If there is a national myth about the Second World War which still holds sway in the public imagination, it is that of the "miracle of Dunkirk", the "little ships" which rescued retreating British troops from the Normandy coast in June 1940, when France fell to the Nazis. BBC2's dramatic recreation of these events gained more than five million viewers, almost matching the viewing figures for Footballers' Wives on ITV!
The three Dunkirk programmes were compelling television, recounting a wretched and crushing British military defeat. Using digital technology, the film-makers took you to the beaches in a way that previous films could not. The black and white film of previous programmes put a distance between the viewer and the events. The use of colour in this film brought immediacy to the events.
Dunkirk showed the hell of the retreat for the ordinary soldier - the heroic and the not so heroic - the barbarity of the Waffen SS and the bloody ruthlessness of the British officer corps, faced with tired and frightened young men.
And Dunkirk stripped away some of the myths surrounding Dunkirk. Despite the much vaunted "national unity" of the time, during most of the evacuation period the public was kept in the dark as to what was going on. Surrender was a serious option for the British state, and real British soldiers, unlike those in Boys' Own comics, sometimes ran away.
Dunkirk was let down by its portrayal of the debates in cabinet between Prime Minister Churchill and the "almost Prime Minister" Lord Halifax. Those debates over what to do in May-June 1940 - whether to surrender or not - were reduced to a petty squabble between politicians.
Churchill's reputation has been puffed up by all strands of the parliamentary political class. But one only has to think of a British Vichy run by the smooth Lord Halifax from Bath or Buxton, and the probable fate of the 100,000 British Jews, to see the decision not to come to terms with Germany at the end of May 1940 was probably the right one. Churchill was an arrogant bastard, but his arrogance led him to make what appears to have been the right decision in this instance.
What did the left say at the time? The Communist Party (CPGB) had gone from supporting the war in September 1939 to opposing the war in October 1939 (after the signing of the Stalin-Hitler pact). Under pressure from the events of June 1940, the collapse of France and the Dunkirk débâcle, it tempered its anti-war message.
The Independent Labour Party carried on in its tradition of opposing war, even during the Dunkirk period. At the end of May in the New Leader Fenner Brockway posed the question, "Should socialists change their attitude to the war?" and answered this "No". He noted:
A military victory for this ruling class would mean another imperialist peace dooming the next generation to a repetition of the present massacre, unless meanwhile the peoples end capitalist-imperialism. What is the alternative to this policy? Refusal to support Imperialism does not mean failure to resist Nazism there is no political section in British public life whose philosophy and sense of human values and relationships are more opposed to Nazism than the ILP.
By the end of June, as Britain appeared to face Nazi invasion, the ILP began to give its anti-war message a defencist edge. Under the headline, "The Workers Defence," New Leader wrote:
This week has seen terrific developments not only in the temporary conditions of the war, but in the balance of forces which may determine the fate of mankind for a generation Britain must face the probability of fighting single handed for some time to come, with these Isles turned into a fortress besieged by blockade, bombing and perhaps invasion We emphasise here the necessity for workers to look to themselves and their own organisations. The workers are accustomed to rely on their workshop committees, their Trades Councils, their Trade Unions, for their defence against Capitalism. Under the developing war conditions these may become defence organisations against Nazism as well.
After this dalliance with defencism the ILP quickly returned to fighting for a "socialist peace" and for "independent working class politics."
In May-June 1940 there were less than 200 British Trotskyists and these were marginal and divided. The best of them tried to find a way to fight both fascism and the National Government. Before his death in August 1940 Trotsky said that the Trotskyists should counterpose a genuine struggle against fascism to the "false fight" of the Petains (the ageing French Marshal who made peace with the Nazis). He said that denunciation of war had not been the totality of the Bolshevik programme.
The need for a positive programme in wartime made a deep impression on the Workers International League (WIL), the smaller of the two main Trotskyist organisations. From the late summer of 1940 it tried to counter what it believed to be nascent Vichyism in the country with a "Military Policy" of elected officers, government-financed trade union-controlled training schools, public ownership of the armaments industry and a class appeal to German soldiers. They wanted a policy that would meet every experience of the workers. The setbacks to the Allied cause had provided ample evidence for the WIL that a fight against fascism could not be won under the old ruling classes.
The larger Trotskyist group, the Revolutionary Socialist League (RSL), drew opposite conclusions. The fall of France had not led to war-weariness, only to a "flood of patriotism" of "unbridgeable proportions". Coalition government resting on the patriotic mass provided for the present an acceptable substitute for fascism. The RSL dismissed the WIL as attempting to break out of the political impasse by means of short cuts.
The WIL answered this: "The basic task of revolutionary socialists in such a period is not to seek opportunist 'short cuts' to the mass but to explain patiently the reactionary nature of the war."
For the RSL, the WIL and others had failed to counterpose class arguments to nationalism. They had given a left veneer to patriotism. Only in the case of the Soviet Union was it right for workers to assume a patriotic attitude.
The WIL saw positive features in the popular willingness to fight fascism. The government sought support by projecting the conflict as a war for democracy against fascism but people were willing to defend working class organisations, the basis for more thoroughgoing democracy. Far from abolishing workers' parties, the government had leaned on their leaders to gain social support. After a year of war the WIL were convinced that future political developments would favour the workers:
No worker in this country wants to come under the bloody tyranny of Hitler. On the contrary, he will fight against this with all his strength. But he cannot do this while Britain is capitalist; while India is in bondage; while the capitalist class controls the army and the workers are unarmed. The defeat of Hitler, the defence of Britain, the ending of the war - these are not simply a matter of superior arms or more numerous arms. More important is who wields the arms and for what. If it is militant workers fighting for Socialism they will, beside the weapons they take out of the hands of the capitalists, have one supreme weapon which Hitler cannot fight - the fact that the German workers can now join them in the fight against Hitler free from the fear of British capitalism waiting to pounce on them.
Dunkirk and June 1940 was the greatest crisis of the modern British state. The survival of an independent Britain in 1940 has led to a national mythology over the events. Dunkirk may have stripped away some of the myths but the central myths about the collapse of France, the miraculous survival of the British army and the decision by the British bourgeoisie not to negotiate terms endure.
For instance, historical accounts often leave out the 40,000 French soldiers of the rearguard who fought on to the end, allowing the British army to escape. Such omissions do nothing to counteract anti-Europeanism (and Francophobia) in Britain.
A Calder, The People's War, Britain, 1939-1945. (The complete social history of Britain during the Second World War
Winston Churchill. Their Finest Hour, The Second World War Vol.2. (Not as bad as you might think)
Clive Ponting. 1940. (A whistle blower's view, well worth reading.)
S Bornstein and A Richardson, War and the International, A History of the Trotskyist Movement in Britain, 1937-1945.
Reviewer: Mark Catterall