Dunkirk and the popular memory of Britain at war, 1940-58

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The evacuation of the British Army from Dunkirk in 1940 has an iconic place in British culture. This article draws on a concept of popular memory that suggests that rival versions of the past compete for cultural centrality, to ask how Dunkirk acquired this position. During the war, accounts stressed the importance of the sea in the 'deliverance', but while some focused on the Navy, others concentrated on the civilian small boats, and criticism was rare. Immediately postwar there was a lull in representations. In the 1950s, attention switched to the land and to the problematic place of the defeated Army in the story, culminating in Ealing Studios' film Dunkirk (1958). Ealing attempted to synthesize previous emphases and struggled to achieve agreement about the representation of the evacuation. The film ensured the public prominence of the memory of Dunkirk, yet its reception was fractured along class and gender lines, indicating the instabilities of Ealing's negotiated consensus. The history of the contested inscription of Dunkirk in British culture emphasizes that at no point since the events occurred has the representation of the second world war been secure; the popular memory of the war is continually subject to construction, contestation and revision. © 2010 The Author.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)788-811
Number of pages23
JournalJournal of Contemporary History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2010


  • Britain
  • Dunkirk
  • film
  • memory
  • popular culture
  • second world war


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