I visited the Jersey War Tunnels today – part of a massive attempt by the German army to make the island into a fortress, and one which involved excavating about 14,000 tons of rock. It was Russian slaves that mostly did it, with some other European forced labour. Their voices seem to echo in the dark chill of the seemingly endless tunnels. The tunnels were for munitions, and then a casualty receiving station, but now they are a centre to teach, remind and challenge later generations.
And they do, because imagining what it was like to be in occupied territory poses all sorts of questions. Should you take the last boat out (as my grandfather did from Sark, where he was a landscape painter)? But then, England was being bombed and would probably be invaded too. Out of the frying pan, into the fire, perhaps.
The next choice, if you stayed, was how to relate to the occupying forces. In the exhibition, there were complete uniforms with a strategically-placed screens where the head should be. On each screen, young German-speaking man looked you in the eye and said hallo, or asked if your child would like an ice cream, or enquired if you get get him help with his laundry. Ordinary blokes. What do you say? Or do you say anything? How are you going to get through years of this?
And finally, the bigger, political choices. Not just collaboration or resistance, for the islanders, but the choices faced by the British government. That meant the decision not to defend the island, and not to send supplies when everyone began to starve, since it might enable the German garrison to stay. Eventually the Red Cross were allowed to send food parcels to the islanders, who became better-off than the soldiers.
I don’t know how I would have reacted – and the display challenged you not to assume that you would have been heroic. I certainly did not feel inclined to judge those who kept their heads down.