erman occupation:guard post at the steep coast of jersey. Summer 1940 (Photo by Atlantic-Press/ullstein bild via Getty Images)

The British Holocaust cover-up that wasn’t

A fanciful and convoluted conspiracy theory has blighted the reputation of the Channel Islands

Artillery Row

My grandmother always had a lot to tell me about Alderney and the Second World War. In June 1940, aged 16, she was evacuated from the northernmost Channel Island, along with most of its 1500 or so inhabitants. It was the only home she had ever known, and would never be the same. She would tell me often about the ready-packed suitcases and church bells ringing on evacuation day, how she spent the war (during which she met my Irish grandfather in Egypt), and what it was like returning home to an island gutted by Nazi occupation. Even the floorboards and rafters had been burnt for fuel, and former friends and neighbours ended up brawling on the island common over who the remaining furniture belonged to.

Yet there was one part of Alderney’s war history she never, to my memory, really spoke of: the camps. The Channel Islands, being crown dependencies, were the only part of British soil occupied by the Nazis, and Alderney was made the site of four forced labour camps—an impressive number, given it’s only three miles by a mile and a half in size. Helgoland, Borkum, Norderney, and Sylt were their names—the former two were “volunteer” camps with slightly better conditions; the latter two were slave camps eventually controlled by the SS, with Sylt being specifically for Jews. 

The fact of the camps was always obvious, and it was clear that hundreds of dead had been buried—389 was the count given in 1945. But with the need to rebuild the island urgent, and arable farmland largely limited to the southern area taken up by Sylt, Alderney couldn’t wait around for an exhaustive investigation into the camps. Unlike places on the continent with Holocaust history, there was no question of Alderney’s complicity in the Nazi horrors, and so no need to grapple with their own failings. Their home had been taken from them, and terrible things done there. But their home it was still. The dead were commemorated at various points around the island, but Alderney had to move on—so the war generation saw it, anyway.

In the decades since however, there has been growing conflict about the legacy of the Alderney camps—both over how they should be commemorated and even over what actually happened. Little books about “Adolf’s island” and “the Alderney death camp” popped up with regularity, speculating in macabre fashion about a “conspiracy of silence” around a supposed “mini-Auschwitz” in the Channel. Rather than a few hundred, the deaths were imagined to be in the thousands. 

Given its sub-2000 population and parochial nature, Alderney (which I visit regularly) is not exactly the hardest place in the world in which to brew a storm in a teacup, and so island tensions have run higher and higher over the subject throughout my lifetime. Those who wanted further enquiry had, in all honesty, a fairly easy cause to champion—after all, what sensible person wants to risk being called a Holocaust denier? Yet, although plenty wouldn’t say so publicly, many islanders were highly averse to the prospect of becoming a site for what they saw as tasteless Holocaust tourism. Alderney admittedly depends on tourism, much of which specifically rides on its unique war-time history—the scenic landscape is peppered with Nazi fortifications (which is largely what the labour camps were for) left open to the elements for adventurous youngsters to explore or host raves in. But adding the Holocaust into the mix in a major way felt like a bridge too far for many. Further, they questioned the feasibility of turning up new information after so long, and resented off-island international Holocaust authorities sticking their oar into how this small community had chosen to deal with its own peculiar history. 

Thankfully, clarity has at last been delivered. This May, an inquiry ordered by Lord Pickles delivered a report which has rubbished the “mini-Auschwitz” theory, settling the final number of camp deaths as likely having been between 641 and 1,027. This is more than double the initial 1945 figure, but a long way off the thousands that some people had seemed almost desperate to find. Between 7,600 and 7,800 prisoners were transported to Alderney in total, of which 594 were Jewish. But, the report concludes, contrary to the views of conspiratorial armchair historians over the years, this was no death camp and thus no attempt by either the island or British state authorities to cover one up. Prisoners were transported to the island for exploitation, not extermination. All of these deaths were tragedies, and the conditions in which prisoners were, in Pickles’ own words, “hell on earth”—especially at Norderney and Sylt. The presence of a specifically Jewish camp means that, the report is undeniably correct in concluding that, although in a small way, “the Holocaust therefore is part of Alderney’s history.” But Alderney’s part in it, the report concludes, offers us no special lessons about it. 

There is a twist in the tale however. In researching for the report, Dr. Anthony Glees discovered that, after the war, Britain handed over responsibility for prosecuting those behind the Alderney camps to the USSR, since most of the prisoners were Soviets. Remarkably, they did so in the hopes of obtaining those Nazi officers responsible for slaughtering the British servicemen who escaped the Stalag Luft III P.O.W camp—the famous 50 from The Great Escape. Glees has evidenced this clearly in a rediscovered message sent from the Foreign Office to the Treasury in July 1945 (although the note describes the move as a “gesture” rather than an explicit bargain). Yet whilst the British later brought successful prosecutions against the Stalag Luft III perpetrators, the Soviets never did so with those from Alderney. Glees sees this exchange as a direct contravention of the 1943 Moscow Declaration, in which the Allies, declared that any Germans responsible for war crimes would be “sent back to the countries in which their abominable deeds were done in order that they may be judged and punished according to the laws of those liberated countries and of the Free Governments which will be erected therein.” In Pickles’ judgement, if the crimes happened on British soil then Alderney’s Nazi commanders “should have faced British justice”, and successive British governments perpetrated “not one but a succession of cover-ups” over this fact, both by denying to the French that they had any material on what happened in Alderney and by making no apparent effort to bring any of this to light in the years since.

Yet there is arguably a conspiratorial edge to this part of the report. The Moscow Declaration also stipulates that war criminals should be “brought back to the scene of their crimes and judged on the spot by the peoples whom they have outraged.” And yet in Alderney, the scene of the crime and the people outraged bore no connection. It was a British crown dependency, but the majority of victims were Soviets. What, then, was the best application of the Declaration’s terms? Arguably, doing precisely what the Foreign Office unilaterally decided in summer 1945: trying cases on either territoriality or nationality, depending upon circumstance. Pickles’ report explicitly acknowledges this difficult point, and concedes there was a “certain logic” to it, yet still decides to brand it a cover-up and a miscarriage of justice.

This seems, at best, something not provable beyond reasonable doubt. It seems just as, if not more likely, that Britain simply used its discretion in applying the terms of the Moscow declaration to reach the closest thing approximating justice for both themselves and the Soviets, and that the documents recording this simply gathered dust like so many countless others. Yet this is, of course, a much less exciting story. It is perhaps telling that, when the BBC website first reported on Pickles’ findings, the headline was about the surprisingly low number of deaths; within a couple of hours, its article had been entirely rewritten with the emphasis overwhelmingly on Glees’ alleged cover-up.

The Pickles report is correct to say that Alderney’s history offers no unique lesson within the “morality tale par excellence” that is the Holocaust. Yet the report itself does (despite itself, in places) seem to offer a lesson when it comes to historical conspiracy theories: reality is usually far less convoluted than we imagine (and often secretly wish it to be). Yet, in all honesty, most of Alderney’s inhabitants will not even want to dwell on this lesson—and I do not blame them. Case closed, they can now allow the memorials, museum exhibits, and sparse remnants of concrete on Alderney’s windswept cliffs to stand as sufficient reminders for the generations ahead when, like me, they hear from their grandparents about the island’s past.

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