Sunday, 13 January 2013

How to Establish a Fact in History

If you read Dr John Lewis book about the German Occupation of Jersey, "A Doctors Occupation", he will tell you the sad story of the diabetics in Jersey. They were placed in a ward of the hospital, so that they could all receive regular medical monitoring of their condition, but the insulin supply was limited. When boxes of new insulin arrived, the insulin inside had been stolen. One by one, they died, and there was nothing the Medical Officer of Health could do to prevent it. Nobody who was diabetic survived the Occupation. In Guernsey, 26 people died as well.

I was talking to a friend the other day, and they were sure this was the case. It has been repeated in a few other books about the Occupation, and has taken on the status of "established fact". After all, who would be more likely to know than a doctor whose practice brought him into regular contact with the hospital? And of course, Dr Lewis presents himself as someone who has the background of the medical story, who was therefore reliable.

But is is false, none the less.

Maurice Green was a youngster, and a diabetic from birth. He did not like the way things were going at the General Hospital, so he decided to discharge himself, and try and manage his condition by diet alone. I knew Maurice; he was a friend of my mothers, and back in the 1980s, I was annoyed that the official record was incorrect.

Then came "The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands Under German Rule, 1940-1945" by Madeline Bunting. This book was slated in the Jersey Evening Post by various people. It is true that the author did appear to have a certain axe to grind with regard to collaboration (a selectivity noted by Paul Sanders), but she also had interviews, reported verbatim, with people who had not collaborated, and as she herself noted "my first objective was to depict accurately the islanders' experience, and to this end I spent many hours listening to islanders and researching in island archives". To this end, she provided a new and fresh material about the Occupation, providing these interviews, and telling the tales of people who had hitherto not featured in the official accounts, and here at last, Maurice Green's story is told for the first time.

I was a diabetic on insulin from early at birth. Everyone here thought the war would soon be over in six to twelve months. I had just over one year's supply of insulin so no worries. Up until D day we survived on insulin imported by the Jersey States Department of Health. Soon after that day insulin was a golden life saver. Diabetics were put into hospital. Not liking laying in bed night and day I walked out, again and again and finally again.

The final time Centenier Garden took me back and after a few days I walked out again. Everyone told me I was mad. Well, mad or not I was the only diabetic to survive in the Channel Islands, eating birds' eggs, found in the local hedgerows, stinging nettle soup, baynard, dandelions, groundsel, and one or two other weeds and herbs. Life was hard, there was no insulin at all.

Maurice Green survived through the kindness of a German soldier, who had obtained insulin for a member of his family back home in Germany, an account narrated in Bunting, and also in the post-interviews held at the Imperial War Museum (2). But they perished in the bombing raids on Germany, and rather than sell it, the soldier thought the best legacy would be to give it to another diabetic, so he gave it as a gift to Maurice Green, and that , sheer determination, and a strict dietary regime of his own making, kept him alive for long enough for the second trip of the Vega which did contain insulin.

Later we were informed the Red Cross ship 'Vega' would be arriving with Canadian Red Cross food parcels and medicines. The 'Vega' arrived and my doctor, who had a pony and trap, took me to the docks. I was not allowed to go past the German guard. My doc came back to tell me that there was no insulin amongst the medical supplies on board. He was very angry they had not been informed that it was essential, so I disappointedly went home to more grass and dandelions.

The second visit of the 'Vega' things were quite different. My doctor took me down to the ship again and he went off to speak with the Captain to see what the cargo medical supplies were. He came back to inform me that there was insulin on board. He even asked if, because I was the only diabetic alive in the Channel Islands, I could go on board. He got permission but the German guard refused me. I told him my friend was on board whom I had not seen for years and he patted me on the shoulder and told me all right. However, I was only allowed to stay on the rear deck of the ship. I was glad I'd learnt some German before the war as a young child.

The story of Maurice Green is a reminder of how difficult it is to replace a dominant narrative. Even today, the widespread view (which my friend believed) was that no diabetics survived the Occupation. The medical records of the Occupation relate the death of those there; Dr Lewis book tells how those were all the diabetics in Jersey. Because Madeline Bunting's book received a bad press, it was probably not as widely read as it should have been, and cursorily dismissed without regard to the many interviews she conducted and provided verbatim transcripts of. And so the dominant narrative remains, even though it is false.

What is required is an ability to look at all the sources, not just those which confirm a particular narrative telling of events, but more importantly, those which contradict that. The history of recent times has thrown up contested narratives on events, and it will be even more important to look at all of those critically, and to always be suspicious of whichever one becomes dominant, especially if they ignore inconvenient truths.

There can be little doubt that Dr Lewis did not indent to falsify the historical picture, but his knowledge was incomplete, and he was sufficiently sure of his expert knowledge of conditions, as a doctor, that he missed the case of Maurice Green. That was an accidental oversight, which has now been rectified, but it is likely that the more contested narratives of our times may well see more dubious oversights, where wilful blindness to evidence that does not fit an established picture will prevent more accurate history being told.

Links
(1) http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/ww2peopleswar/stories/10/a4148110.shtml
(2) http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80010493

3 comments:

James said...

The fact is that the concept of Public Record, while it has been established in law, has not yet become part of Jersey's culture. Until that begins to change, expect unverified assertions (I will not grace them with the term myth)to flourish.

Helen Gazeley said...

I'm sure lots of people do think that all the diabetics died in Jersey, but I'm afraid you do Dr John Lewis an injustice. I'm currently reading "A Doctor's Occupation" (pub. New English Library, 1983)and on page 134 he writes, "One after another the patients sank into coma and died, until finally the ward was quite empty. One patient who had discharged himself early on, inexplicably survived and is still living."

Helen Gazeley said...

You do Dr John Lewis a disservice. He does mention in his book that one diabetic survived on Jersey during the war. I've already commented to this effect and note that the comment hasn't been posted. I hope that's down to an oversight. It would be a shame to impugn Dr Lewis's accuracy when his is such an excellent book.