Analysis & Opinions - The Boston Globe

The meaning of Dunkirk

| July 24, 2017

Traditionally, the British have two ways of responding to disaster. The elites are prone to panic. They wave their arms, indulge in lamentations, wish they could turn the clock back, then recommend orderly surrender. Ordinary people, by contrast, tend to make the best of a bad job. This state of mind is often summed up in the Second World War slogan “Keep Calm and Carry On.”

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.

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For Academic Citation: Ferguson, Niall.“The meaning of Dunkirk.” The Boston Globe, July 24, 2017.

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