A discreet collaboration

The Model Occupation
September 22, 1995

Based on interviews with nearly 100 of the more than 90,000 Channel Islanders who survived the War, and on some newly released documents in the Public Record Office, The Model Occupation adds little more than local detail to what has already been published on the German occupation of the Channel Islands, though it provides a useful corrective to most of the existing literature in that it emphasises the degree to which Channel Islanders were discontented by the wartime conduct of the islands' governing elite and disappointed that the British authorities, after lengthy investigation, decided not to prosecute anyone for collaboration.

The issue of how far collaboration was avoidable or not avoidable may to some extent be reduced to a question of practical details. Madeleine Bunting mentions the opposition of Sir Abraham Laine, a member of Guernsey's Controlling Committee, to several of the measures voted by his colleagues: Laine, as the most eminent public servant among the islands' leaders - he had been acting governor of Assam - was probably the best-qualified man on the island to balance the demands of expediency, legality and loyalty to the crown, and one would have liked to have learnt more about his views. It seems that the Guernsey authorities were significantly more co-operative than the Jersey authorities in, for example, helping to recruit local labour for German military projects. Clearly there were reasonable alternatives to some of the policies adopted under German pressure. A closer examination of what happened in other occupied countries might have helped establish parameters, but the potted history given of the German occupation of Denmark is too sketchy to be useful, and no mention is made of Britain's bitterly resented occupation of Iceland.

Despite references to the conservative political ethos of the Channel Islands, Bunting takes no account of the most unique feature of the German occupation. In almost all the other territories the Germans occupied there were numerous individuals and groups who, disillusioned by the failures of the previous regimes, embraced the opportunity to build something new in conjunction with the Germans. Only in the Channel Islands did the Germans find themselves working with a hereditary oligarchy who wanted to change as little as possible. No doubt this affected the Channel Islands authorities' attitudes to the occupation in several respects, particularly with regard to acts of minor sabotage and vandalism, which were denounced by the bailiff of Guernsey as "not only stupid but criminal"; but it also affected the attitude of those islanders who were outside the charmed circle of the ruling families. The Model Occupation mentions the Jersey Democratic Movement as active after the Liberation, but a report from the Information and Records Branch of the British Postal and Telegraph Censorship, which Bunting does not cite, quotes a propaganda leaflet circulated by the Jersey Democratic Movement as early as November 1944. The islands' leaders were not unaware of these subterranean rumblings. When, after the Liberation, the Jersey States proudly announced that "The great body of real Jersey people, whose families had been associated with this island for centuries, were neither collaborators nor fraternisers", they were obviously intending to draw a distinction between real Jerseymen and those whose families had arrived within the last couple of generations, the latter being identified as most hostile to traditional political arrangements. In the Channel Islands, as elsewhere, the history of wartime collaboration can only be understood in the context of pre-existing class divisions.

One may be a little startled by the readiness with which British Army investigators and the British government concluded that a degree of collaboration had been inevitable. To claim however that the British authorities were primarily concerned to maintain Britain's image of unanimous resistance to Nazi oppression is to suggest a curious nervousness on the part of a regime that had just won a world war.

The surprising thing about war is not how many people fail to behave as well as they should have done, but how many people behave better than might have been expected. Bunting tells the story of a German soldier who had been collecting insulin for his diabetic mother in Cologne; when she was killed in a RAF bombing raid he gave what he had collected to a Jersey boy, subsequently the only diabetic on the island to survive the occupation.

A. D. Harvey is the author of Collision of Empires: Britain in Three World Wars 1793-1945.

The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands under German Rule 1940-1945

Author - Madeleine Bunting
ISBN - 0 00 255242 6
Publisher - HarperCollins
Price - £20.00
Pages - 354

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