THE Channel Islands’ experience of the Occupation gives additional significance to the annual Holocaust Memorial Day commemoration, according to the director of research at the UK’s largest anti-fascism organisation HOPE Not Hate, Dr Joe Mulhall.
Guest speaker at yesterday’s [Friday] event held at the Occupation Tapestry Gallery, Dr Mulhall said that the first-hand experience of a population living under occupation and their remarkable stories of resistance gave a particular perspective on Nazi persecution.
‘Living in England, discussions around the Holocaust are often very abstract – it’s this thing that happened on the Continent. It’s brilliant how central it is to the national calendar in terms of the main event – most of the major politicians will be there and the Royal Family will be there – but for people in schools or colleagues it’s still often something that didn’t happen on British soil. The Channel Islands are a really important challenge to that.
‘It continues to be this massively forgotten element in England and the UK – it’s not talked about. I’m not sure whether that’s because it’s deemed uncomfortable. [The Channel Islands] are a reminder that these things can happen anywhere. The Holocaust – persecution and genocide – are done by hundreds of thousands of people. It was not done by a small group of Nazis; it was done by tens or hundreds of thousands of people across the Continent. Every country has the ability, when things go wrong, to engage in that kind of behaviour,’ Dr Mulhall said.
An author and journalist, in addition to his research with the advocacy group HOPE Not Hate, Dr Mulhall also spent a period as a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway College in London. On what is his first trip to Jersey this week – when he took the opportunity to visit a number of the Island’s German military fortifications – Dr Mulhall stressed that he had no expertise in the history of the Occupation.
But he said it was important to recognise, when looking at the situation across Europe, that acts of defiance should be understood as part of a fuller picture of resistance.
‘I have no experience of living under Nazi occupation, and most of us don’t, so it’s often easy to say you would have behaved differently. Actually, if you look at levels of physical resistance across the Continent in western Europe, they were tiny in most cases. Most people simply wanted to live – they just wanted to get on with their lives and survive. The people that did stand up – and often it’s tiny percentages – we should absolutely recognise because they were remarkable people to make those decisions and put their lives on the line. But we shouldn’t buy into these national myths of resistance because the numbers were quite small.
‘One of the good things, the further that we have moved from the Holocaust and the war, is [developing] a more nuanced understanding of how we should define resistance. People would talk about the Warsaw uprising and the ghetto, or the French resistance and those sorts of direct action, but it can often be much smaller things. Sometimes in the most horrific circumstances, trying to find a way to continue to live and be yourself and have a family – to continue to love, and to listen to music and read books and poetry – that is an act of resistance. It’s not picking up a gun necessarily,’ he said.