It’s 1940 and the Allied forces are on the brink of collapse. More precisely, hundreds of thousands of young men, most of them belonging to the British Expeditionary Force, are stranded on the beaches at Dunkirk. Their strategy is dead in the water and their only thought is survival. Only luck can save them, and it does. German High Command pauses before a final attack, allowing an armada of British fishermen to come to the rescue, and over 300,000 Allied troops to escape.
But the miracle became a myth. Dunkirk came to symbolise the time when Britain stood alone in the face of European tyranny and survived; when British fortitude prevailed.
But this was not how Britain felt about it at the time. J.B. Priestley never mentioned the “Dunkirk spirit” in his famous Postscripts, and having successfully evacuated from France the Allied war effort was in tatters. Britain was about to face the wrath of the Luftwaffe and the horrors of the Blitz. There was even talk of peace with Nazi Germany.
Like all myths there was a charismatic centre responsible for its cultivation: Winston Churchill. It was he who when writing his histories, The Second World War, began to talk of Britain standing “Alone” in 1940. With Victory and the benefit of hindsight this was easy to say, but at the time he of all people knew that Britain depended on its Commonwealth troops, its global Empire and its Atlantic allies in order to survive.
Of course, with Brexit on the horizon and a string of new films centring on these events (Dunkirk, Churchill, Darkest Hour) it is tempting to wrap ourselves in stories rather than the historical truth. This is a key function of the human brain and has its benefits, most of all alleviating the memory – and therefore pain – of past trauma. But Britain revels in the nostalgia of 1940 at its peril. In small doses resurrecting “the pain from an old wound” has a positive impact on citizenship and nationhood; but an overdose would have fatal consequences for our future.
Dunkirk was little more than a miracle. With any luck Brexit will be too.