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Sep 2014 Journal

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Pickled history

On 9 May, Europe Day, the flag of the European Union is customarily flown on government buildings. This year, however, Eric Pickles, Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, keen to burnish his anti-European credentials, opted instead to raise the flag of Jersey on his ministry, to mark Jersey Day, the 69th anniversary of the liberation of the Channel Islands from German occupation, which lasted from 30 June 1940 to 9 May 1945.
Pickles used the flag-raising to indulge in the kind of celebratory discourse customary on such occasions. This presents the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands as a period during which the majority of the islanders remained staunchly opposed to the occupying forces, withstanding the blandishments of the German authorities until they regained their cherished freedoms at the war’s end. The image of the Channel Islanders as nobly enduring the hardships and humiliations of occupation while retaining their loyalty to their ancient liberties and to Britain, their mother country, reflects, however, only part of the story. For it is well known that the civilian administration of the main islands, Jersey and Guernsey, continued uninterrupted under German rule, with the bailiffs of both islands, the most senior officials, remaining in office and carrying out the instructions of the German authorities. That extended to measures taken against the small number of Jews still living on the islands when the Germans arrived.
The history of co-operation between the Channel Islands authorities and the Germans has remained under a veil since 1945, when the British government decided to sweep it under the carpet and undertook no prosecutions for collaboration. Studies like Madeleine Bunting’s The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands under German Rule, 1940-45 (1995) have acquainted scholars with the historical role played by island officialdom, but the popular image of the Channel Islands at war remains that presented in Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows’s bestselling novel The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008), in which the islanders are solidly hostile to the German occupation and those involved in active resistance risk deportation to concentration camps.
Organised resistance on any significant scale was plainly impossible on the Channel Islands, small communities that were easily controlled by an occupation force that numbered one German for every two islanders; under such circumstances an element of co-operation was unavoidable. But where Jews were concerned, the island authorities arguably went well beyond that. The few Jews resident on Guernsey had to register with the authorities, who then supplied the Germans with their names. Most endangered were the handful of Jewish refugees from Nazi-occupied Europe, of whom three were deported, among them Theresia Steiner, born in Vienna in 1916, who had come to the Channel Islands as a domestic servant with a British family and was trapped there; she died in Auschwitz. A play based on her fate, Theresa by Julia Pascal, set in Guernsey and broadcast by the BBC as a radio adaptation in 1996, was not permitted to be performed on the island.
Whereas these Jews were deported, the island authorities protected freemasons, another Nazi bête noire, when the Germans sought to implement measures against them. Presumably, freemasons were recognised as part of the island community, while Jews - and especially ‘alien’ Jews from abroad - were not. The fact that the population of the Channel Islands contained so few Jews is itself significant, as minority groups were probably deterred from settling there by the islanders’ pronounced sense of their own regional identity, fuelled by their exposed position a short distance off the French coast. Even before the war, the Channel Islands were alone among the regions of the United Kingdom in taking no Kindertransportees, an indication that their strong sense of traditional British nationality went hand in hand with an exclusive attitude towards those perceived as non-British.
In France, President Jacques Chirac formally acknowledged the culpability of the French authorities for their part in the deportation of the Jews, in a speech delivered in July 1995 at the Paris bicycle velodrome known as the Vélodrome d’Hiver, where Jews were held following the notorious round-up of 16-17 July 1942. No memorial to the deported Jews like the statue that stands on the site of the Vel d’Hiv exists in the Channel Islands. And as long as celebratory, triumphalist narratives like Eric Pickles’s prevail, very likely none will. ‘We are stronger as a society when we celebrate the ties that bind us together’, he intoned. But he omitted to mention that the ties of national identity that bind a community together can sometimes act as barriers that exclude ‘outsiders’ from that community – even to the extent of delivering them up to those bent on their destruction.

Anthony Grenville

Anthony Grenville

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