Union. We have made the best of worse jobs.

May 1940 was, as Winston Churchill said at the beginning of his peerless “finest hour” speech, a “colossal military disaster.” Nolan’s film is a powerful and moving work, but it still understates the magnitude of the calamity. The German newsreels of the time are more chilling for their black and white sobriety. For once, Joseph Goebbels had no need to exaggerate for propaganda purposes: Hitler’s forces really had inflicted a crushing defeat on Britain, not to mention France and Belgium. So chaotic was the retreat of the British Expeditionary Force that the shattered survivors had to be quarantined on their return for the sake of civilian morale.

The key point about “Dunkirk,” however, is that it could have been much, much worse. In a fateful decision often wrongly attributed to Hitler himself, Field Marshals Gerd von Rundstedt and Günther von Kluge recommended that the German forces around Dunkirk should halt, at a moment when their marauding panzers might well have finished off the encircled BEF. The killing or capture of around 338,226 Allied troops — the total number evacuated in Operation Dynamo, of whom roughly a third were in fact French — would have been a devastating blow from which British morale might never have recovered.

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