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Martin Pawley: running a bunker economy

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'Our culture is a national asset, our equivalent of oilfields or diamonds,' proclaimed the Italian minister of culture last week. She was expressing her concern at the Jubilee Line Extension-type performance of those responsible for rebuilding Venice's La Fenice opera house after the fire of three years ago. Apparently, without La Fenice and all the architecture, art and antiquities like it, Italy would be done for.

Quick segue to a dot on the map several hundred miles north. There, a much smaller economic entity is also facing the facts. Jersey Tourism has launched a new marketing campaign to attract visitors. The title of the brochure is 'Jersey - where there's something to keep everyone occupied'. It only sounds dull if you haven't seen the cover picture - tourists sitting on the barrel of a gun left over from the 1940-1945 German occupation of the Channel Islands.

'The islands are becoming an occupation theme park,' growls the Guardian in response. The newspaper makes frequent attacks on the islands, which it believes have a dark history of collaboration with the enemy and now an economy based on the world's obsession with bunkers and swastika-covered paperbacks.

'Theme park' may be a bit of an exaggeration, but not much. The trouble is that first, the Nazis fortified the tiny Channel Islands to an extent that seems incredible today - tunnelling into every hillside, building gun emplacements, bunkers and observation posts on every cliff and headland, and even adding modern strongpoints to the castles already there. Because none of these fantastically elaborate defences ever came under fire; when they were surrendered in 1945 they were a perfect turnkey operation. Of course the returning British did their best to seal up, demolish and demilitarise them, but they were dealing with millions of tonnes of reinforced concrete, not a couple of dodgy tower blocks. By 1950, British Army engineers and scrap-metal dealers had done what they could, but today, of the 30 heavy guns shipped to Jersey by the Germans, 27 are still there. The one in the tourism brochure is typical. It was made in Germany in the 1930s, shipped to Jersey in 1941, thrown over a cliff by the British in 1946, then dragged up and exhibited by bunker enthusiasts in 1979.

The Guardian view of this is that all excavation, reconstruction and marketing of fortifications should cease, and people like the volunteer Channel Islands Occupation Society should get themselves proper day jobs. However, this is as impractical today as demolition was in 1945. As a result of historical events over which they had no control, the Channel Islands became the repository of the most compact collection of mid-twentieth- century fortress architecture in the world. Like the opera in Venice, it is their equivalent of oilfields or diamonds. No one who has seen the powerful cliff-top shape of the observation and range-finding towers, or marvelled at the integration of the coastal-defence guns into the rocky landscape, could deny that they repay a visit.

But perhaps manufacturing replacement parts for bunkers is going a bit far.

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