Condemning “1940” For Omitting “1944”

Two things to remember in historical fiction writing are these:

1) Who is telling your story?
2) What could characters know in their time?

For example, if you are composing a tale set in 1814-15 seen through the eyes of the wife of a blacksmith living in northern England, likely you will not have much about the Congress of Vienna.

However, in 2017, we have newspaper opinion columnists:

[Screen capture of the Washington Post, July 31, 2017.]

I have not seen Dunkirk yet. But one does not have to have done so in order to react to the Washington Post’s Richard Cohen’s assailing the film’s historical accuracy. Specifically it is, in his words, “deaf to history.”

For instance, Mr. Cohen is appalled about the film’s British troops’ use of the description “the enemy” for the Germans because most would have called them, far more roughly, “Jerries.” Quite so – although it is certainly not impossible that some of them would have called them “the enemy” as well. Far more historically significant and truly appalling is his attacking the film for its NOT addressing wider issues, including those its characters COULD NOT YET know about:

…“the politics of the situation” has to include Auschwitz and Coventry and, later, the 1944 massacre of 84 American POWs at Malmedy in Belgium…

And had it included references to those, the film would absolutely have been an historical joke because those events occurred AFTER the time frame of this film. Mr. Cohen is essentially attacking this film’s historicity because it is not a DIFFERENT historical film. And he is hardly alone in that absurd approach; I have seen similar criticisms of it elsewhere.

Winston Churchill, the new prime minister, was fully aware of the stakes. There would be no chivalrous surrender ceremony. Every member of his cabinet, he wrote, “was ready to be killed quite soon.” This was a war of extermination.

Churchill wrote a history of World War II after the war, and thanks to works like his we know a great deal that few knew in 1940. However, long before soldiers with mobile phones had access to Twitter, or to the BBC web site, many of those in France in May-June 1940 likely barely knew who the new prime minister even was yet. Churchill’s “finest hour” was to come in the weeks and months AFTER this film is set.

Moreover while what Churchill and the war cabinet in London thought was certainly important, the average soldier in northern France and Belgium did not have access to Churchill’s and cabinet members’ inner thoughts and personal resolutions. They had rather more immediate issues on their minds. Churchill and the ministers functioned at an “Olympian” level soldiers in the field did NOT.

Hitler was certainly known by then, including by soldiers, to be an expansionist, militarist beast. But in that same June of 1940, it was of course still unknown how genocidal the Hitlerian regime would become in the years to follow. As France was crumbling, some French leaders, thinking ahead, even assumed that the “old game” would be repeated: there would be a tough peace dictated by the Germans, the Germans would after a short occupation withdraw from France, and a new French government would take over after perhaps handing the Germans back (again) the provinces of Alsace and Lorraine or some such – as in 1870-71 and as had happened after other wars in the past.

We know what the SS massacre of British prisoners – which Mr. Cohen references – on May 28 foreshadows about the SS and the Holocaust, but no one then could have because the Holocaust had not happened yet. The Battle of Britain was still to come. The invasion of the Soviet Union was still to come. The extermination camps were still to come.

And needless to say NO ONE knew yet about a President Trump. Mr. Cohen presumably knows this film was written and in production long before anyone thought that a Donald J. Trump would be elected president of the United States in 2016. It was made mostly during the final Obama years – as if that matters, considering it is a British film.

By the way, on that note, American characters seem sorely lacking. How could they be left out, given as we know the U.S. would enter the war a year and a half later? Is pointing out their “omission” silly?

Yes it is, and yet an observation as dopey as that is what underscores Mr. Cohen’s entire “historical” critique. As I read his column, I wanted to bang my head down on my desk repeatedly. Indeed as I considered Mr. Cohen’s actually AHISTORICAL piece setting itself up as a defense of history, I thought to myself repeatedly that people like him are what the historical novelist or filmmaker is constantly up against.

…In my several visits to Germany I have written in admiration of that country’s strenuous efforts to face its past and make amends. In that regard, it has done better than France, whose complicity in the roundup and murder of its Jews was only tardily acknowledged. America, too, has been reluctant to come to terms with the horrors of slavery…

Again, on the Holocaust, Mr. Cohen looks ahead, possessing knowledge NO ONE had in June of 1940. The Holocaust in France and Western Europe began in earnest AFTER this film is set. And what American slavery that ended in 1865 has to do with this story of British soldiers at Dunkirk in 1940 is anyone’s guess.

The bottom line is what historical characters know, and more importantly CAN and CANNOT know, within the context of their personal viewpoints, time and place, is LESS than what YOU and I as a reader or a filmgoer will know.

I hope none of you are surprised to learn this either. Americans living in France in 1792 did NOT know anything about George Washington’s death in 1799. Nor did they know that Thomas Jefferson won the presidency in 1800, that Napoleon was French emperor, and that the American Civil War from 1861-1865 led to the end of U.S. slavery.

[Excerpt from Conventions: The Garden At Paris. Click to expand.]

Nor did they know about women’s suffrage, Hitler, Auschwitz, the atomic bomb, the moon landing, or about a President Donald J. Trump. All of those events are now in OUR rear view mirror, seen from 2017. They were NOT known to those living in 1792.

It is not complicated. Yet is it actually necessary to have to point that out? Unfortunately, it appears so.

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Author: “Conventions: The Garden At Paris,” “Passports,” “Frontiers,” and “Distances.” British Airways frequent flier. Lover of the Catskill Mountains...and the 1700s. New novel of 1797-1805, "Tomorrow The Grace," due out in 2019.