Our Dear Channel Islands
- The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands under German Rule 1940-1945 by Madeleine Bunting
HarperCollins, 354 pp, £20.00, January 1995, ISBN 0 00 255242 6
- The Channel Islands: Occupation and Liberation 1940-1945 by Asa Briggs
Batsford, 96 pp, £7.99, April 1995, ISBN 0 7134 7822 5
In 1968, when I was five, my parents moved to Jersey as tax exiles and bought a house in the west of the island. During the German Occupation it had been the site of a slave worker camp. Next door’s garden pond had formerly been the camp’s well, while just over the fence at the bottom of our garden there were grey concrete bunkers covered in brambles and bracken. As children we picked blackberries off them and speculated about what they might contain, but never found a way in. Like our parents, and like many native Channel Islanders, we didn’t give the recent past a second thought: the bunkers, gun emplacements and massive sea walls seemed to have always been there, like the beaches and granite cliffs they overlooked.
Drawing on ‘a wealth of newly released archival material’ and ‘nearly a hundred interviews with islanders and labour camp survivors’, Madeleine Bunting’s book aims to examine the Occupation as ‘a “laboratory” of Anglo-German relations’ and so show how the mainland British might have behaved under Nazism. What makes her account so engaging is the way she lodges it in the present. Noting the diffidence, evasiveness, even fury, she encountered among her informants, she is ‘very conscious that this history trespasses into some of the most painful, hidden parts of their lives’. Having attempted ‘an archaeological investigation into collective memory’, she concludes by challenging the islanders’ ‘failure to remember and acknowledge those who were sacrificed to the islands’ welfare’: that is, slave labourers, Jews and those who resisted or otherwise fell foul of the Germans.
In a pointed prelude to the testimonies of slave labourers, Bunting describes what these ‘nameless and faceless’ thousands left behind; and there, ‘now overgrown with brambles’ or ‘dotted with the brightly coloured towels of holidaymakers’, are my bunkers again. Apparently we had always believed that thousands of slave labourers had died as a result of German brutality, that countless bodies had been tipped into the liquid cement of the islands’ fortifications. Bunting’s 14 witnesses press home the harrowing details. Before long, I was wondering how many skeletons lay concealed in the bunkers at the bottom of my mother’s garden.
Intent at last on excavation, I went to Jersey. I discovered that from January 1942 Lager Udet, the Organisation Todt camp on the site of my childhood home, had housed Spaniards, and from August 1942, Russians and Poles, until the bulk of the OT were withdrawn from the island in the autumn of 1943. The Spaniards, who numbered about two thousand, were Republicans who had fled to France after Franco’s victory in 1939. Later, the Vichy Government had handed them over to the Germans. As conscripted labourers they received the same rates of pay as the volunteers recruited by the OT. They were free in the evenings and on Sundays to come and go as they pleased, to mingle with the local population and visit shops, cafés and public entertainments. Beatings were not part of the routine and they had access to medical treatment – the OT established hospitals, with ambulance services, in all three islands.
As Slavs, the Poles and ‘Russians’ (most of whom in fact came from the Ukraine) were deemed Untermenschen. They were slave workers: unpaid, badly fed and clothed and subject to beatings by OT overseers (there were no SS in Jersey or Guernsey). In all, about fifteen hundred Russians came to Jersey, where the initial death toll was so high that a Red Cross inspection was called for and their treatment improved. Aerial reconnaissance photographs taken in April 1943 show Lager Udet as consisting of 16 large barrack huts with a wired-off inner compound, which presumably contained the Russians – the latter were confined to their camps as a result of thefts of food and clothing from the local population. My bunkers were separate, built as air-raid shelters for the German troop billeted at Hotel La Moye across the road.
The corpses in the bunkers turned out to be imaginary: it would have been impossible to squeeze them through the three-dimensional mesh of steel reinforcing rods spaced at 15 cm intervals in the concrete. Similarly, stories of large numbers of bodies being flung into the sea or into mass graves are belied by the evidence. There are no reports of unidentified bodies being washed ashore. A Commission of Inquiry into alleged mass graves immediately after the war unearthed only drainage systems. And in all the building and landscaping that has gone on over the last thirty years the only skeleton to come to light belonged to a 17th-century donkey. And, in Jersey at least, a wealth of documentation and eyewitness reports testify to the fact that standard procedures were followed in collecting the bodies of OT workers, issuing death certificates and burying them at the Strangers’ Cemetery at Westmount.
This is not to belittle the sufferings of Nazism’s victims in Jersey. It is beyond doubt that individual acts of brutality, even murder, by OT overseers occurred; that working conditions could be perilous; and that the bodies of at least three workers were not retrieved from underneath the rockfalls in which they perished. It is also beyond doubt that in Alderney the inhumane conditions of the slave workers were of a different order from those in Jersey and Guernsey, and that war crimes were committed by officials of the OT as well as the SS, who arrived there in March 1943 with SS Baubrigade 1, a thousand-strong unit attached to the Neuengamme concentration camp.
Vol. 17 No. 12 · 22 June 1995
A central criticism in Linda Holt’s scattergun review of my book The Model Occupation (LRB, 25 May) is that my approach to the German Occupation of the Channel Islands is to seek ‘justification for disenchantment with the myths of Britishness which [my] parents’ generation helped to create’. She accuses me of projecting a British fantasy onto the islands and their ‘guilty past’. She supports this argument by suggesting that I have sensationalised the degree of collaboration, exaggerated the mistreatment of forced labourers and misreported the fate of the Jews on the islands.
My first objective was to depict accurately the islanders’ experience, and to this end I spent many hours listening to islanders and researching in island archives. Only when that task was completed did I turn, in the epilogue, to consider why this fascinating chapter in Second World War history has been so sorely neglected by British academia. Furthermore, why is it that the islanders are so defensive about the subject and why are certain aspects of the Occupation – collaboration, fraternisation, black marketeering and the fate of the Jews – given so little attention in the official history and the local museums, and so rarely discussed by islanders?
The point which Ms Holt overlooked was that I concluded that the islanders’ sense of guilt is provoked as much by what I describe as the ‘censorious British’ as by their own sense of shame. I wrote the book as a plea for greater understanding on the part of the average British reader to the plight of all those who were occupied. I hoped that the reader might gain some insight into the excruciating dilemmas of Nazi occupation and how it compromised people’s ideals and corroded their most cherished principles. This is something about which the British have been obtuse, as if they believe their unequalled war record licenses them to judge and condemn the behaviour which characterised occupied Europe. The Nazis were evil, and we were fighting them, ergo we were good: it is this kind of moral clarity which I believe has been one of the defining characteristics of Britain’s Second World War legacy. Europeans know from their experience that good and evil merge with every muddy permutation. The undeniable bravery of Britain’s stand in 1940 should not blind us to less glorious aspects of our war record, nor handicap our understanding of other countries’ experience.
The islanders’ ‘guilty past’ is not of my invention. Take, for example, one islander whom I quote at the start of the book: ‘We didn’t behave as British people should. Since the war we have felt like a woman must feel in a rape trial. People accuse her of having led the rapist on. But just as a woman might co-operate for fear of not surviving, so did we.’ As for Ms Holt’s notion that the book offers ‘an expiatory narrative for the guilt engendered by the Holocaust’, the pretentiousness of the sentence obscures its meaning.
Her conclusion is that I ‘insinuate during and since the occupation Channel Islanders have been guilty of denying the plight of Nazi victims, for which they therefore bear some sort of responsibility’. There are two issues here: first, have Nazi victims on the islands been overlooked? And second, do islanders bear some responsibility for their fate? The answer to the first is a clear affirmative. One only has to visit the current exhibition at the Imperial War Museum (sponsored by the islands) to see how little space is devoted to the plight of forced labourers and the small Jewish community. The exhibition virtually portrays the Occupation as jolly holiday camp with a rousing chorus of German soldiers singing. The official history by Charles Cruikshank makes cursory reference to the Jews and those islanders who resisted and consequently died in European concentration camps.
The second question is more complex: what responsibility do witnesses have as opposed to the perpetrators of evil deeds? The dilemma they face is: should they intervene, can they achieve anything by so doing, or do they turn a blind eye? One former policeman on the islands took an escaped forced labourer back to his camp and saw him savagely beaten. He concluded that he could do nothing: he had a wife and two children to care for and he walked away. But after fifty years, it still troubles him. I found his honesty moving.
Ms Holt accuses me of ‘mock-piety’ in choosing as my motto ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’ During my research I developed a genuine sympathy for the islanders and I wanted this to inform the whole tenor of the book. Most of my reviewers (Hugh Trevor-Roper, Alan Clark, Sir Robert Rhodes-James, Paul Johnson, Norman Stone) have acknowledged how scrupulously balanced the book was.
The tone of Ms Holt’s review is similar to the aggressively defensive attitude adopted by some Channel Islanders towards my book – she has lived in Jersey since 1968, when her parents moved there as tax exiles. Misrepresentations in the Guernsey Evening Press prompted a flood of letters from aggrieved islanders who all proudly declared that they had never read the book and had no intention of doing so.
The defensiveness of Jersey over the treatment of its Jewish community has been particularly evident. To my considerable regret, I made an error. It was an extremely difficult subject to research: asking a question about the Jews was tantamount to bringing the interview to an abrupt halt with some islanders. Frustrated by the paucity of information, I relied on the word of one islander as to the fate of one Jewish woman: he understood she died in a concentration camp. The fate of Jersey’s Jews should be a matter of public record. Why is it no local historian has looked into the issue? It has taken dogged research over the last two decades to piece together the facts on Guernsey (Solomon Steckoll, an Israeli journalist, and Eddie Parks, a Guernsey journalist, undertook the task).
Ms Holt dismisses as ‘sensationalism’ my report in the Guardian on documents which came to light after the publication of my book. They detailed how members of the Jewish community were singled out and harassed by Jersey officials implementing Nazi laws. Confiscated properties were certainly not ‘returned to their rightful owners’ after the war, as Ms Holt so glibly states. And contrary to her claims, Lord Countanche, the Jersey bailiff, knew that Jews had suffered; one family turned to him after the war in their unsuccessful attempt to get back their property.
Ms Holt omits to mention that I have uncovered some useful new material. I traced a former SS commandant of an Alderney camp to his home in Hamburg and established that he had never been prosecuted for the crimes he committed on Alderney. The German Government immediately launched an investigation. I also found in the Russian state archives the only surviving copy of the intelligence report on the atrocities in the Alderney camps. I was the first historian to go to Russia and the Ukraine to find and interview survivors of the forced labour camps. She accuses me of ‘voyeurism’ in recounting their stories of brutal treatment. By those criteria a huge body of testimony about the Third Reich is placed out of bounds.
Ms Holt claims it is ironic that my book ‘contains the fullest evidence so far of how the Channel Islands were used and abused by the British Government during and after the war’. Irony it was not. The first chapter of the book, ‘Ditched’, is deliberately devoted to how, long before any islander could be accused of betraying the British, the British had betrayed the islands by leaving them undefended and by discouraging wholesale evacuation. Another chapter analyses the sense of British guilt throughout the war that British citizens were left to suffer under German rule until the very end – the day after VE Day.
I welcome the news that Ms Holt is to research Jersey’s Jews in the Occupation; I would refer her immediately to the new documents. If her work is published, I hope she does not receive a review which traduces her motives and pulls bogus academic rank.
Although Linda Holt deserves some credit for rumbling Madeleine Bunting, I feel she lets her book off too lightly. Certainly she exposes Bunting’s mistakes and distortions on subjects such as slave workers and the fate of the Jews. But by interweaving criticism with beguiling personal reminiscences, the review distracts attention from what, for me, is the book’s main failing – namely, the way Bunting censors the material she collects. Thus, to support her contention that resistance to the occupying forces was negligible, she underplays feats of courage or patriotism, dismissing them as ‘petty’ or even ‘ludicrous’. She sets the tone in Chapter Four, when she says: ‘Islanders tell numerous anecdotes of minor sabotage, although one suspects few were in fact as defiant towards their German masters as they have subsequently claimed to be.’ In other words. Bunting discounts evidence which threatens to demolish her chosen theme. For instance, in June 1943 Oberleutnant Zepernick organised a funeral for RAF men shot down over Jersey. Bunting gives a cursory account of it, focusing not on the thousands of islanders who laid more than two hundred wreaths, but on the fact that the mourners included one or two ‘jerrybags’ – women on friendly terms with the enemy. In November 1943 funerals were held for British sailors from HMS Charybdis, whose bodies had been washed onto Jersey and Guernsey’s shores. Here again the thousands of islanders who attended get bad marks from Bunting. She criticises their gesture as ‘passive’and ‘not the first sign of a mass resistance movement’.
Canon Cohu of St Saviour’s, Jersey gets no better treatment. During the Occupation the Canon kept an illegal wireless and would shout out BBC news to his parishioners as he cycled past. He was scarcely more discreet when visiting patients in hospital, or in church, where, on one well-remembered Sunday, he invited his congregation to sing ‘God Save the King’, which they did, at the tops of their voices. Eventually, the German secret police found his radio and the Canon was imprisoned, first in Jersey, then in harsh and degrading conditions on the Continent, where he died before the war ended. But there is scant mention of Canon Cohu in Bunting’s book. She devotes one sentence to him in Chapter Four, where she cites him (inaccurately) as having been betrayed by an informer. Then he rates two sentences in Chapter Six, including one which begins: ‘He was allegedly informed on … ’ In fact there is no evidence that Canon Cohu was the victim of an informer. Later in the book Bunting blames islanders for failing to erect plaques and statues to the memory of ‘men such as Canon Cohu’. Apparently she sees no contradictions between this complaint and her constant cry that the Occupation’s history contains no heroes.
Bunting asked the people she interviewed why, during the Occupation, there had been no resistance on the scale of the rest of Europe. They pointed out that the British Government had deliberately demilitarised the islands in June 1940, withdrawing all military equipment and personnel – thus taking away the very people who might have spearheaded a resistance movement. They also mentioned the high proportion of Germans to local people, fear of retaliatory killings and lack of escape routes. All this cuts no ice with Bunting, who sees it as defensiveness and proof of guilty consciences. In her keenness to find islanders culpable, she berates them for showing insufficient defiance of the invader and then denounces activities such as keeping a banned radio and stealing food from the Germans as evidence of moral decline.
Bunting seizes on the fact that some island women had affairs with Germans – which undoubtedly some did. She starts by admitting that it is impossible to tell how many such women there were. Then she suddenly makes a rapid reference to former German soldiers and ‘a handful of frank islanders’ and leaps to the conclusion that ‘it is possible to sketch the outlines of an experience that hundreds of island women may have shared.’ In fact, photographs of unnamed women with Germans do not count as evidence – the book includes several – since the women depicted in them could be some of the many French prostitutes imported by the Nazis into the islands and installed in requisitioned hotels.
Jenny Chamier Grove
Kew Gardens, Surrey
Vol. 17 No. 13 · 6 July 1995
Soon after my review of Madeleine Bunting’s The Model Occupation appeared I was mystified to receive a personal letter from its author. It contained a ‘complete copy’ of her letter to the LRB (Letters, 22 June), uncut and unchanged, a vituperative covering note and no return address. This appears to be Bunting’s practice with critical reviewers; John Keegan also received a personal letter complaining about his review for the Daily Telegraph. Referring in her note to her LRB letter, Bunting wrote: ‘I chose to take up the substantive issues in your review which are of more interest to LRB readers rather than to get caught up in the petty detail of whether Bob Le Sueur did or did not give me a telephone number, or yourown factual errors.’ What more ‘substantive’ issue can there be for the historian than the evidence?
In my article I showed in detail how inadequacies in Bunting’s evidence impaired, or even invalidated, her arguments about forced labourers, resistance, Jersey’s Jews and Channel Island memory. Her response ignores my criticisms. Instead she goes to great lengths to assure her readers of her good intentions, her hard work and ‘her genuine sympathy for the islanders’. This gets us nowhere. The subject of my review was not Bunting’s personal motives but the picture her book presents of the Channel Island Occupation.
Her paragraph on Jersey’s Jews might appear to address my criticisms of her evidence:
The defensivenees of Jersey over the treatment of its Jews has been particularly evident. To my considerable regret, I made an error. It was an extremely difficult subject to research; asking a question about the Jews was tantamount to bringing the interview to an abrupt halt with some islanders. Frustrated by the paucity of information, I relied on the word of one islander as to the fate of one Jewish woman; he understood she had died in a concentration camp.
This is personal defensiveness on Bunting’s part, rather than a desire to put the record straight. We learn nothing of the fate of the Jewish woman in question, not even her name, and there is no mention of the other Jews whose fates her book misconstrues. Instead Bunting pretends there is only one error, pertaining to Mrs Still, for which she blames islanders in general and Bob Le Sueur in particular. This is predictable: Mrs Still’s step-daughter publicly objected to the way the book wrongs her family, took legal advice and, following correspondence with Bunting, received a private letter of apology from her.
Bunting is well aware that her book contains numerous other errors, because Channel Island historians have pointed them out to her. Michael Ginns, Secretary of the Channel Island Occupation Society (Jersey), has compiled a list of corrections running to nine and a half closely typed pages; more than fifty other errors concerning Guernsey and Alderney have been identified by William Bell, author of I Beg to Report, a four-hundred page study of policing in Guernsey during the Occupation.
Even if Bunting were prepared to correct such purely factual errors in any future edition, her book’s methodological defects severely limit its value. It is very difficult, and often impossible, to sort out fact from hearsay and argument from innuendo in her work. While her sources may look impressive, they are so imprecise and incomplete that anyone wishing to check her use of them has to plough through all the books, newspapers and documents on the Occupation. This is beyond the call of duty for a newspaper reviewer, which is partly why Bunting has not been rumbled before. Even more problematic is what Bunting calls ‘oral history’. She quotes her interviewees’ words as if their historical truth were beyond question – even when they contradict all the known facts or are controversial opinions.
Since Bunting nowhere refers to tape recordings or transcripts of the interviews she conducted, the only way to verify her quotations is to contact her interviewees. On speaking to some of her Jersey witnesses I was disturbed to find that she had reported their words in accurately, selectively and out of context. I was also astonished to learn that she had not checked her witnesses’ testimonies with them before publication. The differences of ‘petty detail’ between Bunting’s and Le Sueur’s reports of their conversation do not merely undermine her claims about what happened to Jersey’s Jews. More generally, they threaten her credibility as a historian.
Much of Bunting’s ‘evidence’consists of her personal experience and her interpretation of it. While this may provide rich fodder for a certain kind of journalism, it is hardly a sound basis for history. When I spoke to islanders about the Occupation, my experience was quite different from hers. Because many Jersey people could not tell her much about Jews who did not leave the island before the Germans came, she assumes their ‘defensiveness … has been particularly evident’. It never occurs to her that Jersey people might be telling the truth, that they might not know of anything awful happening to the few Jewish people who remained because nothing did. When I produce factual evidence supporting this, Bunting promptly tars me with the same brush: ‘The tone of Ms Holt’s review is similar to the aggressively defensive attitude adopted by some Channel Islanders towards my book – she has lived in Jersey since 1968 when her parents moved there as tax exiles.’ Both the Contributors section and my review indicate that I have not ‘lived in Jersey since 1968’; Bunting must know this as the personal letter she sent me was addressed in her own hand to my home in East Sussex.
Bunting’s ‘clear affirmative’ to the question whether victims of Nazism have been over-looked on the island is absurd. The only formal execution to take place in Jersey during the Occupation merits no mention in her book: a memorial stone and annual remembrance services at St Ouen’s Manor ensure François-Marie Scornet is remembered nonetheless. Bunting also overlooks the monument in St Helier recognising the assistance provided by the people of Jersey to members of the French Resistance (erected in 1961) and the general memorial in Howard Davis Park to all those who died in concentration and internment camps (erected in 1985). The former Strangers’ Cemetery and the Underground Hospital are major sites of commemoration, with detailed plaques from the various national groups of OT workers who suffered and died in Jersey. Recent events marking the 50th anniversary of the Liberation included high-profile services at both these places, with former slave workers prominent among the special guests. One of these was Feodor ‘Bill’ Burriy, an escaped Russian prisoner sheltered by islanders during the Occupation. In her book Bunting makes much of Bill’s story, castigating islanders for ‘forgetting’ Louisa Gould, a Jerseywoman who died at Ravensbrück after being deported for sheltering Bill. Bunting will, doubtless, be amazed to learn that on 6 May a long-planned memorial stone outside St Ouen’s Parish Hall and a plaque at Mrs Gould’s former home were unveiled. Further revelations may be found in the Jersey Evening Post– such as Senator Reg Jeune’s speech during the VE Day sitting of the States of Jersey, acknowledging the Occupation’s informers and black marketeers as well as ‘the acts of courage like those of Canon Cohu and Harold Le Druillenec’. A fortnight earlier, the Bailiff of Jersey had paid more fulsome tribute when he unveiled a plaque commemorating the bravery of 2600 political prisoners incarcerated in the old Gloucester Street prison during the Occupation. No one who ventures past the entrance of the current exhibition at the Imperial War Museum will find Bunting’s ‘jolly holiday camp’ but much awful detail on these and other unhappy aspects of Occupation.
Lewes, East Sussex
Vol. 17 No. 15 · 3 August 1995
No doubt Linda Holt meant to commend the Bailiff of Jersey when she wrote (Letters, 6 July) that he ‘had paid more fulsome tribute’ in ‘commemorating the bravery of 2600 political prisoners’. In fact, she rather insulted the gentleman. ‘Fulsome’ has a range of meanings beginning with ‘offensive to good taste’ and descending to ‘disgusting, sickening, repulsive’. This error, rare, I hope, in the British Isles, has unfortunately become almost common in the US, the Chicago Tribune newspaper and Health magazine being recent and prominent offenders. The two cases were particularly risible: in both, ‘fulsome’ was used to modify ‘brassière’ in the mistaken belief that the term refers to fullness or voluptuosity.
Hot Springs, Arizona