A Model Occupation: The Channel Islands Under German Rule, 1940-1945
Harper Collins 1995
Madeleine Bunting is a Guardian journalist; her sympathies, in the book, are clearly with the Russian prisoners in forced labour camps on the Channel Islands; her interviews with them are very moving and the warm welcome she received from them remains for her, she says, the most powerful recollection of writing this book. One can imagine, in contrast, the less than warm reception English historians receive on the islands.
Madeleine Bunting makes it perfectly clear that resistance to the German occupation would have been futile and counterproductive. Yet, she persists in blaming the islanders for their wartime behaviour, which she describes as shabby. But when you are comprehensively beaten in war, honour and glory go out of the window for the duration. The islanders had no choice but to do as they were told; the word ‘collaborated’ is wrong: they obeyed, or complied. The word ‘collaboration’ is ambiguous, since it can be employed to refer to a free and willing partnership. They were put in a position where ‘shabby’, i.e. survival, was the best option. What were the alternatives? Suicide, or pointless resistance, but those who act in such way as to bring drastic retribution onto their fellowmen for no appreciable gain do not deserve admiration either.
A few facts will make this clear. There were 60, 000 islanders left on 1 July 1940 when the Germans landed. At the highest point, there were 37, 000 German soldiers on the islands, on Guernsey the ratio was almost 1-1, not a very favourable ratio for fighting. The islands had been demilitarised, all armament and military personnel taken to Britain. The terrain is flat, with no hiding places. There were no boats available and the beaches were mined and fortified, making escape near impossible. Moreover, the islands depended entirely on Britain for economic survival, exporting tomatoes, early potatoes and flowers, and importing everything they needed. When the link was cut, there was no possibility to acquire goods except through the Germans link with occupied France. There was no choice but ask the Germans permission to trade with occupied France, trade which had to be paid for by borrowing (from French banks), by selling food to the Germans and by working for them for wages; the alternative was starvation.
Given the situation, should the islanders have maintained a hostile attitude towards their occupiers? For five years? With normal human beings who behaved in a friendly fashion? The island authorities decided to make the best of a bad situation and not to maintain a climate of hostility. One of the island leaders said: “May this occupation be a model to the world”, hence the book’s title.
The London Home Office told the island authorities to govern in the interests of the inhabitants, so they opted to cooperate willingly, and to get the population to cooperate willingly. They had to work fast to do this, since up to July 1, 1940, the mood had been defiant and patriotic; in order to establish the new mood, they made an example of a foreigner, an Irishman, who had knocked out a German officer who had knocked his hat off in a public place. The Jersey Courts condemned the Irishman to six months imprisonment and the judge berated him for jeopardising good relations with the Germans. On Guernsey an example was made of a shop assistant who was half German and would abandon his customers whenever a German came into the shop, to act as interpreter; the shop manager, who told him to stop doing this as bad manners, was denounced and tried by the local court and punished thanks to a law that was hurriedly passed, with retrospective effect, to “make an offence any behaviour by a civilian likely to cause a deterioration in the relations between the occupying forces and the civilian population”.
These two cases were widely reported in the island press. The population being very small, homogeneous and respectful of their local authorities, the Germans realised that coercion would not be necessary and allowed the local authorities to continue being in charge, the national anthem to be played, and prayers said in church for the British royal family. Some of the ruling families set the example by inviting German officers to their houses. 10 000 islanders were serving in the British armed forces, so honour was safe anyway.
Britain did not encourage resistance and did not even mention the islands in BBC broadcasts.
There was also fear of punishment; a few individuals who, for example, had not handed in their radios or weapons were deported to camps in Europe and some died.
The result was that relations between the occupiers and the islanders were good; the islanders found it difficult to see the Germans as the evil monsters of propaganda. Women in particular found they had never been treated with such politeness. The islanders lived safe and healthy, and for the Germans, the Channel Islands were the one place in Europe where they did not always have to go about wearing a helmet and carrying weapons. It was literally for them a holiday resort.
What more is there to be said? Detail the compromises that were made? One island clergyman wrote: “It will be nice when the war is over, then we shall be able to lead Christian lives again.” Exactly. Under threat of force against you and those close to you, you do things you would not countenance otherwise, and this continues as long as the threat is present, even if it is not continuously expressed. Moreover, relations with the enemy are not the only moral problem posed by a war situation. On the islands people found that pre-war moral standards were difficult to uphold. Through opportunity and necessity, people stole from each other; neighbours, including men belonging to the police force, looted the houses of evacuees. The black market flourished, fortunes were made. One farmer’s bank account with a debit of £340 in 1940 showed a plus of £70, 000 in 1945. There were informers. People broke regulations. Women were unfaithful to their absent husbands with the Germans.
After the liberation there had to be another about turn in mindset. The islanders, being British, had to be reintegrated into the bosom of the nation that claimed a pure record of fighting alone against evil, and stability had to be maintained despite a demand, on Jersey in particular, for the punishment of collaborators. This was done through a policy of forgive and forget. The islanders would forgive the fact that they were abandoned to their fate; they were demilitarised in July 1940 but suffered a bombing because the Germans had not been informed. This gave the British a propaganda coup: “Germans bomb demilitarised zone!” Britain did not liberate the islands until after the death of Hitler, more than a year after D Day. Since links with France were cut after June 1944 and links with Britain not reopened, there was a severe shortage of food. Churchill in his typical role of starvation master had forbidden Red Cross parcels to be sent to the islands (they would be taken by the Germans); parcels were eventually allowed from the end of December and received by the local population.
The British for their part would forget that British people had obeyed the enemy, which meant establishing and handing in lists of names and place of origin of all inhabitants, helping to repair or build military installations, as well as turning a blind eye to the forced labour camps established on the islands where over a thousand Russians and other foreigners died of starvation and ill treatment. They would also forget that the islanders had handed over to the Germans two British secret agents with the friends and family who were sheltering them. (The Germans responded by treating the secret agents as ordinary prisoners of war; the agents survived.)
In order to push away these awkward facts, records were to be closed for a hundred years (archives were eventually opened in 1992 and 1993), and some files were destroyed. No trials for treason or war crimes were held, despite a demand for them on Jersey, to avoid making public what had taken place. The Civil Affairs Unit of the Liberation Force issued a (false) report saying there was no evidence of treachery or treason: the report to be made public before the bulk of the Liberation Force was withdrawn. To further maintain order and stability, the local leaders, who belonged to the same ruling families which had governed before, during and after the war, received honours and some were knighted. Jersey and Guernsey set up War Profit Levies of up to 80%, but records of how much this tax raised remain secret. The tax investigators were all seconded, from Britain, for short periods, ensuring continuous and thorough investigation was impossible.
Madeleine Bunting says that Britain should acknowledge this part of its history in order to establish stronger bridges with Europe through a shared war time experience (see “Our part in the Holocaust: One Channel Island at least is owning up to its wartime shame.” The Guardian, Saturday 24 January 2004. Presumably the editors are responsible for the lurid title, since the article is written more sensitively). So Madeleine Bunting still seems to believe that the islanders had a choice under occupation, after demonstrating quite clearly that they had not. The question is, how did the islanders, and the rest of Europe, come to be in a situation where they had little alternative but to do what they were told by the occupier. The real point is that war causes a break down in civilised behaviour, and those that cause wars are responsible for all those breakdowns. There is little point in scrutinising who did what in the war, the real question is, who started it, who set in motion these terrible events?