Don't mention the war: Smug mainlanders are too quick to judge Channel Islanders, argues Stephen Ward

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The Independent Online
A SWASTIKA on the front of a book is reputed to stimulate sales in Britain almost as much as a picture of a naked woman. The appeal of the flesh is voyeuristic; the swastika strikes a comforting moral chord as well. The combination of voyeurism and perceived moral superiority may help to explain Britain's enduring fascination with the Channel Islands under German occupation.

This week's opening to the public of the Guernsey wartime archive adds little to the sum of knowledge on the subject. It has already been seen and quoted by historians. The details of how the island's government helped the Germans to round up a small number of Jews on the island, almost certainly fewer than 10, three of whom probably died, are perhaps as important for what they show about the mainland's capacity for moral indignation as for any light they shed on what happened there in the Forties.

Britain, on the whole, can be judged to have behaved well during the war. We occupied the world's moral high ground in a way we have rarely done since. We fought the Nazis and won, at terrible cost. Even today Britons can look at Germans behaving in a beastly way to immigrants, conveniently forget any racist feelings they may themselves harbour, and remember smugly how many Germans voted for Hitler and let him get on with killing Jews with hardly a murmur.

So when Britons examine how Jersey, Guernsey and Sark behaved under the Germans, we start with a preconceived framework. We want the islanders to have been gallant and upstanding, as we believe the British on the mainland would have been if invaded. When it turns out the islanders were less than perfect, we want scapegoats.

The Channel Islands - British, but just off the French coast - were occupied, unopposed, in June 1940. Anyone who wanted to leave in advance was taken off by destroyer, and the islands' governments were told by the British not to make trouble. From then until the end of the war there was relatively peaceful coexistence, almost no sabotage, few reprisals, and a relatively benign German presence. There were women who associated with the Germans, and farmers and other black marketeers who did well out of the war.

Islanders will tell you they pushed opposition as far as they could. Pushed further, the Germans would have imposed direct rule. But that collaboration involved embarrassing compromises - compiling lists of Jews, or warning of a death penalty for anyone writing 'V for Victory' signs on walls. At the war's end, no one was punished for collaboration.

How can this be? successive historians and journalists ask. Surely Britain should have done something more honourable. But in 1945 Britain had no money, shortages of everything, troops to pay, a social revolution and, in the British zone of Germany, enough German war criminals with far worse records than anyone on the Channel Islands to fill every court for years to come.

The islanders have not helped by presenting their wartime selves as undiluted heroes. On Jersey there is a showpiece underground museum. Visitors are met with a video of Jack Higgins talking about the occupation. His only qualification is that he wrote a thriller about Germans invading Britain and retired to the island on the proceeds.

To islanders who remember, the war was a time of adversity and courage. One Jersey woman, now in her sixties, explained to me that families did nothing to help the Germans; where they collaborated, it was to help themselves. That is a difficult moral distinction to make, but a better record than many countries can boast.

It is easy to make a high- minded judgement that everybody should have been prepared to suffer and die. Sadly, life is not made up of moral absolutes. Some behaved bravely, some appallingly. Most islanders remember which of the survivors behaved how and do not want mainlanders coming to lecture them on moral values.

It is certainly shocking to read that British statesmen helped to round up Jews for Hitler and that their descendants would rather not talk about it. You cannot begin to defend it, but you can say that millions since have not had to make moral choices of that order, and that mainlanders never faced the same dilemma. If it gives you a comfortable glow of moral superiority to read about the collaborators of the Channel Islands, it should not.