If you’ve never watched Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, please do so. This is one of the best films about World War II ever made. Nolan, known for such works as The Dark Knight and Interstellar, was able to seize all the intensity, despair, courage, and hope present in one of the most dramatic moments of that war and in all of modern British history. The result is a claustrophobic film. For one and a half hour, it is practically impossible to breathe normally. What Nolan gives us is the closest war experience that anyone can have without ever putting a foot on the battlefield. Dunkirk is a priceless aesthetic experience.
The film narrates the aftermath of the fall of France in May 1940, when troops from the British Expeditionary Force were besieged in the coastal town of Dunkirk in France with no means of crossing the English Channel. British soldiers, generals, and politicians found themselves at a crossroads. On the one hand, if they decided to fight, death seemed a sure fate. On the other hand, the surrender would be humiliating, and the United Kingdom would be deprived of the necessary men power to keep fighting. In any case, the country seemed on the verge of doom.
With no choice, the British leadership called forth all civilian boat owners to risk their own lives and, crossing the English Channel, save their compatriots. The reaction was immediate. In the following days, thousands of boats piloted by fishermen and amateur navigators arrived in Dunkirk. Rescuing 400,000 soldiers that became the British army’s backbone for the next 5 years, this flotilla saved the United Kingdom.
On the occasion of this event, Winston Churchill gave one of the best speeches of all time: “We shall fight on the beaches.”
I watched Dunkirk in 2017 on the day of its debut in London. At the end of the movie, everyone in the room stood up and gave a round of applause to the movie. It was an unforgettable experience.
The events of Dunkirk made Churchill the 20th-century statesman per excellence. That was his finest hour. And that’s what I want to talk about.
Two events in recent months have drawn my attention back to the man I considered a hero for much of my adult life. First, I read Andrew Roberts’ Churchill: Walking with Destiny (2018) in December. Moreover, I watched Piers Morgan talk about the controversy between him and a Scottish National Party’ leader, who called Churchill a “white supremacist mass murderer.”
Both facts reminded me that the historical figure of Churchill, full of contradictions, was a victim of a historical reductionism to serve political purposes, which deformed him completely. On one side, the cultural left, fighting to destroy all the historical symbols that do not fit in the politically correct gospel, turned him into a kind of English Klansman. On the other, the neoconservative right, which only sees the world according to allies and enemies of liberal democracy, adopted Churchill the model of political perfection alongside Abraham Lincoln.
Not surprisingly, the two groups have many things in common. For instance, they share equal hatred towards all those who in one way or another do not confirm the messianic impetus of the political doctrine espoused by both.
While the cultural left is only about anarchy and nihilism, which is a hard sell to the general public; the neocons seek to reinterpret history according to political needs. They weaponized Churchill’s figure to justify their political crusade in favor of spreading democracy and capitalism around the world and, for that purpose, they were never ashamed of rewriting history — excluding inconvenient facts and people.
Avoiding the collective hysteria typical of the left, the neoconservative misconception is the most damaging for the right. In addition to the many thinkers who were excluded by this narrative because they did not pass on the test of loyalty to the liberal democratic statist ideology — Murray Rothbard, Paul Gottfried, Alfred Jay Nock, Joseph Sobran, and H. L. Mencken, to name a few — the neocons reshaped the American right towards the defense of egalitarianism and the managerial state, rather than the protection of individual liberties and traditional social arrangements. Therefore, nowadays, there are as many as liberals and conservatives defending the same ends — an egalitarian society, for example — and not too often disagreeing on the means of embracing this new utopia.
In part, the German-American political philosopher Leo Strauss initiated the civil religion surrounding Churchill, and his disciples spread the idea of him as a champion of democratic egalitarianism. An ideal interpretation for Cold War times, the former British prime minister was converted into an anti-communist liberal or a more successful English version of Woodrow Wilson.
Roberts’ Churchill is contaminated by this neoconservative outlook from the beginning to the end, which is not surprising since the author made clear his commitment to the idea that England has a democratic messianic role to play in the world.
In this reading, there is no room for traditional social arrangements, aristocracy, the established Church, or the English political system. In a nutshell, there is nothing conservative about the neocon version of Churchill.
Notwithstanding there was much conservatism in his writings and his aesthetic view of Anglo-Saxon history, I must concede that politically speaking Churchill was much more of an English imperialist liberal than a conventional Tory. However, it does not mean he was a neocon avant la lettre. Actually, if we follow the standards applied by many neocons, Churchill should be labeled as a white bigot since he deeply believed in the superiority of the British culture.
Needless to say, the main problem of the neoconservative interpretation is with history itself. Returning to Dunkirk, what made those people risk their lives to rescue the besieged soldiers was not faith in liberal democracy or even the desire to save Europe from the Nazi threat, as the neoconservatives want to believe, but one of the most primitive and constant human feelings: the desire to protect their home. Those people threw themselves into the sea to protect their children’s and parents’ country and to defend the land where their ancestors were buried. In summary, they risked their own lives for their God and their freedom.
Photo Credit: Dunkirk’s promotional poster. https://www.warnerbros.com/dunkirk