When Juliet decides that she'd like to write about Guernsey for her Times articles and then her book, she asks the members of the Literary Society to ask other Guernsey residents to write her about their experiences of the German occupation. As the letters flood in, Juliet is struck by the way the islanders write about the Germans: while some of the Nazis were inarguably cruel to the people of Guernsey, others demonstrated surprising kindness and compassion. In representing the German soldiers as individuals and not as an unfeeling monolith, the novel ultimately proposes that war can be both humanizing and dehumanizing for all involved, whether one is a supposed conqueror or the conquered.
Prior to the German invasion in 1940, residents of Guernsey thought of German soldiers as evil and interested only in furthering Nazi ideals. While this view is understandable, those in Guernsey soon found that such a simplistic reading of the Germans didn't fully describe the invaders. Instead of immediately and violently taking control of the island like the islanders expected them to, the Germans shock Guernsey when they stroll through the streets, laugh, and shop for gifts for family members at home. This acts as an early indicator that while the Germans may be the oppressors of Guernsey, they're not entirely unfeeling or cruel.
This sentiment reoccurs in several of the letters to Juliet and most notably in Society members' recollections of Elizabeth's romance with Christian Hellman. Amelia in particular tells Juliet that she'd initially made up her mind to hate Christian for being a Nazi, but found it impossible to do so when he came to her house and earnestly informed her of his intentions to return for Elizabeth and marry her after the war. This, along with Dawsey's friendship with Christian and Christian's lack of support for the Nazis, turns Christian into a real, feeling person for the Society members, not a faceless and evil Nazi.
As the war progressed, the lack of food became an equalizing force that, in some ways, dissolved the hierarchy among the German soldiers, the residents of Guernsey, and the forced laborers the Germans brought to Guernsey, the Todt workers—though in other ways, it made the hierarchy even more pronounced. Although the Germans were supposed to be superior and the ones in charge, after D-Day, the soldiers became just as hungry and emaciated as the people they oppressed, given that they could no longer receive supplies from the mainland. One man, Micah Daniels, recounts seeing a German soldier kill and cook a housecat, which he interprets as an act of desperation that, for him, highlighted the soldier's humanity. He and others note that killing cats and vermin was one of the few legal ways for soldiers to obtain food other than their rations, as they were forbidden from stealing from the gardens of Guernsey. Further, despite the Germans' sense of superiority, Micah also recounts how, when England finally sent supplies to Guernsey, the Germans not only unloaded the parcels and distributed them to the islanders, but the Commandant threatened to kill any soldiers who tried to steal food from the boxes. Micah writes that "honor due is honor due," and says that it's his responsibility to share things like this in order to make it known that the Germans were desperate, hungry, and capable of kindness and empathy.
Despite the Germans' relative respect for the islanders, their treatment of the Todt laborers, particularly in terms of food, remained horrific and cruel. The laborers were allowed to wander at night to forage for food, something that allowed the Germans to justify not feeding them as much—though, like the Germans, the Todt workers were forbidden from stealing from gardens, and the Guernsey residents were forbidden from helping them. This left the Todt workers more emaciated and desperate than anyone else on the island. This can also be read as an attempt by the Germans to rope the islanders into the same kind of elitist and dehumanizing beliefs held by the Nazi party, as it utilized the scarcity of food and the threat of concentration camps to push the islanders to dehumanize the Todt laborers, just like the Germans did—their lives depended on it.
In this way, the letters to Juliet create a picture of a complex system fueled by power and hunger, that in turn created an environment in which some people, like Christian and the unnamed German soldier, become more human, while others, like those who exposed their neighbors' kindnesses in order to curry favor with the Nazis, become less human. Though the various writers condemn the cruelty of the Germans and of their neighbors who told on others, they also recognize that at least some of the cruelty was borne out of hunger and desperation, not out of malice. In other words, while the novel never excuses the cruelty that took place on Guernsey or the Nazis as a whole, it instead suggests that humanity's true enemy, regardless of one's nationality or politics, was hunger and desperation.
War, Hunger, and Humanity ThemeTracker
War, Hunger, and Humanity Quotes in The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
I don't want to be considered a light-hearted journalist anymore. I do acknowledge that making readers laugh—or at least chuckle—during the war was no mean feat, but I don't want to do it anymore. I can't seem to dredge up any sense of proportion or balance these days, and God knows one can't write humor without them.
Charles Lamb made me laugh during the German Occupation, especially when he wrote about the roast pig. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie society came into being because of a roast pig we had to keep secret from the German soldiers, so I feel a kinship to Mr. Lamb.
All the windows we passed were lighted, and I could snoop once more. I missed it so terribly during the war. I felt as if we had all turned into moles scuttling along in our separate tunnels.
The simple truth of it is that you're the only female writer who makes me laugh. Your Izzy Bickerstaff columns were the wittiest work to come out of the war, and I want to meet the woman who wrote them.
One poor soldier was caught stealing a potato. He was chased by his own people and climbed up a tree to hide. But they found him and shot him down out of the tree. Still, that did not stop them from stealing food. I am not pointing a finger at those practices, because some of us were doing the same. I figure hunger makes you desperate when you wake to it every morning.
Passive Suffering? Passive Suffering! I nearly seized up. What ailed the man? Lieutenant Owen, he wrote a line, "What passing-bells for these who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the guns." What's passive about that, I'd like to know. That's exactly how they do die. I saw it with my own eyes, and I say to hell with Mr. Yeats.
Though I had little hope of success, I knew it was my duty to warn her of the fate that awaited her. I told her she would be cast out of decent society, but she did not heed me. In fact, she laughed. I bore it. Then she told me to get out of her house.
The way that Christian and I met may have been unusual, but our friendship was not. I'm sure many Islanders grew to be friends with some of the soldiers. But sometimes I think of Charles Lamb and marvel that a man born in 1775 enabled me to make two such friends as you and Christian.
It may be about those Germans, but honor due is honor due. They unloaded all those boxes of food for us from the Vega, and they didn't take none, not one box of it, for themselves. Of course, their Commandant had told them, "That food is for the Islanders, it is not yours. Steal one bit and I'll have you shot."
I also know that she cherished you as her family, and she felt gratitude and peace that her daughter, Kit, was in your care. Therefore, I write so you and the child will know of her and the strength she showed to us in the camp.
Why, there'd be soldiers riding guard in the back of potato lorries going to the army's mess hall—children would follow them, hoping potatoes would fall off into the street. Soldiers would look straight ahead, grim-like, and then flick potatoes off the pile—on purpose.
She told me once that those guards used big dogs. Riled them up and loosed them deliberately on the lines of women standing for roll call—just to watch the fun. Christ! I've been ignorant, Juliet. I thought being here with us could help her forget.