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LAURENCE REES: And this myth has grown up, hasn’t it, that the reason the Germans didn’t push forward into Dunkirk to destroy the British Army was that Hitler wanted them to escape.  But that’s not the case in your view?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: No, Hitler himself created this myth in the sense that he used it as a justification subsequently for why the tanks were not sent down to destroy the British Army at Dunkirk. But in reality what Hitler was doing there on the 24th of May 1940, that crucial day, was actually agreeing to the suggestion put forward by the commander of the German forces in the West – General, rapidly to become Field Marshall, von Rundstedt – who then wanted to preserve the tanks for what they saw as their greater need which was to destroy the French troops by moving South against them. And Goering had promised Hitler that the British troops would be bombed to bits from the air anyway. So for 24 hours Hitler went along with that decision, realised subsequently it was a mistake and then backtracked from it, but by then it was too late and the British were on their way to getting away from Dunkirk. But it was actually Hitler at that stage still going along with the advice of his Generals, not overriding it as he came to do increasingly as the war went on.

LAURENCE REES: And you’ve written about how that turned out to be a decisive moment. If the British Army had been annihilated on the beaches of Dunkirk then it’s possible that this dream that Hitler had wanted all along, which was that Britain would fall into line, might well have occurred?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: It’s possible. Who can know that? It’s just guesswork. But it’s conceivable then that if the British Army had been destroyed at Dunkirk, there was no army really to speak of left in Britain, then Churchill’s famous victory made out of defeat on which he was able to rouse British morale would have been much more difficult. The government might even have fallen and who knows what could have happened then? So it is feasible to think that there might have been pressure within Britain then to come to some sort of deal which we know was, in any case, being momentarily talked about by the British War Cabinet in May 1940. So a deal could then have been struck which would have done exactly what Hitler wanted and brought the British into line and kept the Americans out of the war, certainly for a while, and given him a free hand in the West then to attack in the East. But, as I say, who knows really?

LAURENCE REES: But is it possible to see that almost as the turning point of the Twentieth Century, that decision?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well, it was a turning point, but you could turn it round and say an empire like the British Empire was not going to give in without some sort of fight. They might even have struggled on despite that and dared Hitler to invade, which he didn’t really want to do, so it’s possible to see it in that way. But, of course, many other things happened which were, I would say, bigger turning points in the war and so I wouldn’t want to make too much of that.