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Freemasonry in the occupied Channel Islands during World War II

On British soil

With Freemasonry banned in Germany, Jersey’s Past Provincial Grand Master David Rosser explains what the Nazi occupation of the Channel Islands in World War II meant for local members of the Craft

The story of Jersey’s occupation by the Nazis is unique not only in terms, but in the history of World War II, because it took place on the only part of British territory to be occupied by German forces during that conflict. It would have been impossible to attempt to defend the Channel Islands, in the case of Jersey just twelve miles from the west coast of France, without incurring an unacceptable level of civilian casualties. It was therefore announced that, as the Islands might be occupied, those who wished to leave would be evacuated. It was an agonising decision, but for Freemasons (and there were more than a thousand each in Jersey and Guernsey) especially so, knowing of Hitler’s persecution of German Freemasons.

Following the fall of Paris on 14 June 1940, the Nazi forces moved quickly westwards and began their invasion of the Channel Islands at the end of the month. The occupation began not without bloodshed as a number of civilians were killed during a brief air raid on St Helier, on the road to the quayside.

Freemasons would have been more apprehensive had they known of the Führer’s order in September 1939 for the creation of a list of British subjects and European exiles, the Sonderfahndungsliste GB (Special Search List GB) – now known as the Black Book – who were to be taken into what was euphemistically termed ‘protective custody’ in the event of an invasion of Great Britain.

This was brought home after obtaining a copy of the Last Will and Testament of the Provincial Grand Master of Jersey in those days, Charles Edward Malet de Carteret. Significantly, the Will was signed on 1 July 1940, the day enemy forces landed in Jersey. So far as we are able to gather, he had never previously made a will. Charles must have wondered what might have been in store for him and other members of the Craft still in the Islands. In poor health, Charles died in January 1942.

Life on the ground

The atmosphere was more relaxed than had been expected, mainly because the German troops were in high spirits; they were convinced that the occupation of Great Britain was but a few days away. And while some restrictions were harsh – for instance, remaining Jewish shops had to display notices to this effect – proclamations issued by the occupying authorities were conciliatory if not, in some respects, almost bizarre.

For instance, islanders were allowed to say prayers for the British Royal Family and the welfare of the British Empire. Likewise, while the National Anthem was not to be sung without permission, it could be listened to on the radio. For Freemasons, the future seemed uncertain. Charles was anxious that nothing be done to make life more difficult for his members and was informed by the German military authorities that, provided no further meetings were held and the masonic temple locked up, the building and its contents would be left alone.

Relying on this, and the proclamation issued on the first day of the occupation, which stated that ‘in the event of peaceful surrender the lives, property and liberty of peaceful inhabitants is solemnly guaranteed’, Charles complied. Furthermore, he instructed that all the beautiful furnishings in the temple, as well as the thousands of priceless items in the library and museum, should remain in situ. Unfortunately for Freemasons, the proclamation proved untenable. Soon after the establishment of the regular German troops (the Wehrmacht), the Sturmabteilung, or SA, were also despatched to Jersey – more sinister forces bent on pursuing the Nazi official policy against Freemasonry.

The first indication that something was afoot was the unannounced arrival at the masonic temple on 19 November 1940 of the Geheime Feldpolizei – the Secret Field Police – who demanded all keys to the building and proceeded to place seals on every door. Then, on Thursday, 23 January 1941, a squad of special troops from Hitler’s Einsatzstab Reichsleiter Rosenberg arrived and proceeded to take an inventory of the contents and to photograph the main rooms, including the temple.

‘What was remarkable was that, having taken such drastic action against the physical attributes of Freemasonry, no action was taken to persecute individual masons.’

The investigations led to the despatch of further squads of Einsatzstab from Berlin, who commenced the systematic looting of the building on 27 January 1941. All the main pieces of furniture, the many beautiful furnishings, and the contents of the library and museum were stripped out, loaded onto lorries and shipped off the island. Anything that the looters did not want was either smashed and left lying around or piled in great heaps and burnt. Photographs taken when the building was repossessed by masonic authorities in 1945 reveal the scale of the devastation inflicted. 

Material losses

It subsequently came to light, from articles published in the local newspaper, which was under the control of the occupying authorities, that the reason for the removal of furnishings from the temple was to transport them to Berlin for use in an anti-masonic exhibition. Likewise, the photographs were taken to enable exhibition managers to replicate the layout of a lodge room. 

Exhibitions were also staged in Paris, Brussels and Vienna using artefacts stolen in similar fashion from French and Belgian lodges; another was held in Belgrade. It is known that artefacts were also taken from masonic buildings throughout the Netherlands, so there was little shortage of suitable material with which to stage such exhibitions.

Thankfully, the main fabric of the building remained undamaged and for the remainder of the occupation it was used to store liquor and confiscated wireless sets. What was most remarkable was that, having taken such drastic action against the physical attributes of Freemasonry, and given the purpose of the notorious Black Book, no action was taken to harass or persecute individual masons, full details of whom would have been ascertainable from the stolen masonic records.

The situation becomes more astonishing given that in 1942, and again in 1943, Hitler ordered all high-ranking Freemasons to be deported to Germany. The orders were sent directly to the Commander-in-Chief, but no action was taken to identify, locate and deport these senior masons, of whom there were many. This opens up the intriguing line of speculation that some of the most senior military commanders had masonic connections or sympathies, or may even have been members of the Craft at some time.

‘After the liberation by British forces on 9 May 1945, the massive task of restoration confronted the masonic authorities… it took several decades to complete.’

We know that none of those appointed to govern the Channel Islands was a Nazi, and that Commander-in-Chief of the island Rudolf Graf von Schmettow came increasingly under suspicion in Berlin. Chief-of-Staff Baron Hans von Helldorf also came under suspicion for his leniency towards civilians, and for failing to carry out orders he received from Berlin – he was banished to the island of Herm, pending court martial. Meanwhile, the wife of Baron Max von Aufsess, who was still in Germany, was declared an enemy of the state and arrested by the Gestapo. Von Aufsess had been tasked with handling the liaison between the military government and the Jersey authorities. 

The aftermath

After the liberation by British forces on 9 May 1945, the massive task of restoration confronted the masonic authorities. Since the last meeting of Provincial Grand Lodge in October 1939, the Province had lost its Provincial Grand Master, his Deputy and many other senior members. Despite this, Provincial Grand Lodge was convened on 16 August 1945, just one month after the masonic authorities repossessed the building. 

All the furnishings needed replacing, and to meet the cost the Province had to rely almost entirely on its own resources and the generosity of friends worldwide, although they did receive a donation of £5,000 from Grand Lodge. By early 1946 the temple had been restored to some kind of normality, although it took several decades to complete the full restoration. With the anti-masonic exhibition staged in an area of Berlin that suffered almost total destruction at the end of the war, it is likely that the building in which it was housed was destroyed. So sadly, and despite endless enquiries, none of the stolen treasures except for some two hundred and fifty library books have been recovered.

There is a happy ending to this story. As those who are able to recall and compare will readily testify, the present splendour of the Jersey masonic building even exceeds that which existed prior to the traumatic events of January 1941. This is a tremendous tribute not only to those on whose shoulders fell the enormous burden of restoration, but also to their friends worldwide who contributed so much and so generously to this massive task. Thanks to them, Freemasonry in the Channel Islands is alive and well today.