For some reason this is the season in which the German occupation of the Channel Islands is a topic for discussion. I suppose it was twenty years ago when I first visited the museum of the occupation in Jersey, telling a story much as we have all been told it. A brave uncowed population barely tolerating their boorish occupiers, small acts of sabotage and resistance that never escalated into anything for which a dozen hostages could be put up against a wall. In Jersey our maquis had no train tracks to blow up, so sneaked 'V' patterns into the new town centre paving instead. From crude memory, around a third of the exhibition I saw related to the post-June 1944 finale, when German supplies to the islands were curtailed and there was widespread hunger. For Jersey, the end of the war came when a Red Cross freighter was allowed to dock, with food parcels for the desperate islanders.
That was of course long before Alanbrooke's uncensored diaries became available and as grown-ups we learned our superheroes were just human. Churchill raw, without the editing, revising and veto of his closest subordinates, was close to a dangerous despot. His jealous fury when he declared that Montgomery, newly elevated to Field Marshal, was to be prevented from processing down the Mall to the palace for his baton was pure jejune petulance. The adulation of the public was not to be wasted on a subordinate. He is also recorded as having responded to pleas to allow a Red Cross vessel to sail for the Islands 'Let them starve!'. Of course, it is explained, he was talking about the German garrison. But others are not so sure; Churchill, they say, blamed the islanders for quiescence under occupation; they fought neither on the beaches nor in the hills, they did not set occupied Britain ablaze, but rather won a few extra eggs with forged ration coupons and copulated with the invaders.
We cannot today know the truth of those years or say with any certainty how we ourselves would have responded to occupation. Undoubtedly there were individual acts of defiance of great bravery, and islanders who died neglected and forgotten in Nazi concentration camps. One cannot today make moral judgements on those from the past, one can only compare the incidents in the islands under occupation to those in other places under German invasion. It was largely orderly. Grudgingly co-operative.
The Geneva convention of 1949 made illegal two of perhaps the most unjustly-felt but previously lawful lethal measures taken by combatants during that war. The first was the indiscriminate aerial bombing of civilian towns and cities - the offensive that AM Harris was convinced could win the war. After 1949 Dresden and all the rest would be war crimes. The second was the lawful execution of civilians in reprisal for acts of violence and sabotage towards the invading forces. All those boys and farmers and priests machine-gunned against French walls in reprisal for the the acts of Francs-tireurs were killed quite lawfully; not one German officer ever faced prosecution. In the massacre of the Ardeatine Caves, in which 335 were executed, the German high command ordered ten Italian civilians to be shot for every German soldier killed in a partisan ambush. 33 Germans were killed, so the machine-gunning of 330 Italian hostages was therefore quite legal. The executioner, Erich Priebke, was only prosecuted after the war for the additional five victims he added on his own initiative.
They were different times. Monochrome, not colour. Different laws. But do human characters really ever change that much?