Alderney is a small island with a dark history


Get a close look at this idyllic little island: Victorian-era fortifications dot the windswept coastline. A concrete anti-tank wall disturbs a quiet beach. Overgrown vegetation covers bunkers and tunnels.

This is Alderney, where the 2,100 people who live on the island don’t lock their cars. Where the streets are quiet and the pubs (nine in total) are lively and the roads have no traffic lights. And where memories of World War II hide behind most corners.

This fiercely independent island in the English Channel, about 10 miles from France, is at the center of a debate about how to remember Nazi atrocities and live consciously among the sites where misdeeds occurred, and how to take into account the fact that Britain never held anyone responsible. for running an SS concentration camp on their territory.

Alderney, a British Crown dependency and part of the Channel Islands, has an independent president and a 10-member parliament. (King Charles III is its monarch, but Rishi Sunak is not its prime minister.) The Channel Islands were the only British territory occupied by the Germans during the Second World War, and Alderney was the only one evacuated by the British government. Soon after, when Germany occupied parts of northwestern Europe in June 1940, German troops moved to the island.

The Nazis built four camps in Alderney. Heligoland and Borkum were labor camps run by the civil and military engineering arm of the Nazis. The SS, the organization that was largely in charge of the Nazis’ barbaric extermination campaign, took control of two others, Norderney and Sylt, in 1943.

It has never been clear how many people died in Alderney. While an official estimate from decades ago is about 400, experts say it could have been thousands. A report due this spring is expected to provide answers, but not everyone who studies Alderney’s past believes it will.

The closest thing to an official count found that at least 389 people died in Alderney, a figure based on a report by Theodore Pantcheff, a British military intelligence interrogator who investigated the atrocities shortly after the war. Estimates by other historians range from hundreds to thousands.

No matter the number, the Nazis’ intention for what to do with the prisoners and slave workers on the island seems clear. Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, ordered a commander in Alderney to kill his prisoners if the Allies invaded. Other stories include drills in which prisoners had to march into tunnels they had built to practice for their own executions.

Lord Eric Pickles, Britain’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, announced last summer that a panel of experts would try to resolve a debate that has long vexed the island.

“It seemed to me like maybe a way to close the island,” Pickles said. “We need a clear idea of ​​the number of prisoners and slave laborers on the island of Alderney,” he said.

But one thing is clear, Pickles added: the Nazis’ “operation of annihilation through labor” was being practiced there.

While many locals want to get to the bottom of the island’s history, the panel has not been well received by everyone. Among the team are academics who have already published conclusions on the topic, raising questions about whether they will produce new findings or simply reaffirm old ones.

The panel focuses on the numbers, said Gilly Carr, a historian and member of the team who has published books on the Nazi occupation of the islands, “not the whys and wherefores. Just the numbers.”

Some residents, whose families have been on the island for generations, have expressed a feeling that the British government is encroaching on their territory and have been told what to do.

“There have been suggestions that we are in denial, that we don’t acknowledge what happened,” William Tate, the island’s president, said in an interview in his office. But islanders are aware of Alderney’s history because they can’t miss it, he said: “You just have to walk out the door to see that the occupation was real.”

While Tate welcomes the review, he acknowledged the difficulties he faces due to incomplete records and lack of access to Russian archives, which may contain more information.

“We don’t know if this investigation will lead to a definitive answer,” Tate said. “I suspect not.”

The type of work the panel does is typically done by historians connected to an official institute, said Robert Jan van Pelt, another historian on the team. But Alderney has no institutional steward of its wartime history, he said.

Alderney holds two annual commemoration ceremonies, one in May to mark the official end of the war and another on December 15, the anniversary of the islanders’ return after their liberation.

The main memorial to the victims is located in the center of the island and was erected in the 1960s by the family of a resident, Sally Bohan, who passes by almost every day. Other than the monument, Ms. Bohan said, “there is no focal point on the island.”

The camp locations have few, if any, remains of their wartime history. Sylt had 10 barracks to house about 1,000 prisoners from continental Europe and Russia. “It wasn’t big enough and people had to sleep outside,” said Colin Partridge, a resident and local expert who is also on the panel.

“If you’re here on a day like this, you can’t imagine the brutality that’s going on here,” he said, looking out at the entrance to the Sylt camp on a sunny afternoon last fall. A tunnel still exists from Sylt connecting the commander’s villa to the camp.

Norderney also held hundreds of Jews who had come from France. Only eight were officially recorded as dead on the island, a number that Michael James, who grew up in Alderney and has spent years poring over documents, says is unrealistically low.

Marcus Roberts, founder and director of JTrails, the National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail, said other documents show the Nazis could have been planning gas chambers on the island. Multiple tunnels were built in Alderney and two canisters of Zyklon B, the poison used by the Germans in the gas chambers, were found there, Roberts said.

The causes of death of the prisoners at Alderney included disease and starvation, as well as shooting and brutal beatings by Nazi guards, according to Roberts and other experts.

And in 2022, a plan to build an electrical link between Britain and France through Alderney was cancelled, partly over fears it could disturb Jewish remains.

James said he was outraged by the lack of justice for the atrocities committed on the island and the lack of response from the British government since.

The number of inhabitants of the island during the war is unclear. Partridge estimates that there were around 6,000 prisoners in Alderney in 1943, at the height of the occupation of the four camps. It is also unclear how many people were buried in Alderney. The German War Graves Commission exhumed an unknown number of bodies after the war and, according to James, there are still two mass graves in Alderney.

Nazi commanders forced prisoners to march miles before working 12 hours a day of hard physical labor with almost no food. The prisoners were forced to build fortifications that are still present, part of the Atlantic Wall that was supposed to protect against an Allied invasion of the island. That invasion never happened.

“The islands never had to be defended,” Partridge said. “All these people died for no purpose.”

The Nazis were not the first to see the need to fortify Alderney. In the 19th century, Britain built structures along the coast to protect the port against France. Eighteen of those forts and batteries survive. The Germans occupied most of them.

The remains of the fields are less visible. One’s site is now a street with houses, whose entrance pillars blend into the urban landscape. Another is a camping spot for tourists. A third has a road running through it, passing by a dairy farm.

Safeguarding sites like these related to the Holocaust and protecting their history are among the goals of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

“Places tell history in a very different way than any online tool, exhibition or book could,” said Kathrin Meyer, general secretary of the IHRA. Establishing facts, including the number of victims, is an important part of fighting Holocaust distortion, she said.

He also acknowledged the difficulties of coming to a place like Alderney and telling residents how to deal with their history. “It is necessary to reach an agreement with the people who also have to live there,” she said.

Alderney residents enjoy a deep love of the place, a longing for a quiet lifestyle and low taxes.

For people like James, that idyll doesn’t block history.

“Although we were not guilty of the Holocaust, we are guilty of its diminution and cover-up,” he stated. Of Alderney, he said, “the Jews were murdered and we allowed the guilty to go free.”

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