If I’d been on Jersey then

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.

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2 Responses to If I’d been on Jersey then

  1. Kate says:

    There’s an interesting recent novel by Allan Massie, Death in Bordeaux, which is set in Occupied France soon after the Germans invade. It asks serious and probing questions in its depiction of a decent policeman, who can solve the crime but has to compromise rather than bring the perpetrator to justice. The moral dilemmas brought about in extreme circumstances like war are treated with sympathy and clarity, I think. And yes, some Germans are attractive characters – also trapped in a situation which entails moral difficulty – and some of the French are not.
    So if more suffering – for the individual, his family and friends, his community – is avoided, is that the necessary trade-off for a failure of justice?
    How does all this relate to the moral absolutism of Christian martyrs, I wonder?

  2. alisonpeden says:

    Yes, how far can you disregard those ‘bonds’ that get under the skin? I suppose that’s why there is such an emphasis in the gospels on leaving family behind. The early Christian martyr Perpetua left a baby she was breastfeeding; Violette Szabo the British Special Ops. Agent (think ‘Carve her name with pride’ with Virginia McKenna), left a daughter who collected her GC posthumously in 1947 aged 4 and a half (and who now lives in Jersey). Were these children proud of their mother’s heroism? or resentful at coming ‘second’ to her ideals?

    There is a poignant moment in A.J. Cronin’s ‘Keys of the Kingdom’, when Fr. Francis, a missionary in China in the early C20th helps to blow up a war-lord’s gun emplacement and its soldiers in order to save his orphanage, children and nuns. He is a pacifist at heart, but commits the act ‘at the cost of his dearest principle’.

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