Lately I’ve been seeing way too much nationalism, and not enough patriotism, in American public life. The core group of Alt-Right nativists Donald Trump has dragged out of the societal sewer is no different from any other ethno-cultural nationalist movement. These people are no better than Vladimir Putin or Francisco Franco. They want Americanness to be restricted to whomever they feel bonded to or associated with, usually white Christians who agree with them. Their restrictive, exclusionary philosophy would destroy who we are. America has never been anything but the principles that have made it great, and those principles are inclusive: if you’re born here you’re one of us, if you naturalize you’re one of us, and if you’re in the US you can say what you want, worship how you want, and be confident your personal liberty and property rights will be protected by a defined Rule of Law.
For Americans, patriotism is believing in those principles, applying them universally (though always imperfectly), and holding the nation accountable when it deviates from them. We’re not alone in this. We may have been the first country founded on ideas, but other western democracies are also defined by the values we share. A lot of those countries are also seeing a resurgence of nationalism. Like the US, Britain faced a nationalist political movement this year, and both of us failed to beat it back. I think both of our countries would benefit from a lesson we seem to have forgotten: when we fight for our principles, we can achieve astonishing things. Nowhere was there a more obvious contrast between destructive, jingoistic nationalism and principled, inclusive patriotism than the evacuation of Dunkirk.
The military disaster that turned into a miracle
On May 10, 1940, the same day Winston Churchill became Prime Minister of Britain, the German military started a Blitzkrieg invasion of the low countries and France. It was crushingly successful. The Netherlands surrendered on May 15. By May 25, it became clear that a large portion of British and French forces had been cut off from the majority of Allied forces, and were trapped on the seacoast near the Belgian/French border. The loss of these troops and their materiel would have been crippling, especially for the British. The trapped men were about half of the British Army in Europe. Unable to fight their way through, it became clear they would have to evacuate.
Evacuations began on May 26, and by May 28, when Belgium surrendered, the British government only estimated they could save 50,000 soldiers, and would lose all supplies and equipment. Ultimately, between May 26 and June 4th they rescued 338,000 men from the harbor and beaches around Dunkirk. One big reason for this is that on May 24 Hitler halted the tanks that had been racing (to the extent tanks can race) across northern France. Another barrier to the German advance was the portion of the First French Army at Lille, which furiously fought 7 German divisions, preventing them from advancing on Dunkirk. However, the most famous reason for Dunkirk’s successful evacuation is the hundreds of “Little Ships,” the small civilian fishing boats, private yachts, and other nonmilitary vessels that went back and forth from England to France in order to save the soldiers.
The evacuation of Dunkirk has become a huge part of the national mythology of modern Britain. Without a doubt, the British civilians who crossed the English Channel to Dunkirk, which was being strafed by the Luftwaffe, are a testament to British patriotism and ability to come together. Winston Churchill certainly emphasized that aspect of the evacuation in his iconic speech “we shall fight on the beaches,” turning a colossal defeat into a national victory. But I don’t think the most special thing about Dunkirk is the lesson in British resilience. It’s not that the British aren’t resilient, it’s that not all of those Little Ships were British.
Dunkirk saw individuals from four democracies save soldiers to fight another day
The remarkable thing about Dunkirk is the fact that about 215,000 British and 140,000 French soldiers were evacuated through the bravery of individuals from four different nations. They were saved because of a valiant defense by a French rearguard (in addition to the Lille defenders) that knew it would be taken by the Nazis, by ordinary British fishermen and other sailors, and by the efforts of 104 Dutch and Belgian boats who had no obligation risk Luftwaffe fire to save Allied troops. The evacuation of Dunkirk was not just a British miracle. It was the combined efforts of members of four nations, two of whom had already fallen to a regime committed to an expansionist nationalism based solely on ethnic identity. Those evacuees became the core of the British Army and the Free French who, along with a whole bunch of Yanks, landed on beaches not so far away to liberate France, Belgium, and the Netherlands.
That brings us to why I believe Dunkirk can teach us about what patriotism really is in a democracy. It probably makes sense to an ethno-nationalist that a British civilian might risk his life for a British soldier, but why were those Belgian fishermen saving a bunch of Brits and Frenchies while under fire? If I had to guess I’d say these men, whose nations had been seized by amoral ethno-nationalism at its ugliest, knew what they had lost. Sending resources to Britain was the only way to save European democracy. Winston Churchill swore Britain would fight on “to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone,” and for all that he was an imperialist, he had defended the freedoms we enjoy for years. He believed in the French Republic. He believed in the American Republic. He rescued Charles de Gaulle right before France fell, because he knew de Gaulle shared those values. Patriotism in a democracy is Churchill’s patriotism: a love of country based on a loyalty to the core ideals that allow the mess of democracy to exist. Unlike nationalism, such patriotism is not exclusive, it is inclusive. Anyone committed to western democratic values can join the club.
If we do not hang together, we will certainly hang separately
The best part of each western democracy is not the part that makes it different from the others. France’s finest hour was not the invention of Camembert. It was telling the world it should commit to Liberté, égalité, and fraternité, and being willing to die for it. It is important for all of us in the West to rediscover a simple truth: whether you are a North American, a European, an Australian, or a New Zealander, our countries have been at their greatest when they exemplify the core principles we share (I would say Canada is doing a bang up job at the moment). Each of our nations has contributed its own part to the tradition of western liberalism: American constitutionalism, Dutch free enterprise, British property rights, Swiss federalism or, more recently, German social conscience. And that tradition is under external attack from yet another ethno-nationalist tyrant: Vladimir Putin. And the only way he can make a dent in western liberalism – which he hates – is if we each indulge in petty nationalism and let him separate us from one another. Ethno-nationalism cannot compare to what we have achieved and can yet achieve when our patriotism has been based on universal ideals. I can think of no greater testament to the endurance of western liberalism than the fact that, 77 years after the Nazis trapped the Allies on a beach at Dunkirk, the strongest advocate for our shared values, and the leader of the free world, is the Chancellor of Germany.