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Opinion | Niall Ferguson

The meaning of Dunkirk

Kenneth Branagh in “Dunkirk.” Melissa Sue Gordon/Warner Bros. Pictures/AP

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.

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. The miracle of Dunkirk was thus a combination of British pluck and German misjudgment.


“Wars are not won by evacuations,” as Churchill rightly said. There were many in the summer of 1940 who argued that he should seek a negotiated peace with Hitler, among them the foreign secretary, Lord Halifax, and the recently ousted prime minister, Neville Chamberlain. They were far from alone. It took all of Churchill’s rhetorical genius to overcome the defeatists.

Brexit is not Dunkirk. It may be a bureaucratic mess, but it is not a colossal military disaster. Nevertheless, in the air of Westminster and Whitehall there hangs once again the whiff of defeatism. Former prime minister Tony Blair has warned that post-Brexit Britain could “hit the canvas, flat on our back and be out for a long count.” Retired diplomat Lord Kerr and former defense secretary Lord Robertson have called for “a UK-wide debate about calling a halt to the process and changing our minds.”

I have the utmost respect for these gentlemen, and I have some sympathy with their arguments. Last year, I warned that the Brexit vote risked sending the United Kingdom down a “stairway to hell.” There is little question that many of the blithe promises of the pro-Brexit campaign — more money for the National Health Service, a bundle of easy free trade deals to be signed — have been exposed as the tosh I and many others said they were last year.


Yet it remains very difficult for me to imagine exiting from Brexit. I certainly see no way of reverting to the status quo ante, even if the public were to swing decisively against leaving (which has not yet happened, if the polls are any guide). Now that Article 50 has been invoked, the remaining EU member states have the UK at their mercy; any return to EU membership would be on the standard terms, not the special, privileged relationship successfully negotiated by Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Britain would, for example, be asked to commit itself to replacing the pound with the euro. That alone makes it clear how politically unpalatable a volte face would be.

My conclusion is not, however, that we should “Keep Calm and Carry On.” For the truth about that popular slogan is that it was never used during the war and only exhumed in 2000. Though millions of copies were printed in 1939, it was decided not to distribute them, and most were subsequently pulped. The poster slogans that did see the light of day were different and, I think, preferable: “Your Courage, Your Cheerfulness, Your Resolution Will Bring Us Victory” and (best of all) “Freedom is in Peril. Defend It with All Your Might.”

I was against Brexit a year ago, but subsequently came to the conclusion that it would be better for both the EU and the UK to get a divorce, for they want a federal Europe and we never did. Put less politely, they are prepared to put up with German predominance and we are not.


As I said before the referendum, this divorce will cost a lot more and take a lot longer than the Leavers claimed. But this is not the time for second thoughts — any more than May 1940 was the time for peace talks.

Niall Ferguson is a senior fellow of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.