No sooner had the war ended, and the Channel Islands been liberated,than questions started to be asked about how the residents, and particularly their governments, had behaved towards their occupiers over the previous five years. Had they put up sufficient resistance to the German demands or had they collaborated with the occupying forces?
What if Germany had invaded Britain?
The debate has continued over more than 60 years, but in many cases the argument has not been focussed on the islands themselves, but the experience there has been used to try to predict what would have happened if Hitler had invaded Britain. Would the British have stood up to such an invasion any better or worse than those countries in Continental Europe which had been overrun by the Nazis?
It is a futile argument, because not only are the Channel Islands tiny communities in comparison with any of their European neighbours, which were occupied, but they were not conquered in battle, they were given up as not worth defending by the British Government.
Nevertheless, historians who themselves have no experience of living in occupied territory, have deemed it worth examining, and re-examining, the behavious of islanders during their Occupation. The facts are clear - officials and members of the Jersey and Guernsey States have made no secret of when and how they co-operated with the German forces; it is a question of interpreting whether their behavious was correct and appropriate.
It is beyond the scope of Jerripedia to examine this question in detail, although anyone with a strong knowledge or personal experience of what happened in Jersey between 1940 and 1945 is invited to contribute their opinions by creating an article linked from this page.
60th anniversary book
The question of collaboration was examined in detail in a book commissioned in Jersey to mark the 60th anniversary of the Liberation in 2005. The British Channel Islands under German Occupation 1940-1945 was written by Dr Paul Sanders, already an author of books on the Occupation, and although the book was commissioned and sponsored within the island, it has been accepted as an objective work which does not always make for comfortable reading by those who insist that islanders' behaviour in the war was entirely correct.
Sanders examines the approach of the Bailiff, Alexander Coutanche, who led the island government through the Occupation assisted by a Superior Council of eight members of the States of Jersey. Their avowed intention was to act as a buffer between the island population and the occupying forces in an attempt to ensure that life in Jersey could continue as happily and efficiently as possible and to avoid any of the excesses of occupation which were seen elsewhere.
- "Was the situation of the islands such that the term 'collaboration' loses its meaning and relevance?"
- "In the Channel Islands there is still considerable reluctance to accept 'collaboration' as a concept applicable to their own wartime experience.
- "Reacting to the new situation was already a genuine challenge for many national administrations; in the case of the Channel Islands the word 'challenge' would be a gross understatement. One could not realistically expect small island administrations reliant on honorary governments to be able always to anticipate the future impact of measures and avoid the entrapments of an occupying power of the sophistication of Germany."
A matter of 'them' or 'us'
The writer's conclusion is that although Jersey's administrators had little choice but to accept the demands of the Germans, whose military might meant that they had total control over what happened in the island, they were prone to go too far assist in the implementation of some of the more severe restrictions and demands. He questions whether decisions which went against individuals, ostensibly for the good of the community at large, were actually more a matter of 'them and us'. Were police and other officials who denounced islanders to the German authorities doing so to protect the rest of the community or their own individual interests?
The controversy centres on officialdom's reaction to the Order for the Protection of the Occupying Authorities, passed by the Germans on 18 December 1942. This required the Attorney-General, police and other officials to inform the Germans of all information which came to their attention suggesting infractions of German orders.
Individual islanders were far from blameless in this respect. Hundreds of complaints were made to the Germans by islanders about their neighbours and others, sometimes for the pettiest of reasons, sometimes in an attempt to settle old scores. Information frequently came into the possession of the island authorities. Should they disclose it immediately to the Germans? Should they 'sit on' the information and run the risk of the Germans ultimately finding out that they had been deceived?
The dilemma is encapsulated in what became known as the St Saviour wireless case, which involved a Centenier from the parish discovering in the course of investigating a robbery that a parishioner was in possession of three illicit radios, two of them the property of another man. Should this man be denounced to the Germans, as their Order required? The Centenier sought advice from the Attorney-General, who refused to telle him what to do, and eventually, after debating the issue with his colleagues, the Centenier exposed the matter and the owner of the radio was sent to prison in Germany where he died before the end of the war.
Sanders questions whether the official policy of co-operating with the Germans to prevent their taking control of the island's police was correct, and is very critical of their actions:
- "It is doubtful whether this 'sacred cow' was a goal worth the deliberate sacrifice of individuals. In fact, the slavish adherence to the principle of preventing a German take-over of the whole or parts of the island administrations was one of the main weaknesses of the island governments. The Germans exploited this fear, suggesting that in any event it was better for the local governments to be involved in measures in order to mitigate their impact.
- "What is more likely to have happened in the event of a German discovery that the island authorities had not notified them of the case is that [the Centenier] and his colleagues would have stood trial, and that ... ... they would have been deported to prison in Germany. Ultimately, this was a question of 'us' or 'them'.
- "Not only did the authorities not live up to their reputation of 'buffer' but they also failed adequately to assess and foresee the consequences of their action."
On another occasion in July 1943 the Attorney-General Walter Duret Aubin, was requested by the German Secret Field Police to hand over all anonymous letters received at his office in the preceding year. Sanders writes:
- "What is remarkable in this case is the Attorney-General's rather unquestioning attitude as to the moral implications of transferring denunciation letters to people who might actually make use of them to track down innocent islanders. We do not know whether the letters finally handed over contained any sensitive information or whether Duret Aubin even handed over the complete set of letters he had received. And this seems to be beside the point, for what Duret Aubin never once questioned was whether it was legitimate and appropriate for the island authorities to hand over potentially damaging materials. Due to the failure to take a principled stand, the Germans had created another precedent, namely that letters of denunciation were to be routinely transferred to themselves."
The staff of the Post Office took an entirely different approach to this matter. They identified many hundreds of letters of denunciation addressed to the German authorities and ensured that they never reached their destinations and were destroyed.
Sanders notes that the approach of the insular authorities may have been designed to improve the lot of the civilian population as a whole.
- "How much bargaining tactics and tactical collaboration occurred is impossible to say with any degree of certainty. If trade-offs there were, they were often, but not exclusively, tied to concrete measures destined to improlve the lot of the civilian population. But bargaining tactics also explain the strange and unsettling proactivity of the island governments on some dossiers, and their resistance on others. Beneficiaries of this arrangement were 'in-grouls' such as British army personnel, Freemasons or the established island Jews who were evacuated in 1940; 'out-groups' such as the Jews who stayed behind, foreigners on the run, escaped slave labourers and deviants from the established path had to 'foot the bill'.
- "The adoption of bargaining tactics led to what one German witness described as the constant 'wangling' of the administration, 'with itsmembers looking round to see what they could get'.
Apart from the occasion when, as he recounts in his memoirs, Alexander Coutanche used his influence with the German heirarchy for his own personal benefit, persuading them that a defensive trench should not be dug across his front lawn but in nearby rough ground, he preferred to keep out of day-to-day contact with the Germans and only get personally involved in disputes when a final appeal was necessary. He described this as a 'restraint and influence' policy. In a post-war memo he wrote:
- "I almost invariably found it better to hold myself in readiness to make a final appeal to the Germans for mercy when all other means had failed. Constant intervention by me at an early stage would, it always appeared to me, have weakened my ultimate influence for good."
Sanders is largely supportive of Coutanche, and believes that he and his senior colleagues ran the Jersey administration more effectively than his counterparts in Guernsey. He writes:
- "It is one of the open secrets of the Occupation that Guernsey travelled somewhat further down the slope of collaboration than did her sister Island. British wartime investigators were to describe the Guernsey authorities as having taken ingratiation tactics with the Germans to greater heights than did their Jersey counterparts".
But he is highly critical of some in the Jersey administration, particularly the Jurats' involvement in judicial work. He quotes diarist Edward Le Quesne as identifying that this led to sentences of undue severity.
- "Le Quesne described one such gaffe, more in line with the Salem witch-hunt than a proper trial, in his diary entry of 24 November 1942. That day a Jerseyman accused of falsification of a Relief card was standing trial in the Police Court. In total disregard of procedural law, the 'judge' devoted his time to a condemnation of the man's private life, sending him straight back to prison, without taking any evidence from the witnesses."
The strongest criticsm is reserved for Aliens Officer Clifford Orange:
- "It is a well-established fact that Orange exceeded what the Germans demanded of him. This is plainly clear in the fact that some of the people he registered as Jews need not have been registered at all - even under the terms of the German race laws. It is unclear whether his attitude was simply unthinking, unprofessional or downright racist, but its consequence was that people were subjected to discrimination and suffering that they could have been spared. Orange's culture of blind obedience over humanitarianism also came to the fore when he found out that some of his staff had been providing foreigners in the islands with fake documents. Orange declared that he would not tolerate such activity behind his back and put an immediate stop to it. Orange was one of the few officials who relished his task. As for other officials, they seem to have been driven by an appalling lack of imagination rather than zeal. The failure of the top islands' administrators to either emit the right signals to their subordinates or to call to task and restrain bureaucratic zealots must be regarded as one of their greatest failures."
Sanders' goes much further than many earlier authors of Occupation books, and certainly those which might be described as 'official histories', in criticism the role of the island authorities from 1940 to 1945.
His book can be downloaded in full from the Occupation Memorial website.