Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Von Aufsess Occupation Diaries: A Remarkable Testament of the Second World War

By Mark Patton

From 1940 to 1945, the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm were the only British territories occupied by German forces, an occupation that I have explored, in general terms, in an earlier blog-post. As one might expect, for such a recent conflict, there are a great many first-hand accounts of the occupation, written from a wide variety of viewpoints, but one stands out as being of particular interest.



Hans Max von Aufsess was a Franconian aristocrat, assigned to the islands in a quasi-diplomatic role to liaise with the civil authorities. Although he was always subordinate to the most senior German officers in the garrison, he was allowed a relatively free hand in his dealings with the Bailiff of Jersey, Alexander Coutanche, and the senior politicians of the islands.

Von Aufsess claimed, in a preface to the published diary in 1984, to have kept the diary as "a purely personal chronicle of the times, written rather for the relief of confiding to paper thoughts which could not be expressed aloud, than with the interests of the future historian in mind."

German officers in Jersey (Photo: Imperial War Museum, Non-Commercial License).

Although he spent most of the war on the islands, he did not start keeping the diary until July 1944. "The situation in the last ten months of the war," he later explained, was probably without precedent in the annals of military history and international law," and it was these months, specifically, that he was keen to document, a time during which the islands were by-passed by the fighting, and during which both occupiers and occupied, cut off from any supplies, came close to starvation.

The SS Vega, which brought Red Cross supplies to the islands. As combatants, the German garrison were entitled to none of these supplies, but senior officers, including Baron von Aufsess, were entertained on board. Photo: Imperial War Museum (Non-Commercial License, HU25968).

They were times, also, dominated by fear. Von Aufsess had nightmares about the fate of his wife (she was, in fact, arrested by the Gestapo, suspected of lending some form of support to those who attempted to assassinate Hitler). In his darkest moments, he feared even for himself: "Reason and a sense of proportion have become suspect as reactionary. The shadow of the gallows hangs over all of us, especially the nobility."

The allied bombardment of Saint Malo, in northern Brittany, the German garrison's last point of contact with the continent. Von Aufsess recalls the precise moment at which the guns (they could be clearly heard from Jersey) went silent. Photo: US Army (image is in the Public Domain).

"We discuss the delicate question of reprisals against the civilian population for sheltering escaped prisoners," he wrote in August 1944 (the prisoners in question were slave workers, Spanish Republicans and Ukrainians, Poles & Russians captured on the Eastern Front). "I am the only one in favour of restraint." Some islanders were indeed arrested and sent to internment camps for such offences, and not all of them survived the war, but Von Aufsess's policy of restraint seems to have prevailed in most cases.

He describes meals of "stinging nettles, sorrel ... and root vegetables ... with a small supply of beet syrup," but he somehow had Cognac stashed away, and was, as far as was possible, still living the life of an aristocrat, socialising with local families and even exercising horses on the beach: "Then came Froni, the white mare, wild, intractable ... I rode her bareback in my bathing trunks and managed to keep her, if with difficulty, under control."

Everything changed, however, in March 1945. A new Commandant was appointed over the islands, Admiral Friedrich Huffmeier, an ardent Nazi. Von Aufsess was summoned to a meeting, in which the admiral explained to him "his ideas for holding out in the islands for as long as possible," perhaps even after the end of the war. "It had come to his knowledge that I was not a good National Socialist." At one point, the baron, fearing his imminent arrest, actually planned an escape from Jersey with a group of islanders, but abandoned this when someone he trusted reassured him that his fears were groundless.

Von Aufsess seems to have had some plan in his mind to assassinate Huffmeier if he did attempt to hold the islands as some form of Nazi enclave when the war ended. In the end, however, his diplomatic touch may have proved more effective than a pistol. "The admiral, in a feat of silly pique and pride, at first threatened to fire on the English ships when they arrived a few hours ahead of the agreed time ... the admiral surrendered without, as he had threatened, blowing up all the arms and ammunition ... But his intentions came perilously close to being put into effect."

HMS Bulldog, one of the two Royal Navy warships sent to liberate the Channel Islands on 9th May, 1945. Photo: Imperial War Museum, FL1817 (image is in the Public Domain).

Of course, the full truth is unknowable. Despite his protestations that the diaries were purely personal, Von Aufsess is at pains to emphasise his anti-Nazi credentials, and to record each and every act of opposition to Huffmeier and the Nazi regime. By the time he started keeping the diaries, he had certainly concluded that an allied victory was inevitable, and he may, if only subconsciously, have been preparing the grounds for his defence in a trial that was never to come about. For all of this, the diaries are fascinating account of the political and psychological dimensions of an extraordinary moment in history.

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and literature at http://mark-patton.blogspot.co.uk. His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

3 comments:

  1. Fascinating. Who was his wife? Why was she suspected of complicity in the 20th of July Plot? (I presume family connections or was she working for the OKH as so many aristocratic women did?

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  2. I haven't been able to find out much about her, I'm afraid. I have seen a reference to the fact that, following the attempt on Hitler's life, she was overheard to say that it was a pity it had not succeeded. Perhaps that was enough to get her arrested. She was imprisoned, but the guards all ran away as the Red Army approached, leaving her free.

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  3. I recommend seeing the movie "Another Mother's Son" about resisters who ended up in death camps. Very powerful fact based movie. Twenty of the resisters died.

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