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Wednesday
May252011

McEwan and World War II

As you know, the second part of ATONEMENT takes place during World War II as the troops try to make it to Dunkirk.

A bit about the history of it: In May 1940, during the Battle for France, the British Expeditionary Force was cut off from the rest of the French army by the Germans. The Force retreated to the area around the port of Dunkirk. The German land forces could have wiped out the British Expeditionary Force, especially because many of the British troops, in their haste to withdraw, had left behind their heavy equipment. For years, it was assumed that Hitler himself had stopped the more complete ground attack, favouring "only" air bombardment. However, we now know how that German Army Group A commander Gerd von Rundstedt ordered the halt and that Hitler validated the order only in retrospect. Nonetheless, the inevitable lull that came between the strafings and bombings gave the British a few days to evacuate by sea. Churchill ordered any ship or boat available, large or small, over 900 vessels, to pick up the stranded soldiers; a little more than a third of a million men were evacuated. (A third of those were French soldiers.) Churchill later called it "the miracle of Dunkirk." More than 40,000 vehicles as well as massive amounts of military equipment and supplies were left behind. Also, as many as 40,000 Allied soldiers were left behind to be captured by the Germans or make their own way home using only their wits and "underground" routes. A great many made their way all the way south to Spain and sailed for Great Britain from there.

So that's the history. But what's McEwan's take on all this? We may have a glimpse of an answer in his 1992 novel BLACK DOGS, about the break-up of a marriage over ideological differences. Toward the end, we find this musing about World War II from one of the main characters:

"He was struck by [the war] not as a historical, geopolitical fact, but as a multiplicity, a near infinity of private sorrows, as a boundless grief minutely subdivided without diminishment among individuals who covered the continent like dust, like spores whose separate identities would remain unknown, and whose totality showed more sadness than any one could ever begin to comprehend. . . . For the first time, he sensed the scale of the catastrophe in terms of feeling--all those unique and solitary deaths, all that consequent sorrow, unique and solitary too, which had no place in conferences, headlines, history, and which had quietly retired to houses, kitchens, unshared beds, and anguished memories."

World War II, a "multiplicity." We'll want to think more about that.

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