Friday, May 18, 2018

Hitler’s England (British and American Public Television, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2018 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Last night at 10 p.m. I watched a fascinating British documentary from their History series, “Hitler’s England,” about the German occupation of the British Channel Islands, a small archipelago about 14 miles from the British coast across the English Channel (and therefore actually closer, geographically, to France than Britain, which may explain why a lot of the Channel Islanders have French-sounding names — including Bob Le Sueur, the principal interviewee). In 1940 the Nazis landed troops on the Channel Islands — Jersey, Guernsey, Sark and Aldoney — which then, as now, had an anomalous status politically: though they were under the direct sovereignty of the British Crown they were not officially part of the United Kingdom. Even someone as stalwart as Winston Churchill realized early on that the Channel Islands were indefensible and allowed the German armies to march in there (or fly in on transport planes small enough for the Jersey and Guernsey airports to accommodate them) and take over. For the first two years, 1940 to 1942, the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands was actually relatively humane — the Germans put a decent and sympathetic general in charge, life on the islands (best known for their farm products and the famous Jersey and Guernsey cattle) went on pretty much as before, and the 18 Jews left on the islands after most of them were evacuated to Britain itself were mostly left alone — but in 1942 Hitler and his crew turned up the screws on the islanders.

One young Jewish woman named Theresa Schmidt suffered the wretched luck of being on Guernsey when the occupation started; she was working as a nanny for a well-to-do British couple and they fled on one of the last boats from the islands back to the official U.K., but Theresa was ineligible because she was Austrian, and since the Nazi Anschluss of 1938 the British had considered Austria legally part of Germany, so poor Theresa was declared an “enemy alien” and marked for deportation. She ended up in Auschwitz and survived about a year there before disappearing from the records, presumably worked to death as a slave laborer and then dumped in one of the infamous ovens. The Nazis’ change of attitude towards the Channel Islanders was fallout from Hitler’s decision in 1941 to invade the Soviet Union and seek Lebensraum (“living space”) for the Germans by expropriating and slaughtering the supposedly genetically inferior Slavs — though it’s not mentioned in this program, Hitler never wanted to be at war with Britain because he regarded the Brits, along with Germans and Scandinavians, as part of his mythical Aryan “master race” — while at the same time he ordered the creation of the Atlantic Wall, a network of mass fortifications stretching across the coast from Denmark to the border between France and Spain. Since there weren’t enough physical resources or willing workers to build the giant forts Hitler had in mind, he impressed Russian prisoners of war into service as slave laborers and shipped them to, among other places, the Channel Islands, where because of their proximity to France he intended to make them one of the bulwarks of his defense against an Allied invasion. It was the arrival of the Russians — near-death, many wearing rags on their feet instead of shoes in a cold English Channel winter, and forced to labor on these insane fortifications through which Hitler, like other dictators before and since, thought he could permanently wall himself off from his enemies — that awoke the Channel Islanders to what the war and the Nazis were really like.

The show, hosted by Midsomer Murders star John Nettles — who’s also an historian who’s written a book about the Channel Islands occupation, Jewels and Jackboots, and who got interested in the history of the Channel Islands because his previous detective series, Bergerac (1981-1991), was set there (and the program showed a still of him from 1991 that made him look quite sexy and hot, far from the rumpled “British Columbo” he appeared as in Midsomer Murders) — interviewed quite a number of survivors from the occupation days, including Molly Bihet (who wrote her own memoir called A Child’s War), Thomas Renfrey (among a number of Channel Islanders who were forcibly taken to Germany and interned there, where they remained for about two years until the Allies won the overall war and liberated them) and Werner and Phyllis Rung — she was a nurse on the island and he was a German medic; they met when he had to treat her for tonsillitis and after the war they re-met in 1947 and eventually married (and they’re both still alive, still together and were jointly interviewed even though he, despite having been married to a British woman for 70 years, still barely knows English and had to be interviewed in German with a voice-over translation). To say this is a little-known chapter in the history of World War II would be an understatement — I’d never heard of it before and even Charles had known that the tiny island of Sark had been occupied but hadn’t known that about the relatively larger Jersey and Guernsey — yet it’s also a fascinating one and shows how it really was a world war, reaching into even the remotest places where people were used to just being left alone!