The release of the film Dunkirk this summer recalls the summer of 1940, when Western Civilization itself was held in the balance. Caught in a narrowing perimeter by the Nazi Blitzkrieg, protected by their British rear guard, their French comrades and the RAF, over 300,000 mostly British, but also French, Belgian and even a few Dutch soldiers men were evacuated from the beaches at Dunkirk to Dover.
As Prime Minister Winston Churchill advised early in this speech given June 4th, 1940 in the House of Commons, wars are not won by evacuations. Yet at Dunkirk the evacuation, not insignificantly accomplished by the Royal Navy with the aid of ordinary Englishmen in private craft, saved the flower of the British Expeditionary Force to fight another day.
The spirit of the moment is captured in perhaps one of the greatest speeches of all time. I leave you with 12 minutes of it, which recounts the events in this summers best film, ending with the crescendo of how the British will fight; on the beaches, the landing grounds, and the cities and towns.
This war was not about retaining resources or keeping the sea lanes open, instead pitted the fascist view one should love the state and individuals must be sacrificed to achieve a greater nation against that which had become known as liberal democracy, where the idea is the state is there to respect and serve the interests of individuals. With this at stake, capture was out of the question, and worth all that could be thrown against the the invaders.
For the ordinary boat owning Englishman this meant setting out on the straits of Dover in whatever craft they owned, sacrificing often life itself, to bring off the soldiers back to their native soil. These individuals perhaps sensed what was at stake, either to continue to possess the freedoms they had enjoyed or live under subjugation, and rose to the occasion.
At the war’s outset in September 1939, Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty, was heard to say “It is a war, viewed in it’s inherent quality, to establish on impregnable rocks, the rights of the individual, and it is a war to establish and revive the stature of man.”
Churchill’s oratory and leadership was essential but we must remember the ordinary Englishman owned this fight. They would never surrender.