Blogs > Liberty and Power > What Would the British Have Done under Nazi Occupation?

Apr 25, 2006 3:24 pm

What Would the British Have Done under Nazi Occupation?

Max Hastings has written a thoughtful essay in which he speculates on what the British would have done if the Nazis had occupied Britain. Irène Némirovsky's Suite Française (Chatto and Windus, 2006; Knopf, 2006), a portrait of wartime France, has become a bestseller more than 60 years after its Jewish author perished in Auschwitz, and this has prompted renewed debate about societies' conduct under occupation. Hastings suggests that the book is an antidote to British complacency about collaboration and the British would have behaved pretty much as the French did.

He quotes the late Anthony Eden, British foreign secretary during the Second World War, who said that "It would be impertinent for any country that has never suffered occupation to pass judgment on one that did."

Hastings asserts that "It is extraordinarily difficult to resist tyranny ruthlessly enforced, especially in a densely populated country with little wilderness." He concludes that "Humility of the kind displayed by Eden is the only sensible course in judging another nation's behaviour under circumstances that we have been spared. Némirovsky's great novel paints a portrait of a society that did not conduct itself with conspicuous courage or honour. I am doubtful, however, that we would have done much better."

Read the article and consider the case of the Channel Islands. These were (and remain) British possessions off the coast of Normandy, which the Germans occupied for most of the war. See, e.g., Madeleine Bunting's The Model Occupation: The Channel Islands under German Rule, 1940-1945 (HarperCollins, 1995; Pimlico, 2004).

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David T. Beito - 4/26/2006

I should have figured that out from the title, Duh. The Lewis book (not his best), was "It Can't Happen Here."

Jason T. Kuznicki - 4/26/2006

I recall reading that Churchill was prepared to use poison gas -- a weapon he loathed -- if the Germans ever set foot on the British mainland.

Jesse Walker - 4/25/2006

No, it was an original story set in a Nazi-occupied Britain.

David T. Beito - 4/25/2006

Was that based on Sinclair Lewis's book?

Jesse Walker - 4/25/2006

The alternate-history film It Happened Here, which I recommend highly, takes a similar view.