A Historian’s Quest in the Archives: How to Study Controversy around a Controversial President

Currently, I am in Hyde Park, New York, combing through the archives of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Have you heard of him? Of course you have! He was a pretty big deal. Not only was he elected when over a quarter of Americans were unemployed during the Great Depression – pulling them out of their collective misery through massive public works projects and reviving America’s trust in the economy through weekly radio broadcasts called “Fireside Chats”– but he also held office during one of the deadliest wars in American history. Oh, and he was crippled too. Having contracted polio in his 30s, he was the only physically disabled president to be elected to office. Ever.

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FDR served as US President from 1933 to 1945. Here’s a flattering photo, courtesy of Densho Encyclopaedia

Considered the most influential president of the 20th century, FDR’s impact has been felt ever since. Under his watch, unions were given the right to form. His government was the first to provide old-age security, unemployment benefits and disability and single-parent allowances. He introduced the American public to a new relationship with its government by calmly discussing the issues of the day over the radio while they sat comfortably in their homes. He declared that the role of the central government was to secure the material well-being of the American people.   Having enacted the Executive Reorganisation Bill in 1939, he broadened and increased the presidency’s overall responsibilities. He supported the United Nations and ensured the US had a key role in the UN’s Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (and thus, a key role in reshaping post-war Europe). FDR substantially changed America, and its position in the world.

But FDR also had major flaws. Politically, he broke the no-third-term rule in 1940 and sought to centralise the power of the presidency, leading some to question if he would become a dictator. Under his command, he allowed the harsh internment of Japanese-Americans on the west coast. After his death, many questioned why Roosevelt never took a leading role in helping the Jews of Europe, leaving their welfare instead to private organizations and charities. Some claimed he was a racist. Others said he was just a narcissist.

FDR also had an unusual personal life. He was a proper Mama’s boy.  The closeness to his mother created a toxic atmosphere, leaving little emotional room for anyone else. Despite his mother’s fierce opposition, he married his rather remarkable wife, Eleanor. They were cousins, albeit distant. But Eleanor was unusual too; she was an independent thinker and terribly clever, likely a lesbian, and eventually became a politician in her own right in the 1950s.

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Sarah Roosevelt was a clever and educated woman who apparently doted on her son. At age 26, she married FDR’s father, James, 52 years old. The birth was difficult and she bore no other children. After James’ death in 1900, she held the majority of the Roosevelt fortune. Sarah died in 1941.

The Roosevelts had an odd relationship, which historians have commented served political ends rather than being a romantic union. But, they did produce six children! While Eleanor advocated for women’s rights and various social reforms, FDR pushed his own career towards vice presidency then eventually presidency. He dealt with a painful disability daily and he adequately “overcame” the perception of it (apparently, people didn’t realise the extent of his immobility because he was so excellent at hiding it in public). He even created a foundation and rehabilitation park for other polio victims in Well Springs, Georgia.

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FDR had contracted polio while at his summer home in Campobello, Canada, in July 1921. He was just 39 years old. He eventually founded a home for other polio victims in Warm Springs, Georgia, depicted here in 1924.

Affairs were rampant in the Roosevelt household. FDR kept close company with Eleanor’s secretary, Lucy Mercer and, later, his own personal secretary, Marguerite “Missy” LeHand.  Meanwhile Eleanor formed “close” relationships to like-minded women, going on holidays with them regularly, all with FDR’s blessing. He even built a small cottage for Eleanor and her friends to have sleepovers just two miles from the family home in Hyde Park. After her husband’s death, Eleanor became a chief philanthropist in post-war Europe, advocating for human rights (and especially children’s rights) in the new United Nations. Evidently, the Roosevelts lived remarkable and unusual lives, both together and apart.

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Eleanor Roosevelt is celebrated as one of the most influential women of the 20th century. She pushed for social reforms, women’s rights, and human rights,  offering her help and influence to marginalised groups and fringe societies. Notably, Eleanor was chair of the United Nation’s Human Rights Commission and, in 1948, was the chief proponent of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

In 1941, just a few years before FDR died, he oversaw the construction of the FDR Library and Archives on his family estate in Hyde Park. Not long after his death, his immediate family relinquished their rights to the estate and, at FDR’s request, it became a national park. Today it houses multiple series of the Roosevelt’s papers, with over 20,000 boxes of documents.

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The FDR Library. Critics claimed FDR’s library was a shameful display of self-promotion, but he claimed it accomplished two goals: preserve documents and provide transparency of all his actions to the American people.

This brings me back to why I’m here. Considering the complexity of these multi-faceted pillars of American history, it is important to approach the Roosevelts with caution and respect, right?

But it’s tricky. As a historian, it’s hard to remain objective when you want certain things to be true. Or, when your research subject is just as controversial as the Roosevelts.

While Eleanor intrigues me, I am actually here for FDR alone. I want to discover why FDR was an obstinate and obstructive SCHMUCK to his closest ally, the British, during the Second World War. Let me explain…

During the Second World War, one of the most powerful weapons the Allies held against Nazi Germany was the economic blockade of Nazi-controlled continental Europe. ALL trade, including relief, sent by the Allies to Germany OR German-occupied countries was strictly forbidden during the war. This prevented Germany from plundering relief, while also forcing Germany to take full responsibility for the territories it conquered. Over time, the blockade would apply considerable pressure upon Germany and strain its resources and, thus, its ability to win the war. Seems logical, right?

The blockade policy was one of those items that was constantly discussed by all levels of multiple governments. I’ve witnessed this in the German, British, Swiss and now American archives. It’s incredible. And surprisingly, very rarely discussed by historians in any great detail (see Meredith Hindley or Jean Beaumont’s “Starving for Democracy”).

Public pressure from various groups (for example, thousands of letters written by concerned Yorkshire women’s groups or Pennsylvanian famers or Belgian mothers or various Red Cross branches) meant that governments were always rejecting pleas for relief from well-meaning citizens, large reputable charities, or governments in exile. And, due to Germany’s considerable exploitation of its conquered territories, the list of those governments begging for relief was very long: Polish, Belgian, Norwegian, Dutch, French, Yugoslav…

But blockade policy remained practically unyielding. (The single exception during the entre war was Greece because of a massive famine, but you can read about that here). So long as the Allies could hold it together, maintain unity on this key war policy, then the blockade have the strongest effect on the enemy.

But humanity is cunning. Swiss charities sought to overcome the blockade by relocating children to Switzerland instead. Massive child evacuations, which is the core of my research, successfully relocated Belgian, French and Yugoslav children to Switzerland for three month periods of recuperation. And the Germans allowed it! No great inconvenience to them, because it removed many mouths to feed and pacified parents. Over 60,000 children were successfully evacuated in this way during the war, and another 100,000 in the post-war period. Impressive, eh?

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Swiss Red Cross nurses prepare to receive thousands of French and Belgian children at a train station in 1942 in Basel, Switzerland.

However, this changed in August 1942. Hitler’s armies invaded southern, unoccupied France and, soon after, began large round-ups of Jews. Initially, Jewish children were not included in the deportations to the East, which meant that thousands of children were abandoned and parentless. (A few weeks later though, the Germans rounded them up too).

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A Belgian child (4 years old) with severe malnutrition at a Swiss train station, 1942.

Due to this invasion and deportation, thousands of French children now needed immediate relief. Swiss charities grappled with how to help. They approached the Allied governments that perhaps these Swiss-run evacuations could be increased – possibly to over 100,000 children!  But, crucially, Switzerland too was experiencing war shortages – it could not adequately provide for all the children of Europe.  So perhaps the Allies would send relief (food, medicines, vitamins) directly to Switzerland for all these children?  Of course, the Swiss emphasised, they were neutral, not Nazi-controlled, so they were excluded from the Allies’ blockade policy.

It all sounds very logical. A clever and elegant solution to a major humanitarian crisis. While memos shot excitedly across the Atlantic between the US State Department and the British Foreign Office, dear President Roosevelt was having informal meetings with the Ambassador to Norway, Wilhelm Thorleif von Munthe af Morgenstierne. According to strongly-worded and angry British documents, in late October 1942, FDR promised the Ambassador – without consulting the British – that the US would send relief to Norway!

When the British heard of FDR’s assurances, they insisted that there was no way that relief could be sent to Norway without it being allowed also to Belgium, France, Poland, etc, thus breaking the blockade! Also, FDR’s promises complicated the possibility of sending relief to children evacuated to Switzerland, which would both relieve children while also respecting the blockade. Therefore, the British emphatically conveyed their absolute rejection of FDR’s promises to Norway in November 1942 and keenly awaited the American reply.

However, no reply was given. British documents reveal acute frustration and abhorrence that the US would ignore the British regarding such an important subject, to such an extent that Churchill himself was lobbied to become involved. And although Churchill and FDR met at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943, the British government still received no official reply. WHY?

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FDR and Churchill were close allies during the war. The complete (and overwhelmingly detailed) correspondence was compiled by Warren F Kimball in THREE volumes. Notably, when writing informally, Churchill was referred to as “Former Naval Person.” Only in official correspondence was his title “Prime Minister,” indicating the intimacy of their relationship.

By August 1943, the Americans finally gave a half-hearted, vague and conditional reply that they might support extra provisions to Switzerland, but the British, Swiss and Americans took no action. Allied support for child evacuations was not raised again between the British and US until May 1944, just one month before the Allied invasion of Europe on DDay. Of course, by that point, a humanitarian mission for children was hardly as important as the rapid liberation of oppressed nations by the largest invasion in history.

BUT.

Why did FDR promise such a thing to Norway? Was it during a schmoozy, drunken lunch or a formal high-level meeting? Was the promise conditional or was it a blank cheque? Did the Norwegian Ambassador perhaps misunderstand FDR’s “promise” and in fact, no promise was made? Or was FDR’s “promise” actually hollow – perhaps a vain attempt to get the insistent Norwegian off his back – and the British were just overreacting? But then, if that was the case, why would FDR not reply immediately to his ally? Why ignore their determined attempts to find out what happened? WHY? Why, oh President Roosevelt, why?

Meanwhile, let’s all remember: children are starving, being rounded up and sent to concentration camps, experiencing violence and bombings and general oppression. This makes any bureaucratic error or deliberate avoidance all the more inexcusable.

This is the purpose of my research visit. To discover the answer to these questions. My current historical opinion of FDR is not too complimentary. But even I know it’s not fair to FDR, his legacy, or the study of history to jump to conclusions. Which brings me back to my original assessment of FDR…

President Roosevelt was obviously a brilliant politician and, in many ways, a great strategist. His lasting legacy is a testament to his commendable, practical approach and determination to improve American lives. But he also prioritised certain lives over others, and was a blatant narcissist. FDR liked being in control – to such an extent as being classified as a dictator – and sought personal validation from various audiences.  Some legitimate, and some behind closed doors.

A large part of good historical research is accurately determining the motives, personalities, and fears of major historical figures. Both the problem and beauty of studying FDR as a historical topic is that he was just as flawed as he was extraordinary. Throughout his remarkable but challenged life, he engaged with a broader spectrum of victory (and failure!) than others, so predicting his motivations will be exceptionally difficult. He is an infinitely complex character.

My hunch about the whole promising-relief-to-Norway thing? Based upon all the research, documentaries, articles and books I’ve had to read about the man, FDR was NOT impulsive. FDR was deliberate and purposeful.  Everything he did was meaningful and goal-oriented. He was an impeccable strategist. Therefore, I truly think that President Roosevelt had a reason behind his promise to Norway. Now, I just need to figure it out…

Wish me luck!

Refugees, Labour and Violence: Rethinking “borders” while in the Scottish Borders

Last month, I holidayed in a region of southern Scotland called “The Borders.” As the boyfriend was raised in one of its charming towns, I had a built-in tour guide. He showed me all the fluffy sheep, the gorgeous green rolling hills and told me stories of the Borders’ sparkling history of violence and raiding.

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This vantage of the Tweed valley and Eildon Hills is called “Scott’s View,” as it is reputed as one of Sir Walter Scott’s favourite views.

This lush swath of land held a contentious political boundary that separated Scotland from England. Between the 13th and 17th centuries, this magnificent countryside became ground zero in the quest to define those two nationalities. Repetitive small conflicts and systematic raiding dominated the region due to a group of mercenaries called the Border Reivers. Equipped with bows and arrows and mounted on little ponies, they were notorious for stealing, raping and fighting for live stock and lands.

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Queen Elizabeth I was so impressed with the Border Reivers ruthless success, that she once said, “with ten thousand such men, James VI could shake any throne in Europe.”  (photo: wikipedia)

Today, traces of the intense violence are still present in the abandoned peel towers that dot the countryside, where residents would hide from invaders. One particular peel tower called Smailholm Tower was made popular by Scotland’s cherished author, Sir Walter Scott. As a child battling polio in the late 1700s, Scott stayed with his grandparents at Sandyknowes farm just beside Smailholm Tower and even played in its ruins.

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Smailholm Tower was one of hundreds of defensive fortifications that dotted the countryside. Inside was often a local laird and enough room to house the sheep and cattle, a major resource for the Border Reivers.

Due to the strong oral traditions among the local farmers and shepherds, Scott also learned about the Border Reivers’s raids through workers on the farm, including his auntie who would sing to him. Years later, Scott transcribed and modified some of these folk tales, popularising them through his writings and publications. In one fell swoop, Sir Walter Scott’s renditions of these stories soon came to define an entire portion of Scotland’s (heavily disputed) land and (blood-soaked) history into the romanticised nation we know today.

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Abbotsford, Sir Walter Scott’s family home, is now a B&B and museum.

While Scott’s impact upon Scotland is indisputable – he seemed to be a remarkable and eccentric man – the Scottish Borders as a specific region made me stop and think. Scotland and England would eventually find peace (to an extent) so that the violence would stop, but what do such borders achieve?

Are borders entirely arbitrary, or do they serve a useful purpose? What do borders accomplish? How do borders define a group? Do they cause more peace or more violence? Do we still need them? Or should we build more?   

I’m not the first to ask such questions, especially in recent history. Just last month, it was the 70th anniversary of India and Pakistan’s creation. Or, it was the 70th anniversary of one of the bloodiest legacies that ever came from drawing a border.

In the immediate post-war era, calls for Indian independence from British rule could no longer by ignored by Westminster. Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the Congress and Muslim League, demanded the creation of a Muslim state. With British PM Clement Atlee’s strong support, Lord Louis Mountbatten and Cyril Radcliffe were responsible for hastily drawing a boundary that essentially cut Punjab and Bengal almost in half.  But the problem was that millions of Muslims lived in what would become Hindu-majority India, while millions of Hindus and Sikhs lived in what would be Muslim-majority Pakistan.

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A photo from 19 September 1947 of an overcrowded train station by New Delhi (from an article by Dawn).

The “Mountabatten Plan” was submitted just five days before India and Pakistan were partitioned (14th and 15th August, respectively). Celebrations ensued, but so did mass migration. Over 15 million Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus essentially swapped countries, leading to over a million deaths in the violence that followed. Chaos reigned at train stations, looting and food shortages were commonplace. People apparently defended themselves from discriminate attacks with knives, guns, swords. Thousands sought shelter and refuge in sacred temples and tombs. Millions died because of this arbitrary, hastily drawn line in the earth. Millions died because of a border.

Borders, essentially, divide people.

Hundreds of years ago, physical features of the land would define a people, such as river or forest. But in more recent history, borders have been politically motivated rather than geographically defined. Or sometimes both. I remember being a young Canadian elementary student in Social Studies class and asking why the US-Canada border was straight on the left (west), but squiggly on the right (east). My teacher laughed and said the St. Lawrence River was the chosen boundary in the east, while the 49th latitude was the boundary in the west. The answer confused me, but then I was told that the US-Canada border is the longest undefended border in the world. “But we’ll be okay,” she reassured me. “Okay from what?” I remember thinking.

Borders “protect” people.

They keep foreigners out. They help us to define ourselves in relation to the “other” whatever we perceive it to be: barbarity, violence, backwardness, et cetera. By doing so, borders create a sense of homogeneity, safety and order for those inside, implying further that such civilised aspects of society only exist within that border. Borders thus legitimise our identities and strengthen our communities. Evidently, borders do accomplish a great deal.

Today’s borders allow free trade, the free movement of goods to be exchanged. This allows us to create links (sometimes exploitive) with our neighbours and is one of the best things to come out of colonisation and globalisation. And yet we do not afford that same freedom of movement to people, to labour.

As British journalist Giles Fraser says, “We are so hypocritical about our borders.” We will celebrate the fall of the Berlin Wall, but we will fortify Calais and the UK against the waves of eastern refugees and migrants. We will condemn Trump’s proposed wall with Mexico, but continue the oppressive system of First Nations reservations in Canada and the US. We shake our heads at the illegal detainment of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, but we will applaud the commendable efforts of Médecins Sans Frontières (or, Doctors without Borders).

Why such hypocrisy? 

Professor Jonothan Moses claims in International Migration: Globalization’s Last Frontier (2006), that “as distance in the world recedes with technological, social, demographic and political advances, the demand for international migration will surely grow.” The only way to solve our multiple global problems, he claims, is through free migration. It is the last frontier to be conquered by the global community. Naturally, this sounds both radical and implausible, but he assures us that eventually we would become more just and happier, as the world’s economic and political bounty would be better distributed.

A world without borders? Is that possible?  

Just imagine a world where you could visit or permanently move anywhere you wanted without restrictions. Tropical islands everywhere would become overwhelmed with the world’s richest retirement-aged elites. Many long-distance relationships could be solved. Families separated by war or migration could be reunited.  Unmarried women could backpack through Saudi Arabia! And, importantly, the global divide between the rich underpopulated North and the poor overpopulated South would rebalance. Eventually.

But a world without borders is difficult to comprehend.  So if a borderless, free-moving, global population is one radical extreme, then at the other end of the spectrum is a world with well-defined “nations”. We know this world, because we are living in it. A world with borders, barriers and walls, such as those that currently in Israel/Palestine, or those proposed by Trump with Mexico, or those proposed by Brexit with Europe. No more EU Schengen plans. No more visa-free travel. Everyone restricted to their little nation. Everyone defined by their borders.

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The closing ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics demonstrates just how much we are defined by our borders (Photo: Daily Mail).

But then, history. History tells us that borders aren’t necessarily the best invention since sliced bread. Borders cause war, then war happens, then borders are redrawn. Repeat. For example, one of the strongest underlying factors for the outbreak of the First World War was the fact that people were angry with their borders. And this anger took the form of nationalism. Pause here.

Nationalism (generally, a pride in one’s nation) is based upon a collective identity due to ethnic, religious, and/or political reasons. It’s a massive concept that historians debate endlessly (see Anthony Smith’s Theories of Nationalism (1971), Ernest Gellner’s Nations and Nationalism (1983), anything by Eric J. Hobsbaum). Because borders keep foreigners out, legitimise citizens within, and nurture collective pride and identity, nationalism is tied inextricably to borders – real or imagined. Nationalism does not always need to exist in a community, but it does exist because that community is legitimised by, or rebelling against, its borders. Correct? Yes.

So, in the early 1900s, multiple ethnic communities in the Balkans were formulating new identities that wanted autonomy from the Austria-Hungarian state and old Emperor Franz Joseph in Vienna. Two previous localised Balkan wars had proved just how forceful these groups were becoming. But the conflict escalated into the First World War when a member of one Serbian nationalist group assassinated the nephew of the Emperor. Nationalism, aggravated by borders (that these groups felt limited by), was thus a major component of the ongoing tensions that sparked and accelerated that conflict.

After the First World War, borders were redrawn: Poland, Finland and the Baltics were born. Austria-Hungary was split into Austria, Hungary, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Alsace-Lorraine was returned to the French. German colonies were transferred to the victors. The League of Nations was created to hopefully broker ongoing peace and stability after an estimated 25 million deaths.

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The German delegates at the Treaty of Versailles: Professor Walther Schücking, Reichspostminister Johannes Giesberts, Justice Minister Otto Landsberg, Foreign Minister Ulrich Graf von Brockdorff-Rantzau, Prussian State President Robert Leinert, and financial advisor Carl Melchior. (Photo from Wikipedia).

For a time, it seemed to work. But the League of Nations faltered. Nationalism grew. This time Germany and Russia became massive forces that spurned many citizens to believe that their nations had not only the means but the right to reclaim lost territories and even conquer new ones. Hitler and Stalin’s fierce ambitions, and weak Allied leadership in the late 1930s heightened tensions and nurtured opportunity for conflict. The Second World War resulted in an estimated 50 to 80 million deaths.

The United Nations attempted to succeed where the League of Nations failed. European Integration became central to rebuilding a world after total devastation. A common market was created among its first four members and the free movement of goods became a cornerstone of collective European prosperity. Go, Europe!

Simultaneously, the Cold War constructed “the Iron Curtain” and, again, divided Europe and the world. The Berlin Wall was erected in 1961 and symbolised the cold, hard barrier between western capitalism and eastern communism. The last remaining right-wing dictatorships in Portugal and Spain soon dissolved. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell and East and West Germany were finally reunited. Borders that had previously been so indestructible for decades seem to crumble in a few short months.

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Over 138 people died trying to escape through the Wall, and an estimated 5,000 were successful. The first to escape was East German border guard, Corporal Conrad Schumann, in August 1961 (Photo from here)

By 1993, the Schengen Agreements allowed for movement of “four freedoms”: goods, services, money and people. Millions of young people were able to study in other EU countries and the Euro currency was adopted by most EU nations. Remarkably, the EU eased gracefully into a period of prosperity and harmony. Goals to tackle climate change and terrorism unified these once national enemies. Germany, despite his historic territorial ambitions, became the world leader in accepting refugees and migrants. The EU won the Noble Peace Prize in 2012.

But then, Brexit. And Trump’s Mexico wall. It seems that some western leaders believe tightening borders, not eradicating them, is the best response to global migration.

So what’s the solution?

Rethink the nature of “borders.” Although totally removing borders is radical and implausible in the near future, global migration will only increase. As migrants move between countries, they often transition through multiple societies, adopting new identities in each and thus complicating the simple labels of “origin” and “destination.” Global migration is not only increasing, but becoming vastly more complex.

History proves that borders do not keep foreigners “out” nor keep citizens “in”. And why should they? The global economy is based upon free trade, the free movement of goods, so why shouldn’t that be extended to people, to labour? Meanwhile, current gaps between the rich and poor, the north and south, the citizens and refugees, are eroding due to instantaneous communications, faster transportation, and global infrastructures and this exact type of trade. Sorry, world, but refugees and migrants won’t just “go away,” no matter how high you build those walls.

According to the International Organisation of Migration, “Migration is an integral part of global transformation and development processes rather than a problem to be solved.” If true, then how do we improve this?

Of course, the best remedies lay in helping those on the other side of the border. Provide immediate aid to victims of war, hunger and disease. Allow those fleeing persecution and war to cross borders, with or without passports or visas. Commit to large-scale, international resettlement projects across borders. Do not underfund long-term peace projects that tackle the root causes of war, hunger and disease. Persecute human traffickers heavily. Combat all forms of racism and xenophobia at home and abroad.

The Scottish Borders unknowingly provides us a great deal of information about how this could work on a global scale. Although fighting over human and material resources could continue for centuries, strict borders will eventually disappear. People will eventually live without violence. And while pride for one’s nation is still very strong in this part of the world, and tensions between Scotland and English still certainly exist, the Borders is a serene and renowned land with its numerous peel towers and fluffy sheep.

Who wouldn’t be proud of that?  

The Echoes of Nazism in Today’s America: History or Hype?

Is anyone else heartbroken and equally fascinated by what’s happening in America right now? The removal of the statue of Confederate general Robert E Lee from a public park in Charlottesville, Virginia, on 13 August sparked demonstrations which culminated in the tragic death of a 32-year-old woman, Heather Heyer.

But had it not been for Trump’s subsequent statement, then perhaps Heather’s death and these demonstrations could have been recorded as a local (though tragic) event. Heather may have been seen as “just one more casualty” in a long violent history between right-wing nationalists nostalgic about the old South, and everyone else that enthusiastically excludes themselves from that label.

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President Trump threw fuel on the metaphorical fire by saying, “We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides, on many sides.”

But then President Donald Trump condemned the violence at a white supremacist rally “on many sides.”

“On many sides”……? Huh?

It’s been remarkable to watch the visceral uproar following Trump’s trivializing remarks. Scheduled “Free Speech” demonstrations in Boston last weekend were overwhelmed with counter demonstrators numbered in the tens of thousands. At the base of Trump Tower in NYC another 1,000 protesters shouted “Black Lives Matter,” while various sand-filled white dump trucks were positioned as a barricade. And comedian Tina Fey devoured an entire sheet cake:

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Tina Fey reminded white supremacists that: “It’s not our country–we stole it. We stole it from the Native Americans. And when they have a peaceful protest at Standing Rock, we shoot at them with rubber bullets. But we let you chinless turds march through the streets with semi-automatic weapons.”

Even other world leaders unequivocally condemned the white supremacists. In Germany, where any Nazi salutes, gatherings or symbols are illegal (even arresting tourists who flout the law), politicians have tweeted their dismay.

Martin Schulz, leader of Germany’s Social Democratic Party, tweeted: “One must denounce Nazis definitively. What Trump is doing is inflammatory. Whoever trivializes violence & hate betrays western values.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel called the events in Charlottesvile “absolutely repulsive.” And former Israeli Foreign Minister, Tzipi Livni, tweeted: “In Nazism, anti-Semitism and racism there are never two equal sides — only one side is evil. Period.”

And some of the strongest voices of all are those of Holocaust survivors and veterans of the Second World War. These brave people are standing up against any revival of the same racist intolerance they experienced in 1930s Germany.

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Marianne Rubin’s granddaughter, Lena Schnall, captured a photo of her grandmother at a rally in NYC after Charlottesville. Rubin was a Jewish child in 1930s Germany and managed to escape with her parents first to Italy, France and then the US.

But are today’s racial clashes in the US actually echoing the same sentiments of Nazi Germany? Is Trump the new Hitler? Are Muslims and refugees the new Jews? Is World War III around the corner? Or is this all just a bunch of short-lived hype that will shortly disappear? 

Professor Richard J. Evans (my favourite historian and eminent Cambridge scholar) was interviewed by Slate magazine shortly after Trump’s inauguration. Well before the events of Charlottesville, Prof. Evans suggested that some parallels can be drawn between Trump and Hitler’s early days in power. I will now elaborate on three points my biggest intellectual crush raised:

1. The stigmatization of minorities.

Hitler despised those he deemed non-German. Although Hitler was a notorious anti-Semite, his prejudice towards Jews also extended to Bolshevists and progressive liberals who endorsed the Weimar Republic. Importantly, a strong right-wing community supported Hitler, which blamed Germany’s defeat in WWI upon the socialists, communists and Jews that had back-stabbed them on the homefront.  Anti-Semitic newspapers and anti-Jewish clubs were commonplace in prewar Germany.

And, once you combine this common hatred with a socially-acceptable belief in “scientifically-measurable” progression and eugenics (which was studied in numerous universities since Darwin coined the idea of “evolution”), then it’s not difficult to see how even the most civilized of societies – which Germany was in the 20th century – could believe that one race was superior to another. By 1935, the Nuremberg Laws solidified the legal persecution of Jews on the basis of “race” and by 1939, Jews were forced to wear yellow stars in public, moved into ghettos and eventually exterminated in concentration camps. Notably, this stigmatization was also experienced by other minorities, such as the disabled, homosexuals, political opponents, criminals, Roma/Gypsies, black people, religious groups…

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A class studies the Bertillon method of criminal identification, based on measuring body parts in Paris between 1910-1915. Eugenics was practised throughout the world and was considered to be ground-breaking field of scientific research which would improve society as a whole.

Today’s America is obviously a far cry from outright genocide, but stigmatization of minorities still exists. For example, Trump’s travel ban imposed against people from Iran, Libya, Syria, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen, as well as all refugees caused huge controversy last February. Trump claimed he was protecting American borders from Muslim extremists, despite the fact that only three refugees in American history (Cubans in the 1970s) were ever convicted of terrorism.

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Muslims pray in protest of Trump’s travel ban in Dallas earlier in 2017. Although  judges have overturned the order, aspects of the ban were implemented and will be reviewed by the US Supreme Court in October.

Trump’s attempts to reverse Obamacare could also be perceived as a stigmatizing the poorer segments of American society who cannot afford private healthcare. The ongoing struggle of the #BlackLivesMatter black-community against state violence and discrimination is still speaking out against various Trump policies (although the 2012 murder of Trayvon Martin which sparked the movement occurred before Trump took office).  Also, the Trump administration announced last month that transgendered individuals would be banned from serving in the US military. Even some of the most conservative Republicans and retired military generals have denounced the policy.

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In August 2017, civil rights groups have announced their intent to file suit against Trump for the intended ban against transgendered people serving in the military.

2. Not adhering to conventions of normal political life.

Although the Nazi party won 37% of the vote through an entirely democratic and legitimate political process, Hitler’s almost immediately changed German laws to create a one-party state. Although historians cannot agree over who exactly burnt down the Reichstag –  Germany’s parliament – afterwards Hitler enacted emergency measures which allowed him to suspend German citizens’ rights, including habeas corpusfreedom of expressionfreedom of the press, the right of free association and public assembly, the secrecy of the post and telephone. Hitler never reinstated these rights during the Third Reich. This was, again, in the name of protecting German citizens from domestic terrorism.  In June 1934, Hitler also violently eliminated about 100 rivals in a violent purge called “Night of the Long Knives.” Then, after President Hindenberg’s death in August 1934, Hitler merged the presidency with the chancellorship. Incredibly, Hitler consolidated his power and created a violent dictatorship in less than two years.

Hitler HIndenberg

President Paul von Hindenburg and newly-elected Chancellor Adolf Hitler in a parade in Berlin in 1933. By consolidating the roles of presidency and chancellorship shortly after Hindenburg’s death in 1934, Hitler was able to create a secure dictatorship.

What about Trump’s adherence to normal political life? Trump’s administration has passed more Executive Orders than any other president since Roosevelt, but many of these orders are politically insignificant (such as designating buildings or naming people to certain positions). However, the controversies surrounding Trump, especially with regard to Russia hacking the US elections and the dramatic resignation (dismissal?) of FBI Director James Comey, throw doubt on Trump’s ability to “adhere to normal political life.”  What about Trump barring certain journalists from the White House press room? Or the appointment of his daughter Ivanka Trump, and husband, Jared Kushner, as “special advisors” and even representing the US government at the latest international G20 conference? Or the fact that less than a year into the job, some seven high ranking officials were either sacked or resigned from the Trump administration?

Sean Spicer

After White House Press Secretary, Sean Spicer‘s resignation, he said what has been claimed as the most Sean Spicer thing ever: “You can keep taking your selfies.” Huh?!

3. Spurning international agreements.

A month after Hitler came to power, he withdrew Germany from the League of Nations. He argued that the Disarmament Conference did not allow it military parity with the Western nations (meaning that Hitler wanted to rearm and the Allies wouldn’t let him).  Hitler obviously would not agree to any international policy that would limit Germany’s autonomy. He continued to flout international laws by annexing Austria and invading the Sudetenland without any hassle from the French, British or Soviets. Well, not until he invaded Poland.

Goebbels at Geneva

Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in Geneva in February 1932 with the League of Nations. Shortly after, Germany would withdraw from the League.

Trump’s isolationist policies (if we can call them that) echo the goal of many historic politicians (Hitler included) who wished to put the needs of the nation before any obligations towards the international community. “America First” is Trump’s slogan which seeks to revive the exhausted American coffers by tightening federal budgets with more domestic investment (for example, by slashing diplomacy and development funding by a 32%). Recently, Trump withdrew the US from the Paris Agreement which nearly 200 countries signed in December 2015 in an effort to combat global warming and help poorer countries adapt to an already-changed planet. Similarly, however, Britain has left the European Union so perhaps isolationism is a growing economic model in an increasingly globalized world. But by spurning such international agreements, Trump appears as an antithesis to the incredible global action by the US in the last 3 years: stopping the Ebola epidemic, rallying more than 65 partners to fight ISIS, and leading those same 200 countries to forge this historic climate change agreement in the first place! Barack is probably on a beach somewhere, shaking his head…

Trump Paris Agreement

World leaders were visibly upset that Trump would not concede on an international policy for climate change.

So what?

Although the words of caution from Holocaust survivors are obviously crucial warnings during such social upheaval, I’m not convinced that Hitler’s Germany and Trump’s America are synonymous. But perhaps I’m being cynical. Prof. Evans claimed there is one big difference between Hitler and Trump: while Hitler’s speeches and policies were exceptionally well-practiced, focused and deliberate, Trump’s tweets and policies are spontaneous, erratic and unguarded. This implies that Trump is not single-mindedly achieving some ultimate vision, but leisurely and arrogantly deciding grand policies without much foresight. As comedian Frankie Boyle quips, “Trump’s nothing like Hitler. There’s no way he could write a book.”

The good news? The violence from the neo-Nazi demonstrations in Charlottesville followed by Trump’s trivializing comments has forced Americans everywhere to defend their most basic national values, whatever they perceive them to be.

Trump may not be the voice for Americans everywhere – he certainly struggles to reflect the mood of the country – but at the very least he’s forcing Americans to have a conversation, a confrontation, of what it means to be American. He’s the proverbial trickster. A rousing ringleader. The grand master of controversy. The court jester who masquerades and provokes. The words that spill out of his mouth are not intricately prearranged, but reckless, and thus easier to destroy.

Fortunately, the greatest difference between 1930s Germany and today’s America is the lack of political violence by its leader. Whereas Hitler mobilized his Sturmabteilung brown-shirt henchmen to beat up political opponents in the streets, Trump has no such organized paramilitary government wing. Instead, Prof. Evans argues, political violence has taken the form of tweets and trolling, poisoning our political discourse.

But at the same time (and with the greatest respect, Prof. Evans!), Twitter, Facebook and other social media also allow everyone – Trump included – a political voice and online presence to confront ideas, create communities and mobilize politics. Smart phones allow people to record events like Charlottesville, so that those who promote hatred and bigotry are exposed. Modern communications certainly attracts trollers and hackers, but the brutal political violence that typified Nazi Germany is not what one experiences when they open their laptop, check their news, and write their blog. Thankfully.

Covefefe.

 

Why Save the Children’s Graphic Photos Still Work Today

There is a massive famine and outbreak of cholera currently in Yemen. The United Nations recently calculated that over 20 million Yemenis are in need of immediate assistance. To put this in perspective, Yemen is a country with only 28 million people. That means that two thirds of an entire country are suffering to such a degree to require international assistance. Incredible.

In the background of this massive crisis is a civil war. In January 2015, decade-long tensions erupted between a separatist group named the Houthis (a Zaidi Shia Muslim minority) and the authoritarian president Mr. Hadi. After the Houthis surrounded the presidential palace and placed the government under house arrest, Saudi Arabia intervened and is now leading another eight Sunni Arab states in a bombing campaign to restore power back into the Yemeni government’s hands. And civil war continues to this day.

taiz-yemen

The city of Taiz has been ravaged by two years of battles between forces loyal to President Hadi, Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda

Importantly, a major port in the south called Hodeidah was seized by the Houthis. This port supplies Yemen with over 80% of its food imports. The Saudis won’t let relief ships dock there because the supplies would fall into the Houthis’ hands. This has delayed life-saving supplies for months.  Currently, the UN Security Council is trying to intervene to claim the port as strictly neutral. Let’s hope they can succeed.

In the last two years, hospitals and clinics have been destroyed. Government health officials have not been paid in a year. The basic necessities of life, like clean water and food, are a daily struggle to obtain. Cholera, which is spread by contaminated water, can kill within hours if untreated. By August 2017, it has infected more than 425,000 Yemenis and killed 1,900. And the situation is growing so severe that Oxfam calculates those infected with cholera could rise to more than 600,000 (which would exceed Haiti in 2011). The situation is obviously very grim.

Yemen Cholera Water

These Yemeni women queue for clean water. Rowa Mohammed Assayaghi, a medical microbiologist at Yemen’s Sana’a University is teaching people how to wash their hands. “Focusing on health awareness is one of the most important measures to follow,” she says.

Calls for relief from various NGOs and charities are spreading throughout the West. I’ve noticed it more recently, even on my Facebook feed. But with more than one million malnourished children under the age of 5 living in areas with high levels of cholera, charities are getting desperate. Pictures of emaciated Yemeni children are now popping up repeatedly on news websites and social media everywhere. It’s heart-breaking to watch, and uncomfortable to see (especially after I Instagram my latest foodie pic).

hodeidah-yemen starvation

A mother carries her son Imran Faraj, 8 year-old, who is suffering from malnutrition at a hospital in the port city of Hodeidah. This photo is from an Independent article in June.

When inundated with these grim photos, it sadly echoes so many other previous campaigns we may remember from past: AIDS orphans, Rwandan genocide victims, displaced children in the Sudan, starving children in Somalia, and so many others. But it’s effective. By pushing the suffering and starvation of the world’s absolute poorest children upon the western world, charities are using a remarkable game-changing strategy first used by Save the Children in the early 1920s. It changed both how we perceive children, and how we perceive ourselves. But first, the history…

Immediately after the First World War began, the Allies/Entente Powers blockaded Germany and Austria, meaning they did not send supplies, exports or any traded goods to their enemy. Much like Saudi Arabia is doing to Yemen today, blockading supplies was an effective economic weapon, especially against countries (like Germany) that depended heavily upon imports to feed its citizens.

Blockade against Germany

A Berlin butcher’s shop is looted in 1919. A combination of bad harvests and incompetent regulation of food distribution, in addition to the British blockade, made the situation far worse.

The First World War was slow-moving, hard-fought and resulted in massive causalities. An estimated 10 million people were displaced during the war. And despite the Armistice in November 1918, the food blockade against Germany and Austria continued and did not end until Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles in June 1919. That eight month period between the “end of war” and the “start of peace” resulted in mass starvation among the children of Germany and Austria.

For example, a Swiss doctor of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Dr. Frédéric Ferrière, reported that out of nearly 60,000 children examined in 1918 in Vienna, only 4,637 had been in good health. In other words, 93% of children were in bad health. (For more, see André Durand’s History of the International Committee of the Red Cross from Sarajevo to Hiroshima).

Jebb 2

Eglantyne Jebb (1876-1928) spent many years working for charities before founding Save the Children. Despite her good education and well-to-do British background, Jebb found that she was a poor teacher and not fond of children. Ironically, she became one of their chief champions in modern history.

Meanwhile, one of the first women educated at Oxford, Eglantyne Jebb, had worked for charities for years and was growing concerned about the fate of German and Austrian children under the blockade. We must remember that Germans (“the Huns”) were Britain’s national enemy for four long years. Thus, to overlook this and consider the suffering of the Germany and Austria’s children was quite remarkable. Jebb formed the Famine Council on 1 January 1919 with the direct desire to end the British blockade.

Newpaper Blockade 1919

The front page of the Detroit Sunday News on 29 June 1919

But Jebb soon discovered that her new council was not very effective. Numerous British charities were pleading for donations for various causes in 1919, such as for veterans returning home who were disabled and jobless, or countless families that fell into poverty after the war. Distributing leaflets with dense information, and by collaborating with churches and clubs to get members to donate, these various charities relentlessly campaigned for vulnerable groups. Jebb’s message was not only drowned out by the various other charities, but people were not rising above their national interests, their national prejudices, their national perspectives, to care for foreign children. Children, especially foreign ones, were often the last priority.

But Jebb and her sister, Dorothy Jebb Buxton, found a remarkable solution. They took to the streets of London and circulated a graphic “Starving Baby” leaflet. Instead of using dense text to explain her campaign to readers, Jebb plastered a large photo of a starving, desperate and pitiful 2-and-a-half-year-old Austrian baby on her leaflet. This image was haunting and even caught the attention of the local police. Although they were both arrested for spreading “unpatriotic propaganda,” Jebb (acting as her own attorney) argued the leaflets were not political, but humanitarian. The judge gave her a light fine of £5 and she reportedly felt victorious.

This was the beginning of a new type of campaigning. This was a new type of humanitarianism.

Starving Baby Leaflet

This leaflet was an unconventional way to provoke attention and revolutionised how charities campaigned for children. You may notice that Jebb does not identify the child as Austrian.

On 15 April 1919, Jebb founded the Save the Children Fund. This charity was the first to promote an abstract image of a “child.” It was the first charity to present children a symbol, an universal archetype, which were worthy of humanitarian relief, irrespective of race, nationality or creed.

Meanwhile, various noteworthy international organisations gathered in Switzerland.  They adopted neutrality and impartiality as a key strategy to facilitate relief and prevent further war. Even Save the Children moved its headquarters from London to Geneva symbolise its separation from political powers. Humanitarian historians Emily Baughan and Juliano Fiori claim that Save the Children’s apolitical approach meant that the “innate innocence and value of children (prevented) popular opposition to its humanitarian activities.” (“Save the Children, the humanitarian project, and the politics of solidarity,” in Disasters, 39 (S2): 132). For who, indeed, would oppose such humanitarian action for children?

Herbert Hoover’s relief programs, which had been incredibly successful in Belgium, also provided American food aid to Austrian children. However, relief was given in exchange for gold in 1919, which drained what little remained in Austria’s coffers in the aftermath of the war (see William E. Leuchtenburg’s Herbert Hoover). But Save the Children channelled its relief towards those same children without compensation or political gain.

Save teh Children Russia

By 1921, when the Russian Civil War had produced countless refugees and starving children, the Save the Children Fund had found it’s stride. It campaigned on the big screen by showing films of the conditions children faced to British audiences. It was unlike anything else seen at the time.

By depoliticizing the Save the Children charity and the concept of suffering children, the response for famine relief for children was considerably successful, especially in Russia. Although no humanitarian organisation can ever be entirely apolitical (!!!), Jebb and Save the Children had found a way to overcome the nationalist and prejudiced perceptions of its donors. The archetypal child had been born.

The idea of the “universal child” was also strongly defined by the Declaration of the Rights of the Child in 1924. Much like Moses descending from the mountain, the story goes that Eglantyne Jebb returned from a walk in the hills around Geneva and wrote five famous articles:

  1. The child must be given the means requisite for its normal development, both materially and spiritually.
  2. The child that is hungry must be fed; the child that is sick must be nursed; the child that is backward must be helped; the delinquent child must be reclaimed; and the orphan and the waif must be sheltered and succoured.
  3. The child must be first to receive relief in times of distress.
  4. The child must be put in a position to earn a livelihood and must be protected against every form of exploitation.
  5. The child must be brought up in the consciousness that its talents must be devoted to the service of its fellow men.
Declaration of Rights of the Child

Jebb’s Declaration (1924), pictured here, also formed the basis of the ten-article Declaration of the Rights of the Child adopted by the United Nations on 20 November 1959, some 40 years after the foundation of the Save the Children Fund.

On 26 November 1924, this Declaration was approved by the League of Nations. The members of the League were not obligated to integrate the Declaration into their own national legislation, so it did not guarantee any changes to national laws. But historian Bruno Cabanes (The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924) argues that the 1924 Declaration singled out the protection and welfare of children as priorities for the international community and, ultimately, was more significant for its moral import than for its legal weight.

So what?

The methods of Save the Children really has saved the children. Due to the Jebb’s honest, graphic but highly impartial approach, children from all over the world are valued, regardless of their race, class or religion. Although this may not guarantee that everyone generously donates to children’s charities, it does, at the very least, overcome many nationalist and racial prejudices. And, what’s incredible is that it’s still effective today! Whether it’s a starving Austrian child due to a blockade, a African orphan of AIDS,  a drowned Syrian child on a beach, a war-stricken bombed out boy in an ambulance in Aleppo, or now Yemeni children with cholera in the midst of civil war, we can go past many labels and prejudices to see them for what they are – children.

To a certain extent, this also changes how we perceive ourselves. By promoting the concept of the “universal child” it also simultaneously reinforces the concept of a “universal guardian.” Human cultures fundamentally protect and provide for society’s most vulnerable members.  By reacting to these images of starving children with dismay and shock, and by feeling a sense of injustice, then the viewers are also imparted with a sense of responsibility. Children cannot protect or provide for themselves so we – the guardians – must intervene.

Children’s rights today are still evolving world-wide. Over 100 million children work in hazardous conditions and have no access to education. Thousands are child soldiers. Some states imprison children as young as 12 years old. Over half of today’s 65 million refugees are children.

Although Eglantyne Jebb may have been discussing starving German and Austrian children, her words are still present in today’s campaigns for Yemeni children: “The only international language in the world is a child’s cry.”

“Wars Are Not Won by Evacuation”: Untangling the Truth from the Evolving Dunkirk Myth

This month, Christopher Nolan’s long-awaited war epic “Dunkirk” hit screens worldwide. Critics have praised it as Nolan’s best film yet: a “powerful, superbly crafted film” and “a visceral, suspenseful, at times jaw-dropping historical war movie.” With a formidable British cast, a massive budget, the largest marine unit in movie history (60+ boats), and authentic filming actually occurring in the English Channel, “Dunkirk” will invariably be added to the list of war epics including Saving Private Ryan, Schindler’s List, the Great Escape and Das Boot.

Dunkirk Movie Scene.jpg

Dunkirk (2017) already as a spot in the top 30 war movies ever made

My thoughts just moments after watching the film? You get a real sense of urgency. The unwavering and intense anticipation was steadily increased throughout every scene by a soft, but perpetual tick-tock in the background. Every action sequence becomes a catharsis from the tick-tock only to return again, bringing with it this heavy feeling of apprehension that Britain’s brief, hopeful window to escape from Dunkirk is coming to an end. Time is truly ‘of the essence’ in this film.

Nolan’s Dunkirk is perhaps better appreciated by clarifying what it is not. This is not a comedy (as in, there’s not a single joke made to lighten the mood, even briefly). This is not a commentary about the highest-level political decisions of the period (there is no scene that shows Churchill furrowing his brow or naval/army/air force commanders bickering in Westminster). This is not a romance film (in fact, other than a few nurses, there was no female cast, nor insinuation to homosexual love). This is not a transnational film that attempts to bond enemies (there is no scene that shows German soldiers, except a rare glimpse at a Messerschmitt 109E and a few bombers, but even that is from a distance). This is not a documentary (despite a small amount of text after the opening credits, this film does not provide historical facts, nor interviews with survivors).

So what is it?

Perhaps this is best answered by you, the audience. For me, it was a story of survival. Well, a story of British survival. I really enjoyed it. I cringed, I cried, I squirmed, I begged, and I felt the greatest sense of hope when I saw the RAF Spitfires doing their intricate dances in the sky. (Which, coincidentally, is an excellent foreshadow to what would follow the Dunkirk evacuations – the Battle of Britain).

Walking out of the theatre on a Tuesday afternoon in July in Scotland, I followed a mother with her teenage sons. They were enthralled by the movie, but bursting with questions: “Did Grandddad fight in that? How come there weren’t more fighter planes to help the lads on the beaches? I’d shoot every German plane. The RAF were pretty incredible, can you imagine landing a plane like that on the water? Too bad they ran out of fuel. God, I’d be proper scared landing like that.”

Nolan’s film provides a fresh starting point for discussing the war, and Dunkirk particularly. Films are some of our greatest resources to access history. Of course, they must be taken with a grain of salt. According to a study by Dr. Peter Seixas, Professor of Education at the University of British Columbia, the more engaging the film, the less likely audiences were to criticize its historical merit.

Dunkrik Movie Poster (2017)  Dunkrik 1958

Instead, filmic devices, such as realistic violence and use of blood, boosted the perceived authenticity of the historical event. Older films depicting the same event, despite being limited by 1950s or 1960s censorship, were seen as less historically genuine. Interesting, no?

But if Dr. Seixas’ observation is true – that the more engaging the film, the less likely audiences are to question its historical accuracy – then Nolan is stuck between a rock and hard place. Is it possible for Nolan (or any director) to create a film that is both highly entertaining and historically accurate?

No. Let’s get real. It’s impossible to exactly mirror history into any medium, film included. But, we can give credit to Nolan for attempting to gain authenticity in other ways. Nolan wanted to make his Dunkirk epic as British as he could, despite the need for American-sized film budgets to achieve his vision. After all, Dunkirk was a British failure. And depending on your perspective, a British success. Nolan chose only British actors and emphasized the Britishness of this endeavor. Ironically, the film is expected to be more lucrative with American audiences than British. But, whereas the British are educated about the failure of Dunkirk from a young age, many Americans will be introduced to Dunkirk for the very first time through this blockbuster film.

But, importantly, Nolan’s Dunkirk is also contributing to Dunkirk’s ongoing cultural legacy.

The “Dunkirk Myth” might be defined as a Britain’s ability to embrace defeat as a platform for eventual victory; the humanity and compassion of the British people to help one other created the perception of a strong community and an enduring nation. It was the marriage of the home front with the battle front, the defeat with the victory. Since 1940, the Dunkirk Myth has been influenced by various novels, speeches, poetry, and, importantly, films.

This is why is it so very important not to lose sight of the historical facts within this national myth – now reintroduced to new generations through a super visceral, action-packed CGI-enhanced, American-budget British war movie, right?

So what was Dunkirk?

Simply put, it was evacuation of 338,000 Allied soldiers (chiefly from the British Expeditionary Force and French Army) from the beaches of Dunkirk, France from 26 May to 4 June 1940.

A few weeks earlier, Germany had launched a surprise Blitzkrieg (lightening war) on the Allied forces in western Europe. This same German maneuver had epically failed in the First World War (resulting in stagnant trench warfare). But in May 1940, Germany was incredibly successful due to the element of surprise, wireless communications, anti-aircraft guns (called flak), the tight coordination of land and air forces, and stronger tanks.

2.WK., Frankreichfeldzug 1940: Deutsche Militaerkolonnen

This German motorised column secretly advanced through the Ardennes in May 1940. This was no easy feat with 134,000 soldiers, 1,222 tanks, and nearly 40,000 lorries and cars that had to narrowly navigate heavily wooded areas.  Even “Traffic Managers” flew up and down the columns to alleviate any deadlock. But it was a stunning success. Historian Richard J. Evans claims that Germany achieved the greatest encirclement in history with 1.5 million prisoners taken with less than 50,000 German casualties.

Over 66,000 British soldiers died from mid-May until the end of the evacuations on 4 June. A combined total of 360,000 British, French, Belgian and other Allied forces died during the Battle of France, which ended with its surrender on 22 June 1940.

(For more further reading, seen Richard J Evans’ (2009) Third Reich at War, Julian Jacksons’s (2003) The Fall of France: The Nazi Invasion of 1940, Ian Kershaw’s (2008) Fateful Choices: Ten Decisions That Changed the World 1940–1941 or Ronald Atkin’s (1990) Pillar of Fire: Dunkirk 1940).

Time Map 1940

This map from Time Magazine from 10 June 1940 shows the “Nazi Trap” enclosing in on the British and French forces.

Fleeing the German advance, nearly 400,000 Allied soldiers were pushed as far west as possible, until they reached the English Channel at the beaches of Dunkirk. Churchill called it the greatest military disaster in British history. This was also the last time any Allied Forces would be in France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Luxembourg until the famous D-Day landings nearly four years later. This evacuation also meant that all of western Europe was left alone to suffer German occupation for four long years.

Why is this disaster considered a success?

Due to the mobilization of over 800 boats, ships, yachts and other private holiday vessels, 338,000 men who were standing helplessly on the beaches of Dunkirk (as many naval ships could not dock to collect them) were successfully evacuated within just 10 days. From a humanitarian perspective, this is obviously impressive.

But it also meant that commanders made impossible choices, such as leaving behind the sick and wounded, and destroying Allied vehicles, equipment and resources, lest they fall into enemy hands. It was truly a fight for survival against overwhelming enemy forces, low morale, and very few resources. It was also a fight against time. Tick-tock, indeed.

Kenneth Branagh.jpg

Kenneth Branagh’s role as a Naval Commander (with a changed name from the original) reflects  the impossible choices that British commanders faced. All army materials and vehicles were destroyed. Also,  the BEF was the top priority for evacuation. Although some 140,000 French soldiers were evacuated, nearly 40,000 were left behind.

What happened after Dunkirk? (And yes, there is a point for asking this)

Dunkirk ended the “Phoney War,” the 7-month lull on the Western Front following Hitler’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. This shocked the world and brought international attention to the fact that Germany was a formidable force. Hitler’s fiery promises to conquer Europe were not just hot air, but had legitimate merit.

HItler 19 July 1940.jpg

The conquest of France marked the highest point in Hitler’s popularity for the entire war. As the Battle of Britain began raging overhead, Hitler called for peace on 19 July 1940: “A great world empire will be destroyed […] In this hour I feel compelled, standing before my conscience, to direct yet another appeal to reason in England. I believe I can do this as I am not asking for something as the vanquished, but rather, as the victor, I am speaking in the name of reason. I see no compelling reason which could force the continuation of this war.”

Immediately after Dunkirk, the war took to the skies in a fierce combat for air superiority called the “Battle of Britain.” Why? So that Hitler’s forces could invade Britain without constant aerial bombardment in the autumn of 1940 – before winter made it impossible to invade. German Luftwaffe planes initially attacked British air bases in southern England. Royal Air Force pilots (including Commonwealth and Polish pilots) were vicious competition for the vastly superior and better equipped Luftwaffe. Daily “dogfights” were witnessed by civilians. RAF planes and pilots dropped like flies. Churchill’s famous observation that “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” reflected the fact that these tireless pilots had become the last line of defense.

RAF Pilots

The average age of a RAF pilot in the Battle of Britain, such as these handsome men above, was just 20 years old. The average life expectancy for a Spitfire pilot was just four weeks. Over 20% of pilots were from Commonwealth nations, or were Polish or Czech. Despite having a much better equipped air force, Germany suffered 2,600 pilot casualties. Britain lost just over 500 RAF pilots.

By late August 1940, a small bomb was dropped on London (German command alleged it was an error). Error or not, this expanded the range of targets to now include civilian centers. The RAF then bombed Berlin. The Luftwaffe again bombed London. The “Blitz” of British cities shadowed the same quick, surprise tactics that the German Luftwaffe had recently used so successfully against infantry forces in western Europe. Night bombings and devastating daily air raids on homes, factories, ports, lasted until May 1941, killing an estimated 40,000 Brits and making hundreds of thousands homeless.

WAR & CONFLICT BOOKERA:  WORLD WAR II/WAR IN THE WEST/BATTLE OF BRITAIN

One of the most iconic photos from the Blitz is St. Pauls Cathedral standing intact after a raid on 29/30 December 1940.

The Blitz, as it would be called, meant that British urbanites had to persist through the most difficult circumstances to continue surviving. Londoners especially “kept going” with daily tasks that came to epitomize the archetype of endurance. If ever there was a time in British history when the national character became so well tested, and so well defined, this was it. (For more reading on this very interesting topic, check out Angus Calder’s (1969) The People’s War: Britain 1939-1945 and (1991) The Myth of the Blitz and Jeremy Crang and Paul Addison’s (2011) Listening to Britain: Home Intelligence Reports on Britain’s Finest Hour, May-September 1940).

Blitz Milkman

Photos, such as this London milkman continuing his deliveries (while firefighters douse a fire in the background), came to typify the resilience and endurance of Londoners to “keep on” despite the war unfolding around them.

What about the Dunkirk Myth?

Although “The Dunkirk Myth” preceded the Blitz, it also developed alongside the Blitz spirit through various culturally-important products (for those who want the pure academic stuff, see Nicolas Harman’s 1980 Dunkirk: The Necessary Myth or an excellent review by my old supervisor, Prof. Paul Addison):

Broadcasts from JB Priestly in May 1940 reporting on the flotilla of “little ships” in the English Channel. Priestly’s depictions of ordinary Englishmen coming to the rescue of the helpless troops transformed this war from a military affair to one which required the entire mobilization of the home front. (But, to be historically accurate on this point, Englishmen weren’t voluntarily throwing themselves into the fray, but the British navy normally took charge of their vessels then used them as required to save the troops).

JB Priestly.jpg

Priestly became a formidable voice of calm reporting (and propaganda) for Britain, though he faced criticism in later life.

Churchill’s famous “We shall fight them on the Beaches” speech to the House of Commons. Everyone has heard this speech. It’s epic. But most everyone does not know that the speech was not broadcast. British newspapers printed excerpts of it, but it was not until 1949 when it was recorded.

Churchill we Shall Fight them on teh beaches COMIC.jpg

This comic from Reddit uses Churchill’s historic rhetoric to satirise reactions by today’s British authorities to threats against modern Britain.

Paul Gallaco’s Snow Goose, a short story (and eventually a novella) first published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1940. This tearjerker reveals a growing friendship between a disabled artist and lighthouse keeper and young woman, who discovers a wounded Snow Goose. Loads of symbolism paints the picture of innocence and loyal love dismantled by the tragedies of war. And the evacuations of Dunkirk become a sort of self-sacrifice for humanity, art, and first loves. The Snow Goose novella had a strong impact on British society. It was a favourite for young readers due to its short but eloquent length and even Michael Morpurgo cites it as an influence on his much-loved War Horse. People saw Dunkirk not for what is was in strict military terms – a colossal disaster – but a sort of coming of age story about the enduring spirit of British compassion and humanity.

the-snow-goose-cover1.jpg

Fantasy Book Review claims Snow Goose is a “a tribute to the indomitable human spirit”

Dunkirk (1958). Starring Richard Attenborough, John Mills and Bernard Lee, it became the second largest grossing film in Britain of that year. By following an English civilian and a British soldier, the film unfolds from two key perspectives, again cementing the myth that Dunkirk united the home and battle front in one great national rescue mission.

Richard Attenborough Dunkirk

Richard Attenborough starred in Dunkirk (1958) but did not receive an Oscar nod

Ian McEwan’s Atonement (novel) and Atonement (2007) film. Atonement follows the blossoming love of a young couple interrupted by the shocking and criminal accusations of a younger sister. Soon enough, the war unfolds and both sisters become nurses in London while the protagonist is sent to France to fight. Dunkirk (again) is used as a historical event that binds together the home front and battle front, becoming both a barrier and vehicle for unity. Director Jo Wright’s incredible scene of the Dunkirk beaches is praised as “one of the most extraordinary shots in the history of British film – a merciless ten minutes, panning across an army of bedraggled and bleeding British troops huddled on the beach at Dunkirk, with ruined ships smouldering in the shallows beyond.”

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This 5 and a half minute unbroken sequence in Atonement (2007) was filmed by director Jo Wright with 1,000 extras to emphasise the chaos and disaster of the Dunkirk beaches. See it here.

Finally, Nolan’s Dunkirk (2017). An epic war film that refuses to be classified in all the genres we normally assign. I suspect it will haunt and challenge both critics and audiences for many years to come. But perhaps we should also be wary of a film that is so very one-sided? So singular in its storytelling?

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One-Dimension’s Harry Stiles may have taken all the limelight, but Tom Hardy’s performance as an sharp shooting RAF pilot definitely won my vote. Swoon.

So what?

Historically, Dunkirk was the rude awakening that not only shocked the British Expeditionary Force, but also the British home front. As Churchill said solemnly “Wars are not won by evacuation.” People began to fear for their sovereignty, their homes and their country in a way that they had never before. How they reacted was a real testament to their national character, and how they survived was a real testament to their national legacy.

Culturally, Dunkirk planted the seeds of a national myth that developed, grew and transformed as the war unfolded. Initially it was highly propagandistic with Priestly’s broadcasts or Snow Goose love stories, but as time has passed, Dunkirk’s legacy appears to still enthral the imaginations of a new generation. It was a paradox that such a defeat could be transformed into a stunning success. Now, 77 years later, we are still discussing Dunkirk’s historical relevance and cultural impact on British national identity in the face of overwhelming odds and great uncertainty.

Which begs the question – the same question others have already asked: What about Brexit?