Last week I took myself to my local cinema to see Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s epic dramatization of the Allied retreat from the continent in the spring of 1940. It is an incredibly well-made film, depicting the ghastly situation in which the stranded soldiers found themselves without overdoing either the misery or the violence. Nolan is also skilled at portraying the almost hypnotic way in which the air, sea and land forces relied upon one another in order to escape to safety.
The very next day, Nigel Farage tweeted a picture of himself standing gravely in front of a poster for the film, urging ‘youngsters’ to go out and see it.
He presumably means that it will teach us a jolly good lesson about the importance of fighting evil, especially when it comes from the Germans, as if often did during the Twentieth Century. Dunkirk rather cleverly avoids showing actual Nazis on screen, except for a few blurred frames in the final moments, proving the old adage that an enemy in the mind is as terrifying as one in reality.
I’m certainly sure that old Nige didn’t mean we ‘youngsters’ think too much about the event itself, which was really just a massive case of Armageddon Outta Here, the result of military blunders so spectacular that the Allies did not dare step foot into the continent for another four years.
Nor do I assume he would want us to reflect too much on the events that had led to the war, such as a decade of Conservative governments handing Europe to Hitler in the naïve hope that if they did Johnny Foreigner would never bother the British again.
Like Farage, I do have a certain fondness for the parable that period produced; the gallant story of the sleepy and quietly stoical Brits standing up to the nightmare of the Nazi tyranny. But I accept that films such as Dunkirk tend to leave out the facts that complicated the picture, just as I remember the awful feeling I got when I read that Farage spends his nights watching Dad’s Army, the 1970s sitcom about the incompetent Home Guard, Britain’s last line of defence were the Nazis ever to make it across the Channel, as they very nearly did.
That Dad’s Army is still regularly repeated on BBC Two must be one the great undiagnosed causes of Brexit, for it has given a man like Farage the belief that we’re still living in 1940.
Born in the 1960s, Farage is part of the generation which, unlike many of their forefathers, didn’t have a global war in which to prove their worth. Most of the Brexiters, I can’t help but notice, are from this sort of milieu. That other great Churchill fanboy Boris Johnson was always keen to point out that the EU was the latest manifestation of German expansionism, while his former spurring partner Michael Gove compared European economists to Nazis. Suddenly the fondness for the era of Vera Lynn seems more harmful than silly.
Farage’s only female idol (aside from Marine Le Pen, heir of Vichy France) is Margaret Thatcher, who was at her most reactionary, and yet also her most prophetic, when she opposed the 1989 reunification of Germany on the grounds that it would overtake Britain as the most powerful nation in Europe. Yet instead of looking on the Germans as a rival to beat, we let Thatcher’s hostility decay into a resentful, defeatist attitude, with only the soggy wartime nostalgia of Dunkirk to comfort ourselves for Germany’s ascendancy.
I will admit that one of the flaws of the European Union is that the stronger countries tend to dominate, but nobody can deny that since the war the Germans have conducted themselves with an outstandingly mature attitude towards their past, something which makes Britain’s giggling and sneering only more pathetic.
We could have been the most powerful country in Europe, or at least equally as powerful as Merkel’s Germany, had we listened less to the extremes of British Conservatism, which has now left us isolated from our neighbours and with the pathologically untrustworthy game-show host Donald Trump as our only foreign friend.
As Brexit begins to resemble an even more disastrous scuttle from the continent than Dunkirk, we would do well to grow out of Farage’s desire to vicariously re-fight the battles of 1940, and instead remember the real message of the movie: after the British soldiers are rescued by the legendary ‘little ships,’ Kenneth Branagh’s Commander announces he will remain on the beach in order to show solidarity with his beleaguered European allies, and see that the French soldiers are also brought to the safety of England’s green and pleasant land.