What was Dunkirk?

Written and directed by Christopher Nolan, Dunkirk is the blockbuster film depicting the evacuation of the British Expeditionary Force from France over four days in late May 1940. British, French and Canadian troops had been cut off by the German Army. In his history of the war, Gerhard Weinberg writes that “it looked as if Great Britain would lose nearly its whole army including the professional officers who would be needed for the rebuilding of any substantial new land force.” Had the evacuation not succeeded, Britain’s ability to hold out against the Nazis would have been severely compromised.

The movie is a gripping mess. It should appeal to the apparently all important audience of teenage boys. It has in fact done well at the box office.

The film is short on exposition of any kind, however, and entirely lacking in historical context. Watching the film, I wondered how many viewers would have any idea what is going on or be able to learn anything from it. I also realized how little I knew about the evacuation. It made me want to learn more.

The journalist Lynne Olson has taken to the period depicted in the film in a series of excellent books. I learned a lot from Those Angry Days, her account of the political scene in the United States prior to Pearl Harbor. Franklin Roosevelt and Charles Lindbergh are the leading figures in the book, but Olson’s canvas includes a panoply of colorful characters that fill out the picture. Olson’s new book is Last Hope Island. As it happens, it includes an account of Dunkirk that perfectly complements the film. Longreads has posted the relevant excerpt under the heading “Whose fault was Dunkirk?”

Andrew Roberts is of course the eminent British historian and author of the Storm of War. An excerpt of Roberts’s book on Hitler’s “Halt Order” to the Wehrmacht was posted online by the Telegraph in 2009 here. Roberts’s review of Nolan’s film for Commentary is posted here.

Victor Davis Hanson is the classicist and military historian. He has now written the forthcoming one-volume history The Second World Wars. It is to be published on October 17.

National Review editor Rich Lowry convened both Roberts and Hanson to discuss the historical episode depicted in the film. The excerpt linked above from Olson’s book provides useful background to this highly informed discussion. National Review’s podcast is posted here at NRO with links to various formats. The Sticher version is embedded below (I hope).

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