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The Changing Face of the Channel Islands Occupation

Review by: Shannon Nagy University of Texas at Austin

The Changing Face of the Channel Islands Occupation: Record, Memory and Myth, Hazel R. Knowles Smith (Houndmills Basingstoke Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 312 pages

The Changing Face of the Channel Islands Occupation: Record, Memory and Myth re-examines past scholarship on the Channel Islands Occupation with a renewed sense of dedication to reclaiming pride in the Islands’ marred and guilt-ridden past. Touching briefly on the ways in which memory impacts historical research and functions collectively in a community and amongst individuals, Hazel R. Knowles Smith attempts to recapture the Channel Islands occupation’s atmosphere by predominantly relying on survivors’ published and unpublished accounts, diaries, letters and memoirs. The Changing Face… is yet another example of how memory and myth contribute to one’s present-day perceptions of the past and how it is left up to the historian to reconcile recollection with fact. Adding to the already vast scholarship on the Islands’ occupation, Knowles Smith challenges her historiographical predecessors by claiming to present a more accurate and less sensational picture of the wartime occupation while simultaneously restoring the Islands’ historical pride and reputation.

Her chapters are short yet numerous providing the reader a succinct and comprehensive account of Island occupied life from various facets. Knowles Smith constructs her argument by dividing the book into five main parts that chronologically address the historical facts of the occupation, the perspectives and motivations of the individuals involved in Island government and politics, island inhabitants’ personal accounts and experiences, the lives of forced workers and finally, Island life after liberation. She places particular importance on addressing and refuting topics of past exploitation such as the degree in which Islanders resisted, cavorted, and collaborated with their German occupiers, the relationship between the Islands and Britain, tales of starvation and the treatment of the Islands’ Jews. As in any study that relies predominantly on first-hand accounts, one wonders how typical these experiences were throughout Island society’s echelons. There is no doubt that Knowles Smith paints a distinct picture that encapsulates the Islanders’ harrowing experiences but one wishes that she supported the evidence found in the first-hand accounts with hard data. Furthermore, the book is peppered with haphazardly placed photographs which seem insufficiently captioned and appear largely irrelevant to Knowles Smith’s study.

Knowles wishes to present the “true story of the Islands occupation” in order for her readers to make their own conclusions based on the evidence that she presents. However, her own analysis is lost in her presentation of excessive and, at times, overbearing quotations. Furthermore, Knowles Smith’s lofty claims of offering an account of the Occupation stripped of embellishment and sensationalism result in a conclusion that proves both disappointing and lacking. In the end, she argues that the Islanders should reclaim their history proudly and without guilt rather than perpetuating the idea of a past wrought with shame. However, despite its shortcomings, Knowles Smith’s work will indeed open up new fields of inquiry on the subject of the Channel Islands Occupation. Overall, The Changing Face of the Channel Islands Occupation illuminates the controversies and scandals surrounding the Islands’ occupation and synthesizes personal accounts making this work a useful, unconventional source for use by other scholars.

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