Last week I visited Dunkirk for a day. I was travelling back from somewhere else1 and decided to stop off on the drive back to the Eurotunnel. The inspiration was mostly from seeing Dunkirk (the film) last year; I enjoyed the film a lot, and wanted to see the place for myself.
I didn’t get to do everything I wanted. I skipped trying to see the shipwrecks at Bray-Dunes because I missed low tide, the Operation Dynamo museum was closed for “embellishment” – always a good word in the context of retelling history – and I obviously didn’t have much time as I needed to travel back. So I mostly just ambled around, seeing what I could see.
I’ve been to a few places like this, and I always try and imagine what it would’ve been like at the time that the historical event happened. At Dunkirk, this was hard. The city was besieged twice in WW2; the first – and more famous – time was in 1940, by the Germans when the Allies were trying to escape. The second time was in 1944-45, when the German units stationed there were surrounded by the Allies as they advanced across Europe. All this fighting caused quite a bit of damage to the city, to which the French have rather selfishly responded by rebuilding things.
The outcome of this is that the town looks… well, like a modern city2. Which makes it hard to imagine what happened there; it’s difficult to picture scenes of warfare and peril when there’s kids playing on the beach, people lunching in bustling restaurants, and couples ambling along the promenade.
What did strike me though was a sense of the sheer magnitude of what happened there. How those days in 1940 were a branching point in history. That if something different happened, the story of humanity would’ve taken an entirely different path, and the world would look very different today. If you think about history as a procession of days, most of those days probably aren’t significant in a world-changing way. They all matter in aggregate of course; there’s everyday evolution and change that inexorably drives things forward. But history-defining, seismic moments are rare.
I can’t imagine anyone involved at the time really cared about any of that though.