Beyond the newsreel's monochrome morality

For Channel Islanders, the memory of the Second World War was never bla ck and white
Click to follow
The Independent Online
My mother still has a Red Cross message sent in February 1942 by my grandmother, a Frenchwoman married to a Jerseyman, to her sister, who was a WAAF on the mainland. A rationed 25 words routed through Geneva were the first news since June 1940. Al l well, another baby, love sent - the mundane details of life under German occupation.

Relatively few British people fought in the Second World War. Yet part of the British Isles was under German rule for six years - an embarrassing footnote to British history. In a week when wecontemplate the horror of Auschwitz, in a year when we celebrate heroism and victory over evil, the story of war must not be told only in Pathe newsreel narrative. The clear moral issues blend away in many people's experience of war into misunderstandings, muddle and mess.

For any occupied country, the history of war is complex. In her compassionate and thorough study of the Channel Islands under German rule, Madeleine Bunting encountered hostility and aggression. It is hardly surprising: within a small community - indigenous islanders that is, not the Bergerac-set tax exiles who have moved there in recent decades - such history is difficult and confusing. The Channel Islands had no chance of struggle, let alone victory, against the enemy. The British government had effectively abandoned them. When invasion was imminent, Churchill ordered the evacuation of British troops and even of food, lest it fall into enemy hands. Hunger is the dominant recollection.

The islanders faced the soldiers as Germans rather than Nazis. There were choices to be made: among the most poignant, the identification of the handful of Jews by the island authorities. But for most it was a question of petty acts of rebellion or acceptance. My mother ripped parts from German bicycles as much out of devilment as sabotage. My grandfather refused to work for the Germans and was repeatedly taken in for questioning. One night, in September 1942, the family was bundled on to a ship for deportation. They were taken off again; the ship was overloaded and taking water. Then the deportations stopped.

Those stories accord with the orthodoxy of the islands' resistance, "Jersey Under the Jackboot", enshrined in scores of tourist attractions on the island. But what if my family had fraternised with Germans? Many girls of little more than my mother's age did. She's grateful that, at 10, she escaped the notice of the young German soldiers.

There were love affairs, even marriages, when humanity leapfrogged the morality of war. But these stories still stir up shame and contempt. The tags of betrayal carry particular venom. My mother recalls being excited by the news that a "Jerrybag" was to be tarred and feathered by a vengeful mob.When she tried to watch, my grandfather walloped her for the assumption that scapegoats must be found.

From this side of the Channel, the war is indeed etched in black and white. An enemy that drops bombs has no face and can be loathed without qualification. An enemy that is kind to children in the street, respectful of surroundings, that metes out unpleasantness in "more in sorrow than in anger" provides a real test of morality.

Much has been made of the lack of formal resistance on the islands. But in a society built on civil obedience, dissidence is no indicator of sanity. Dissidents are not often likeable people. Why should they be? They are not necessarily rational and they may not even be good. The rational response to oppression is acceptance. Quiet subversion may be possible; outright defiance is foolhardy, and may be cruel to those around you. Humanity and defiance do not always march together; what is admirable is not always kind.

For most people, morality is not described in the grand gesture but in thousands of grey, unimportant decisions. With a smile, a gesture, a gaze averted or courtesy returned, the choice is made. For all the talk of this proud, indomitable island race, these were not choices that people in mainland Britain had to make. Life might not have been easy, but it was simple.

The British distrust Europeans for their pragmatism; it runs through the debate on European union. Criticism of France and Italy's reaction to invading armies fails to acknowledge that in the pursuit of daily life under occupation, there may not be an obvious right and wrong. When my mother and her family returned from the boat to their house, neighbours had removed everything of use. When the news got around that the family had not, after all, been deported, the neighbours slowly brought the possessions back.

At every level pragmatism tempers idealism. The island authorities may have allowed Jews to be deported in 1942. But in the same year, according to a recent claim by the convenor of the board of deputies of British Jews, a thousand Jewish orphans were denied sanctuary by the British government, when civil servants doubted that their parents were indeed dead. The children were later sent to Auschwitz.

Fifty years ago, that symbol of collaboration Marshal Petain was sentenced to death for his leadership of the Vichy regime and "intelligence with the enemy". The sentence was commuted almost instantly by General de Gaulle to imprisonment. The Times of 16August 1945 reported: "The death sentence followed by reprieve is without doubt the outcome of the trial that would divide Frenchmen least."

Ironically, the next column carries a report of General Eisenhower's visit to Moscow: "On Sunday afternoon he stood beside Marshal Stalin on the roof of the Lenin mausoleum - the first foreigner to be honoured in this way - to watch youths from every corner of the Soviet Union in a great sports demonstration." That, of course, was nothing other than good manners to an ally who had faced a common evil.

The celebrations of the victory in 1945 should not be reduced to the black and white caricatures of a wartime cartoon by Low. What happened in the Channel Islands might easily have happened here. It is right, if uncomfortable, to remember the half-tones of real lives.

The writer is a freelance writer and broadcaster, and presenter of `The Money Programme'.