Dunkirk: The History Behind the Major Motion Picture Sõnum

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Another sideshow was stranger still. Harold Davidson had been the rector of the parish of Stiffkey in Norfolk. He had been defrocked after an ecclesiastical court found him guilty of immoral conduct with a variety of women. Outraged at the verdict, Davidson had first embarked on a hunger strike (in an attempt to prove that God would not allow him to starve) before sitting for months in a barrel on Blackpool Promenade, trying to raise enough money to launch an appeal. The following year, he abandoned the barrel, and chose to appear inside a lion’s den at Skegness Amusement Park. This would be the end of the ecclesiastical road for the ex-Vicar of Stiffkey; the lion turned on him, and ate him in front of a paying audience.

It is often repeated that the 1950s gave rise to American-inspired youth culture, as well as a popular culture of cheap luxuries – but the pre-war period was clearly there first. And just as the American and German economies recovered as the 1930s wore on, so the general standard of living in Britain improved considerably.

One measure of this was the growing vibrancy of particular areas – such as Soho in London’s West End. The traditional French and Italian cafés and restaurants were joined by Chinese, Spanish and Hungarian restaurants. Considering that in 1939, less than 3 per cent of Londoners had been born abroad (compared with 37 per cent today), Soho was a genuine hub of cosmopolitan activity. A Picture Post feature noted expanses of cheese, garlands of sausages, rows of straw-covered Chianti bottles, tins of anchovies, olives and fruits, dishes of sweets and coloured beans, and glittering espresso machines. ‘The shop windows of Soho,’ it observes, ‘are crammed, gay, glowing and vivid.’ Even more surprisingly, Denmark Street, on the other side of Charing Cross Road, housed a Japanese community, where the truly intrepid could eat Japanese food. This is not a picture one readily associates with the 1930s.

Similarly, at this time, recognisably modern jobs emerged. Bill Taylor could neither read nor write – yet he worked as a long-distance lorry driver. When his firm gave him a delivery note, he would study a map for the place name that most resembled the one on the note. Then he would draw a straight line between his start point and end point, and circle every large town on the way. When he arrived in each town, he would stop and ask the way to the next. ‘None of the guv’nors I worked for ever knew I couldn’t read,’ he says, although he admits that ‘it had been easier when I’d started on the horses because some of the horses knew where they were going.’

One perk of Bill’s job was the existence of ‘lorry girls’ who hung around the cafés. ‘You’d take them from one town to another,’ he says. ‘Sometimes they’d stop with you a whole week, sleep with you and keep you company.’ In return the driver bought the girls food and cigarettes. ‘When the wives found out,’ says Bill, ‘a lot of marriages broke up.’

Sam Tobin, meanwhile, was a door-to-door vacuum cleaner salesman in north London. On Monday mornings, before setting off on the road, he would join fellow salesmen in a motivational singsong:

All the dirt, all the grit,

Hoover gets it every bit,

For it beats as it sweeps as it cleans …

Sam’s day then became a struggle to be allowed into suburban homes, where he would demonstrate his vacuum cleaner on samples of sand that he carried with him. ‘It was pretty soul destroying,’ he says, ‘and if it was bad weather, or if Electrolux salesmen had done your territory, it was very difficult to get a demonstration anywhere.’

But perhaps the most modern job under way in Britain was being carried out by a recent Jewish immigrant from Poland. Joseph Rotblat was a physicist working in the field of radioactivity who arrived in Britain in April 1939. Earlier in the year, he had read about Frisch and Leitner’s discovery of nuclear fission, and it had occurred to him that a staggering release of energy might be possible if a chain reaction could be triggered in a very short time. Initially, he pushed this idea – for an atomic bomb – out of his mind, so concerned was he by the horrifying prospect of creating what would now be called a weapon of mass destruction. But by the time he arrived in Britain, Rotblat had figured that the Nazis might be working on a bomb, making it his duty to share his thoughts with British scientists. ‘Perhaps, in my own mind,’ he says, ‘I was the first person to develop the concept of the nuclear deterrent.’ As a result, Rotblat approached Sir James Chadwick, the discoverer of the neutron. Chadwick approved of the idea, and granted Rotblat two assistants. The dark march of atomic progress had begun.

But for all the period’s changes, the most anticipated and dreaded was the outbreak of war. Many young men began volunteering to join the British army, while limited conscription was introduced for twenty- and twenty-one-year-olds in April 1939. In the last war, volunteers had joined up enthusiastically, keen to fight for King and Country, eager to put the Kaiser in his place. A quarter of a century on, emotions were more muted. Nevertheless, the 1939 generation showed itself, on balance, to be quietly dutiful and aware of the need to confront Germany.

But there were many who joined up oblivious to the political situation, unconcerned with any sense of duty. Thomas Myers, the young Durham coal miner with whom we began this chapter, joined the Territorial Army in early 1939, because, he says, it was the fashionable thing to do. ‘Everybody wanted to be in the Territorials, it was chaotic there were that many joining.’ Yet he had no interest in politics. ‘I didn’t know war was coming,’ Thomas says, ‘I didn’t know anything about Hitler.’

When pressed, he adds that he joined in order to get the occasional weekend away, and evening out. To young men trapped by work and community, the army offered a break from monotony and social restrictions. It offered adventure. George Wagner, the keen dancer from Erdington, says, ‘We joined and it was something to do. On top of that, you got paid a bounty, and on top of that, once a year, you used to go away for a fortnight training. It was great.’

Anthony Rhodes, a young Royal Engineers officer, was given a long-serving army batman (a servant). Rhodes describes this man as seeking a niche, a quiet place where he could rest in indefinite seclusion. There were peacetime soldiers, in other words, who were attracted to the army by its lack of adventure.

And to some, the army provided a solution. Thomas Lister, a young man from Durham, had not been able to settle down to anything. At the age of fourteen, he had been sent by his father for an interview with an electrical engineer. He had taken one look at the workshop floor – ‘it looked like the jaws of hell’ – before walking away. He became an errand boy for Burton’s Tailors before becoming ‘a bit fed up with it’. After that, he had a spell as a wholesale fish salesman. But without a calling, or any particular direction, he would find the enforced discipline and comradeship of the army attractive. And it solved the problem of what he would do with his life – temporarily, at least.

Germany

To be young – and racially pure – in Adolf Hitler’s Germany was to be important. In Hitler’s eyes, the country’s future greatness depended on its young people – but it wasn’t their intelligence or initiative that he looked to encourage. Clever weaklings were not going to improve the country’s situation. Tough, healthy and strong-willed boys and girls were needed. ‘The weak must be chiselled away,’ he said in 1938, ‘I want young men and women who can suffer pain. A young German must be swift as a greyhound, as tough as leather, and as hard as Krupp’s steel.’ And though it would never be publicly admitted, they must also be brainwashed to adopt his ideology. Pure by blood, stripped of free will, they were going to make Germany great again.

In 1938, over 80 per cent of young Germans were members of the Hitler Youth organisation. Childhood ended for this generation at the age of ten with admission to the organisation’s junior branch. From that moment on, children became the political soldiers of the Fatherland. Boys and girls had separate sections, preparing them for lives as soldiers, housewives and bearers of the Nazi worldview.

The Hitler Youth even had an internal secret police – an infant Gestapo – responsible for rooting out disloyalty and denouncing members. In one case, Walter Hess reported his own father for calling Hitler a crazed maniac. The father ended up in a concentration camp while Walter was promoted for showing admirable vigilance. Hitler, meanwhile, was being worshipped as a secular god by boys and girls who would recite an incantation based on the Lord’s Prayer:

Adolf Hitler, you are our great Führer. Thy name makes the enemy tremble. Thy Third Reich comes, thy will alone is law upon the earth. Let us hear daily thy voice and order us by thy leadership, for we will obey to the end and even with our lives. We praise thee! Heil Hitler!

Melita Maschmann was a member of the League of German Girls, the female branch of the Hitler Youth. Aged eighteen in 1938, she began working as a press officer for the organisation. In November, after attending a rally in Frankfurt, the head of the local SS asked her if she wanted to come with him. Something exciting, he said, was going to happen that evening. Tired, she decided against it. The next morning, she could see broken glass and smashed furniture strewn everywhere. Finding a policeman, Melita asked what had happened. He told her that this was a Jewish area, and that ‘the National Soul had boiled over’.

 

Melita was witnessing the aftermath of Kristallnacht – Crystal Night – named for the glittering glass shards strewn across the streets. Instigated by the Nazi leadership, mobs of stormtroopers and Hitler Youth set out to vandalise synagogues and Jewish-owned properties throughout Germany and German-controlled areas. Michael Bruce was an English newspaper correspondent in Berlin. He followed a mob as it moved towards a synagogue. Before long, the building was on fire, and people cheered as they ripped wood from the façade to feed the flames inside. The crowd continued to a nearby Jewish shop. Men and women, howling with exhilaration, started hurling concrete blocks through the doors and windows, fighting to get inside to loot the stock. Bruce noticed an old Jewish woman being dragged from her house, and ran to help another reporter pull her free. The mob then moved off towards a hospital for sick Jewish children, where the leaders – many of them women – attacked hospital staff as the young patients were forced to run barefoot over broken glass. Bruce described the spectacle as ‘one of the foulest exhibitions of bestiality I have ever witnessed’.

Riots and attacks erupted on an astonishing scale. Bernt Engelmann was a seventeen-year-old living in Düsseldorf, about to join the Luftwaffe. As young thugs smashed up an apartment owned by a Jewish family in his building, he stood outside wondering whether to confront them. The police were nearby but were refusing to interfere. Eventually, Bernt ran inside the apartment and tried to sound authoritative.

‘You’re in charge here?’ he barked at the ringleader. ‘You’re through here, right?’

‘That’s correct, we’re finished here.’

To Bernt’s relief, the youths left. But throughout the attack a little girl – the daughter of the family – had been hiding inside the apartment. Relieved that the youths hadn’t seen her, Bernt went looking for her parents while his mother put her to bed with a sleeping pill. Finding the parents on the street, he reassured them that their daughter was safe, and persuaded them to spend the night with non-Jewish friends – who embraced them wordlessly as they hurried into their apartment.

As Bernt returned to his building, he watched the body of a Jewish doctor being brought out of a house. ‘He put up a good fight,’ said a bystander. As he crunched his way over broken glass and discarded belongings, Bernt saw people with full bags, hiding in alleyways. He couldn’t tell whether they were fleeing Jews or cringing looters.

On Steinstrasse, he met a cowering couple – a woman and a child. Telling them not to be afraid, he led them to the house of a notable Nazi who was secretly harbouring Jews before smuggling them abroad. Bernt left them there and went home, where along with sympathetic neighbours he began to clear up the mess in the Jewish family’s apartment.

Walking through Düsseldorf in the midst of this state-led anarchy, he noted people’s reactions: ‘It’s a disgrace! The police just stand by and do nothing!’ ‘We Germans will pay dearly for what was done to the Jews last night!’ And one reaction that lands awkwardly on modern ears, but was common at the time: ‘They shouldn’t have done that! I’m sure the Führer doesn’t approve!’ But there were many more bystanders who said nothing, concealing their fear or apathy or support for the system.

Throughout Germany, Austria and the Sudetenland, hundreds of synagogues were destroyed, thousands of shops were smashed and looted, houses were torn apart, Jews were attacked, and tens of thousands of Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. It is probable that several hundred Jews were murdered, although we will never know for certain.

The government quickly announced that these had been spontaneous riots – the ‘boiling over of the National Soul’ observed by the Frankfurt policeman – and that the Jewish community was entirely to blame. It would therefore be fined the equivalent of $400 million, while all insurance payments would be confiscated.

Kristallnacht marked the start of concerted violence aimed at ridding Germany of Jews. It paved the way for mass exterminations. And the overwhelmingly passive reaction of citizens reassured the government that they could take further – and more extreme – action in the future. To take the example of Melita Maschmann, as she stepped gingerly over broken glass in Frankfurt, she was perfectly aware that something terrible had happened. But she quickly rationalised it. The Jews, she knew, were enemies of the German people. Perhaps this event – whatever it had been – would teach them a much-needed lesson. And then she put it completely out of her mind.

Almost six years earlier, on the January day in 1933 when Adolf Hitler came to power, Melita had been an ordinary fifteen-year-old girl without political opinions or racial prejudices. Germany itself was quite unlike the fanatical country it would become. On that day, Melita sat with a dressmaker – whom she liked very much – as the woman altered one of Melita’s mother’s dresses to fit her. The dressmaker was working class and interesting and different. She had a hunched back and walked with a limp. She wore a metal swastika on her coat. She talked about this man Hitler, how he was going to make Germany fairer, how class differences wouldn’t matter any more, how servants would be able to eat at the same table as their rich employers. The dressmaker’s eyes came alive as she spoke of the ‘National Community’.

Melita was struck emotionally by what she was hearing, moved by the idea of a future in which ‘people of all classes would live together like brothers and sisters’. However odd it may seem that Nazism – the most wicked and hateful political ideology of the twentieth century – could once have been thought to represent social justice and protection for the weak, this was how it was portrayed in 1933.

Later that evening, Melita and her brother went into the centre of Berlin where they watched the Nazi Party’s victory celebrations. For the second time in a day she was enthralled, but this time it was the torchlit procession that gripped her. The flickering flames, the red and black flags, the feet marching as one, the prominence of boys and girls like herself, the aggressively sentimental music, all of these played their part. Almost overcome by a wave of hope and solidarity, she felt euphoric. And when a young man suddenly leapt from his marching column to punch somebody standing next to her, her instinctive horror was laced with rapture. As she explains:

‘For the flag we are ready to die’ the torch-bearers had sung. It was not a matter of clothing or food or school essays, but of life and death … I was overcome with a burning desire to belong to these people for whom it was a matter of life and death.

In the end, though, it was neither the politics nor the spectacle that converted Melita to Nazism – though they were the chief contributing factors. The deciding feature was teenage rebellion.

Melita’s parents were conservative. They supported the old social order, and they had little interest in young people or the rights of workers. They had raised their daughter strictly, expecting her obedience just as they expected it from their servants. Even before her political conversion, Melita had come to resent their attitudes. Nazism was a timely antidote. With its emphasis on youth and working people, and the radical certainty of its message, it stood for everything that her parents did not. For Melita’s generation in Germany, rebellion was not Elvis Presley, the Beatles, David Bowie or Public Enemy. It was Adolf Hitler.

But there were other, more prosaic reasons why young people became enthusiastic Nazis. They had, for example, little faith in existing institutions and forms of government. Democracy – which had no great tradition in Germany – had presided over successive crises. In 1922, a loaf of bread cost three Reichsmarks; the following November it cost eighty billion Reichsmarks. Workers began to receive their salary twice a day so they could afford to eat both lunch and dinner. And the depression of the early 1930s left six million people unemployed and a government so toothless that its people lacked the most basic services.

The National Socialists, with their charismatic leader, their understanding of propaganda and their racial mysticism, cleverly communicated their offer of work, bread and political stability. It was a straightforward offer, and in the circumstances an attractive one. But by accepting it, the people allowed the Nazis to trample over previously established boundaries. And the further the Nazis trampled, the more implicated the people became, to the point where any behaviour at all could be justified, or had to be ignored.

At school, Melita Maschmann’s closest friend, who entered her class in the spring of 1933, was Jewish. She became close to the girl – despite knowing her religion. They came to share an interest in literature and philosophy. And while they didn’t discuss religion, they shared stories of their respective youth groups. But Melita’s brainwashing soon began.

Rather than analysing Germany’s experience of the First World War for its military and economic failings, German children were taught to blame defeat on being ‘stabbed in the back’ by Jews. ‘International Jewry’ was blamed for both capitalism and communism, and thus for all the world’s problems. Melita sat through a series of lectures on Jewish religious teachings, in which a supposed expert taught that Jews were responsible for the ritual murder of Christians. And though she claims that she saw through the lecturer’s nonsense, she could not – or would not – step back sufficiently to acknowledge her own brainwashing. She laughed at the man and his words, but failed to question their purpose.

The relentless indoctrination ultimately worked. Melita came to believe in the bogeyman Jew, the Jew as a concept. He was indeed to blame for capitalism, communism and everything besides. His blood was corrupting, his spirit was seditious. And Adolf Hitler was sure that the indoctrination would work. In 1933, he said, ‘When an opponent says, “I will not come over to your side,” I calmly say, “Your child belongs to us already …”’

But because she felt comfortable with her Jewish friend, Melita could not accept that she would come to any harm. When she learned that Jews were being dismissed from their professions and confined to ghettos, she rationalised that it was only ‘the Jew’, the bogeyman, who was being persecuted. And despite being an intelligent young woman, the rationalisation worked for her.

Denial of reality was a common defence mechanism among Germans. Bernt Engelmann knew a Jewish doctor who was visited by a young German stormtrooper. ‘There was nothing wrong with him really,’ the doctor explained. ‘His throat was a little inflamed, probably from shouting “Heil” so much.’ In fact, the stormtrooper just wanted to talk. Perhaps he wanted to ease his guilt. He told the doctor what he had been doing recently, which included helping to rig an election by filling in over five hundred ballot papers. As he left, the stormtrooper spoke seriously. ‘I have nothing against you. I want you to know that.’ And then he gave a Nazi salute, said ‘Heil Hitler!’ and walked out. As Heinrich Himmler once said in a speech to concentration camp guards, ‘Every German has his favourite Jew.’

Once the Nazis were in power, it was a matter of days before freedoms began to disappear from every sector of life. The Enabling Act allowed Hitler to make laws without recourse to the Reichstag, freedom of speech was abolished, concentration camps were introduced, political parties were banned, trade unions were destroyed, beatings were administered, and books reflecting an ‘un-German spirit’ were burned. In a speech to Berlin students at a book-burning, Joseph Goebbels said:

The future German man will not just be a man of books, but a man of character. It is to this end that we want to educate you. As a young person, to already have the courage to face the pitiless glare, to overcome the fear of death, and to regain respect for death – this is the task of the young generation.

Here is the key to Nazi intentions. Young people faced a future of action, sacrifice, certainty and obedience – with no room for individuality. As head of the German Labour Front, Robert Ley, declared, ‘such a thing as a private individual does not exist.’ Hitler went further, privately describing how, from the age of ten until adulthood, a German youth would be sent from one militaristic organisation to another, until he or she was a ‘complete National Socialist’. Once this had been achieved, he said, ‘they will never be free again as long as they live.’

 

Hitler’s ambition could be seen taking shape. Christabel Bielenberg, a British woman living in Hamburg, was a committed anti-Nazi. After two years of National Socialist rule, she observed how the youngsters she saw hiking the country roads were now dressed in dreary Hitler Youth uniforms, with identical haircuts: short hair for the boys and plaits for the girls. Individualism, she noted, seemed to have evaporated. But she was also forced to admit that people seemed more cheerful, and were behaving more politely. Fear of a financial crisis seemed to have passed, and a sense of national self-respect was returning.

Optimism was not visible everywhere, of course. In April 1936, Bernt Engelmann was sitting in a train carriage as it passed through Duisberg. At the time, the long-distance ‘Adolf Hitler roads’ were being built, and two construction workers were sitting opposite him, moaning to each other about the project. Into this mix came a young female member of the National Socialist Women’s League. ‘Heil Hitler!’ she said cheerfully to everybody, and sat down. For a while, she read her newspaper while the men continued moaning. ‘Is this whining really necessary?’ the woman said suddenly. ‘You should be grateful that you have work and thank the Führer for getting rid of unemployment!’

The men stared at her, before one of them spoke. He explained that they were on compulsory service with just ten days’ holiday a year, their accommodation was a straw mattress in a wooden barracks, their food was abysmal and their pay was low and regularly falling lower. In fact, the man said, he was earning less than he had before the Nazis came to power, and was no longer even allowed to carry out his own trade.

The young woman was silent for a while. Finally she spoke, protesting that Germany had regained its strength, that Hitler had achieved miracles, and that the people now had hope. ‘You must have faith in the Führer!’ she said.

We have already noted the quasi-religious quality of the Dunkirk evacuation, but this pales beside the secular sanctity of the Third Reich, where Hitler and the Fatherland stood for God and Heaven. The young woman was invoking Hitler just as a Christian invokes Jesus or a Muslim invokes Allah. And two years later, shortly before Kristallnacht, Melita Maschmann was having another of her euphoric, quasi-religious experiences, this time at a meeting of leaders of the League of German Girls. The sense of being young, of belonging, of loving each other, of sharing a common task – making Germany great again – filled her with overwhelming joy.

But Melita’s greatest joy and intoxication were to come once the war had begun on 1 September 1939 with the invasion of Poland. Depicted in Germany as a legitimate action to liberate Germans living in occupied territories, the invasion saw Melita being sent in an official capacity to a town on the Polish border. Arriving by train, she was seized by a feeling of invulnerability. All sense of fear dropped away as she felt an identification with something greater than herself. Fulfilling Robert Ley’s ideal, she was no longer an individual. She had become Germany.

But it was not just fear that Melita lost when the war began. She was sent, in 1940, to Wartheland, an annexed area containing a large number of Jews and Poles and only a small minority of Germans. Together with a Hitler Youth leader, she was driving across the Warta river when they became stuck. Stranded, with the waters rising, their car was eventually towed to safety by a team of gaunt, bearded men who lived locally. These, it turned out, were Jews forced to live together in ghetto fashion. Once ashore, the Jews worked busily to clean the car of mud and slime. And just as Melita was about to climb in again, one of the men stopped her; he had found one more tiny piece of dirt that he wanted to remove.

When the man had finished, Melita and the Hitler Youth leader drove away without saying a word to the Jews who had gone out of their way to help them. She had not even looked them in the face. She despised them for being Jews and for wanting to help those who despised them. But she was also ashamed of her attitude. She knew she should have thanked these people.

But how could she acknowledge their humanity? They were not individuals. And nor was she. She had become Germany.

The United States

The Germans, of course, were not the only western people to suffer economic difficulties between the wars. The United States had undergone a great stock market crash in 1929, and suffered a grinding depression for years afterwards. Nearly all levels of society were affected. But as wages dropped and work became harder to come by, it was the poorest who experienced the greatest suffering.

With Franklin D. Roosevelt’s ‘new deal for the American people’, and specifically the introduction of the National Youth Administration, members of the struggling generation were finally offered hope. They were provided with grants in return for part-time work, allowing them to remain in high school and college. And they were placed in job training programmes or full-time work by local Youth Administration offices.

This was a large-scale federal programme which, to some, seemed un-American in its focus on collective welfare. Indeed, with his youth organisations and work camps for young people, his conservation projects stressing the importance of physical fitness and the outdoor life, and his myriad new agencies and regulations, Roosevelt’s initiatives could seem remarkably similar to Adolf Hitler’s.

Certainly, both leaders inherited ravaged economies. They were both trying to restore their nations’ self-respect as well as their finances. And they were both placing huge importance on their young people. The young were the bearers of national resurgence, and they were set aside for special treatment.

But that is where the similarities end. In Hitler’s Germany, the state set about stripping away the individuality of its young people. A young German faced a future of service and obedience to the Fatherland, its needs eclipsing his or her own. Roosevelt’s initiatives may have been collective, but he had no desire to brainwash America’s youth. His New Deal offered individual growth alongside the nation’s. And how could it have offered anything else in America – a country built on self-reliance and self-expression?

We are very used, nowadays, to youth culture coming out of America before spreading around the world. And it was in the late 1930s, as Roosevelt’s measures had their impact and the depression started to ease, that genuine youth culture was first seen. While jazz music had been popular for some time, this was the period when it exploded into Swing and spread among all levels of society. And while the word ‘teen-ager’ would not be used for a few more years, and rock and roll was still a decade and a half away, the right music, the right clothes and the right attitudes took on a new importance among American ‘teens’ (a word that was in use).

In large part this was thanks to the New Deal. Three-quarters of those aged between fourteen and eighteen were now staying in high school, a far higher proportion than ever before. No longer so influenced by their parents, or at all by their senior workmates, they began to create a distinct identity inside their teen bubble. When sociologist August Hollingshead conducted a study of the young people in a midwestern town (called Elmtown to disguise its identity) he was able to look inside the bubble. One girl, a misunderstood teenager years before the breed was identified, said about her parents, ‘Sometimes they just don’t understand what kids want to do, and they think we ought to act like they acted twenty years ago.’