Our Dear Channel Islands
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
Insinuations that a reviewer’s ‘frontal penetration’ of a book has gone no deeper than the table of contents nor his (one gropes for a euphemism) caudal penetration deeper than the index amounts to a rude charge of bad faith. Claude Rawson makes that charge (Letters, 11 May) regarding my review of his Satire and Sentiment 1660-1830. This is a new experience for me, and not a pleasant one. Just in case Rawson really believes what he claims to, I want to assure him that he is simply wrong.
Stanford University, California
Look over Your Shoulder
It was gratifying that Christopher Hitchens, a British journalist, knew that the citizens of Massachusetts celebrate our 19 April 1775 victory over British arms (LRB, 25 May). It would be excessive to expect him to have known that the holiday’s proper name is Patriots’ Day, not Lexington Day. This is no small point. Of the two major clashes of that day, we choose less to remember the events of the ‘Battle’of Lexington, as we misname the event. When Redcoats arrived at the Lexington green, they were greeted by a well-regulated militia performing close-order drills with their hunting muskets. Both sides swaggered at length on opposite sides of the green like the titmice later described by Konrad Lorenz, without defensive precaution and almost insensible of the danger of actual hostilities. On some putative provocation the Redcoats fired into the farmers’ ranks. The farmers (later ‘patriots’), astonished that their military affectations had been taken seriously, immediately scattered and ran all the way to Concord. By the time the British arrived at Concord, the era of military pretension was dead for ever. The farmers shot from behind trees and hedges, harassing the regulars with murderous effect all the way back to Boston. (When organised rebellion followed, almost no citizen of Concord volunteered for Washington’s army: the town used public funds to hire replacements to satisfy its conscription quota.)
These events’ relevance to latterday American militia is even greater than Hitchens suggested. Few Americans remember why the British left their comfortable barracks to visit the provinces on that day. Their mission was to search every farm and confiscate weapons. They were upset that the farmers had organised themselves into popular militia, which met weekly to flourish their guns and to rant about the tyranny of a distant and benign government. The militia had no offensive capabilities or any but rhetorical intentions. The modern analogue that comes to mind is the Black Panthers, who terrorised California by Scowling at state legislators while carrying legally registered rifles on their shoulders. The Concord militiamen, like the Black Panthers and the Waco miscreants, gained their influence solely by their unintended provocation of the government to ill-considered violence.
The Concord miltiamen had named themselves the Minutemen, boasting that they could make ready at one minute’s notice to resist any British incursion. In the Fifties a new militia named itself the Minutemen and took military training in anticipation of the Russian invasion and occupation of America that many ordinary citizens supposed might follow a surprise bomber attack. The national press reported their activities with the same respect accorded to the ubiquitous nuclear bomb shelters that boosted the construction industry in those days. I remember hearing favourable comment on those self-advertising weekend warriors from schoolteachers, relatives and scoutmasters. It may give us some cheer to note that supporters of American militia are no longer a clear majority.
Gun-control advocates like me prefer not to remember that, after suffering decades of English condescension with mere muttering and throwing of snowballs, American citizens rose to revolution only when the government attempted to confiscate the primal symbol of their self-regard – their guns.
Christopher Hitchens’s bit of yellow dog journalism in which he attempts to link the Republican Party with American neo-Nazis is nothing but reverse McCarthyism. David Duke is a total outcast in the Republican Party in Louisiana. Some state law makes it easy for anyone to run on a particular party’s line; sinister types have managed to do it as Democrats. As a delegate for George McGovern in the 1972 Democratic Convention, I can recall the vehement racism of the ‘Democrats’ who supported George Wallace, a candidate who won more popular votes in the primaries in 1972 than any other Democratic candidate, including McGovern.
Hitchens’s suggestion that Ross Perot is somehow a figure of the neo-Fascist Right is absurd. He supported the liberal Democrat Ann Richards against George Bush (the former President’s son) in the election for Governor of Texas. His lawyer, who is Jewish, is the husband of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. Perot endowed a chair for Ginsburg’s husband at a prominent Washington DC law school. As for Huey Long, readers of the LRB should consult any number of excellent biographies for a more balanced view, particularly the Thompson biography. The King Fish. Huey Long was the only American politician who was serious about the redistribution of wealth, which earned him the fear and loathing of the white American Establishment and considerable support among blacks in Louisiana
With regard to the role of the FBI, Hitchens neglected to point out that in the raid at Ruby Ridge, Idaho that led to the stand-off with Randy Weaver, the FBI sniper shot and killed Weaver’s wife Vicki while she was holding her child and did so as a result of a change in FBI policy implemented by Larry A. Potts, currently second-in-command of the organisation. The official explanation by the Director of the FBI, Louis Freeh, is that Potts had failed to read the change in the rules, which had been proposed by agents in the field. But the New York Times has reported that it was Potts himself who authorised the change: ‘Under the bureau’s lethal force rules, agents may use their weapons only if they reasonably perceive an imminent danger of serious bodily harm. But the rules were rewritten during the Ruby Ridge siege to authorise the shooting of any men seen near Mr Weaver’s cabin with weapons in their hands. One agent interviewed by the bureau after the stand-off said the change had been interpreted to mean: “if you see ’em, shoot ’em.” ’ The FBI commander on the scene. Eugene Glenn, who is now special agent in charge of the bureau’s Salt Lake City office, has said that Mr Freeh’s review was a cover-up intended to protect Mr Potts and find lower-level scapegoats, and as the Times further reported, ‘indeed there is evidence that Mr Potts personally approved the change.’ Congressman Stockman has called for an investigation into the cover-up – which, in Hitchens’s book, seems to make him a neo-Nazi. Potts was given a mild reprimand and then promoted by Freeh, who assigned him to head up the Waco raid. It was Potts who urged Attorney General Reno to invade the compound and use lethal force. He was subsequently put in charge of the Oklahoma City investigation and then made Freeh’s deputy.
As for Pat Robertson’s New International Order, there is no mention in that pamphlet of any Jewish financiers. In criticising Nafta and Gatt, the pamphlet says that the only beneficiaries of those free trade agreements would be the international financial community. Hitchens is referring to Hitler’s attack on Jewish bankers and I call on him to give us the ‘line by line’plagiarism from Hitler that he alleges. By listing the Warburgs and the Rothschilds, names found nowhere in Robertson’s pamphlet, Hitchens would lead a reader to believe that Robertson has named these families, which is extremely misleading. When Harold Wilson referred to the gnomes of Zurich, no one in the Labour Party called him a Nazi. Robertson was referring to Citibank and others of this ilk, the business interests that care nothing for employment figures in the United States. Citibank itself has just fired all the union member employees who used to clean the bank’s buildings and replaced them with contractors who employ non-union workers at barely minimum wage standards with no benefits. If an international banking institution makes loans to American Industrialists so they can relocate to Mexico to benefit from the near slave labour one can obtain there, should this be beyond criticism? The products produced in Mexico on these terms are then imported to the United States with no tariff and cause increased American unemployment. This is the stuff that feeds the fires of extremism, as Hitchens should be aware. The fact is that Nafta is a disaster, as Ross Perot pointed out in his debate with Al Gore, in which Gore misstated I the actual economic facts of Mexico’s economic condition. I don’t believe Gore is a liar: he’s just ignorant. But the fact is that Perot was right. As for Gatt, the United States was in no economic shape to enter into such an agreement, which the Japanese are now going to invoke against the Clinton 100 per cent tariff on luxury cars from Japan.
A more serious analysis of the Republican Party and the American economic crisis is in order than the one Hitchens offers. As for the FBI itself, one wonders about its sincerity when it shies away from a serious investigation of right-wing extremists but manages to have the resources to spy on Act-Up, the gay activist anti-Aids group. We should certainly focus on the neo-Nazi threat in America, but we should be vigilant about a government that can promote the likes of Larry Potts.
Bridgehampton, New York
Tony Tanner (LRB, 25 May) writes that Emerson ‘rather enigmatically’ called his wife Lidian ‘Asia’. Emerson is being Herodotean: before the rise of Persia, Lydia was the most important region of Asia to the Greeks.
Marion, North Carolina