‘It’s the last major unresolved chapter of the Occupation’

The Guernsey Police trial of 1942 has made headlines in recent months due to an unsuccessful attempt to exonerate those convicted almost 80 years ago. Here, University of Cambridge academic Gill Carr, who has won awards for her work on the Occupation, speaks to the experts involved in getting the case looked at again. She writes...

IN THIS article I interview my two colleagues who have been working on the Guernsey Police case of 1942: Patrick O’Connor QC of Doughty Street Chambers, a London barrister who has been leading the case, and Dr Paul Sanders, a historian and associate professor whose research interests include the German Occupation of the Channel Islands.

In 2014 we wrote Protest, Defiance And Resistance In The Channel Islands: German Occupation 1940-1945. This book was the first ever comprehensive analysis of the subject since the Occupation. It was also the first step for Paul in uncovering new information about the case.

GC: Paul, I think that many readers know that I am from a Guernsey family and that this probably influenced my research interests as an academic. But why did you decide to get involved in this reinvestigation of the police case?

PS: I first specialised in the Nazi period almost 30 years ago. My first book, published in 1998, was a commission from Jersey Heritage Trust. It dealt with islanders who were sent to prisons and concentration camps, and who did not return. I was aware that people from Guernsey had suffered similar fates. That’s when I got interested in the Guernsey policemen. For me, the rehabilitation of these policemen is the last major unresolved chapter of the Channel Islands Occupation.

Gill Carr (29110815)

GC: Can you clarify for readers what new material you discovered when researching this topic for Protest, Defiance And Resistance?

PS: The work I have done on this case takes its cues from the local historian Bill Bell. In 1995 he published a book on policing in wartime Guernsey, which will be familiar to many readers. While Bell did not explicitly express what he thought about the 1942 trials against the police officers, the attentive student who can read between the lines can work out where he stood. Bell died some years ago and I was fortunate enough to have been able to consult the files he left to the Guernsey Archives. Other material came from the Frank Falla Archive, the National Archives and the private papers of Frank Tuck. In the course of my research I also made contact with Eric Goldrein, one of the lawyers who prepared the 1950s Privy Council case.

GC: Patrick, why did you agree to take on this case? What was your personal motivation?

PO: This case involved a blatant ‘show trial’ orchestrated by the Occupying German military. It was a fascinating challenge to uncover the manipulations by which this was achieved. Manufactured ‘confessions’ are the most familiar feature of such trials.

GC: I understand that you agreed to work pro bono, i.e. without pay, regardless of the outcome of this case. Why?

PO: My mother was brought up in East Prussia under the Third Reich. Her father was a local government official and a committed Nazi. This legacy has been a major motivation for my career as a human rights lawyer. I could not morally turn down the opportunity to try to right just one of the innumerable wrongs of the Third Reich.

Patrick O'Connor QC (29110795)

GC: For those of us who are not lawyers, can you explain what you hoped to achieve by taking this case to the courts once again?

PO: I think it is important for the courts themselves to vindicate the ‘rule of law’ and remedy a major injustice which was created by abusing the processes of the Royal Court and the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. The latter had the power to reopen the case and quash these convictions. Needless to say it was a fascinating challenge to try to overcome the procedural obstacles after the passage of nearly 80 years.

GC: What did the courts decide this time?

PO: Those procedural obstacles sadly proved insurmountable. Permission to appeal was refused in a single written sentence and without a hearing. This was disappointing, and unduly restrictive of the committee’s powers, but does not cast doubt upon the many injustices of this case.

GC: Paul, a number of islanders have expressed the opinion that you cannot study or analyse a historical period unless you lived through it and unless you are from that part of the world. Can you explain to readers whether you agree and why?

PS: That is obviously patently wrong. If it were true, then nobody would be able to do any Egyptian, ancient Greek, Roman, Medieval or even Victorian history! In fact, a historian would argue exactly the opposite, the further you move away – and this is particularly relevant to more controversial events or periods – the better your vision gets. The passing of time (and passions) affords the chance to develop a more detached, dispassionate and, ultimately, objective perspective. And in any case, the very definition of historical research is that it should conform to the principle of ‘sine ira et cum studio’ (without anger and bias).

GC: Do you think that we, as historians, can assess the people of the past if we have not been in their position?

PS: Events in the 1940s can be assessed on the basis of the standards that already held currency in the civilised part of the world in the 1940s (which, by the way, are not that different from the moral standards we have today, at least in the West). The aim of historians is to shed light, understand and – if possible – explain.

Dr Paul Sanders (29110805)

GC: Why do you think that there are still some people in Guernsey who believe that the policemen should not be exonerated?

PS: For two reasons: as early as 1942 an official narrative emerged – ‘the policemen as evil-doers who stole from the people of Guernsey and who deserved their punishment’. Once solidified, a storyline like that – something that everybody believes to be true – is difficult to overturn. It can continue to do its rounds for a very long time; in this case it’s been decades. Then there is the natural tendency to shy away from confronting past pain – it’s the mirror of the wartime belief of ‘not rocking the boat’.

GC: It sounds like some people still believe the German version of events. Patrick, what do you hope can be achieved now for the Guernsey police?

PO: In terms of the now deceased victims and their long-suffering families, these convictions must be wiped from the record. They are a blight upon the reputation of the Guernsey system of justice.

More widely, too often, fear of moral judgment serves to obstruct recognition of historical fact.

These are in fact quite separate processes, and establishing what happened, even if it proves uncomfortable, is a mark of a mature society, facing up to its history.

Any subsequent moral judgment, for instance about degrees of ‘collaboration’, must of course be nuanced and allow for the pressures and dilemmas of a brutal military Occupation.

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