Alderney Is a Small Island With a Dark History

Look closely at this tiny, idyllic island: Victorian-era fortifications dot the windswept coastline. A concrete anti-tank wall disrupts a quiet beach. Overgrown greenery covers bunkers and tunnels.

This is Alderney, where the 2,100 people who call the island home do not lock their cars. Where the streets are quiet and the pubs (nine of them) are lively, and the roads don’t have traffic lights. And where reminders of World War II hide behind most corners.

This fiercely independent island in the English Channel, roughly 10 miles from France, is at the center of a debate about how to remember Nazi atrocities and live mindfully among sites where misdeeds occurred — and how to reckon with the fact that Britain never held anyone responsible for running an SS concentration camp on its soil.

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 not its prime minister.) The Channel Islands were the only British territory occupied by the Germans during World War II, and Alderney was the only one evacuated by the British government. Shortly after, as Germany occupied parts of Northwest Europe in June 1940, German troops moved to the island.

The Nazis built four camps on Alderney. Helgoland and Borkum were labor camps run by the Nazis’ civil and military engineering arm. 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.

How many people died on Alderney has never been clear. While an official estimate from decades ago is about 400, experts say there could have been thousands. A report due this spring is meant to offer 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 on Alderney, a number based on a report by Theodore Pantcheff, a British military intelligence interrogator who researched the atrocities shortly after the war. Other historians’ estimates range from hundreds to thousands.

No matter the number, the Nazis’ intention of what to do with the prisoners and slave laborers on the island seems clear. Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the Holocaust, ordered a commander on Alderney to kill his prisoners if the Allies invaded. Other stories include drills in which prisoners had to march into tunnels they had built themselves 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 attempt to settle a debate that has long vexed the island.

“It seemed to me perhaps a way of bringing closure to the island,” Mr. Pickles said. “We need a clear idea of the number of prisoners and slave laborers who were on the island of Alderney,” he said.

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

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

The panel is focused on numbers, said Gilly Carr, a historian and member of the team who has published books about the islands’ Nazi occupation, “not the whys and the wherefore. 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, telling them what to do.

“There have been suggestions that we are in denial, that we do not recognize what went on,” William Tate, the island’s president, said in an interview in his office. But islanders are aware of Alderney’s history because it can’t be missed, he said: “You only have to step outside the door here to see that the occupation was real.”

While Mr. Tate welcomes the review, he acknowledged the difficulties it faces because of incomplete records and a lack of access to Russian archives, which may hold more information.

“We don’t know whether this inquiry will be able to come to a definitive answer,” Mr. Tate said. “I suspect not.”

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

Alderney holds two annual remembrance ceremonies, one in May to commemorate the official end of the war and one on Dec. 15, the anniversary of the islanders’ return after its liberation.

The main memorial for victims sits in the middle of the island and was erected in the 1960s by the family of a resident, Sally Bohan, who walks by most days. Apart from the memorial, Ms. Bohan said, “there’s no focal point on the island.”

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

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

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

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

Causes of death of the prisoners on Alderney included disease and starvation, as well as shootings and brutal beatings by Nazi guards, according to Mr. Roberts and other experts.

And in 2022, a plan to build an electricity link between Britain and France through Alderney was called off, partly over fears it might disturb Jewish remains.

Mr. James said he was outraged about the lack of justice for the atrocities on the island, and the lack of a response from the British government since.

The number of people on the island during the war is unclear. Mr. Partridge estimates that there were about 6,000 prisoners on Alderney in 1943, at the height of the four camps’ occupancy. It’s also unclear how many people were buried on Alderney. The German war graves commission exhumed an unknown number of bodies after the war, and according to Mr. James, Alderney still has two mass gravesites.

Nazi commanders forced prisoners to march for miles before working 12-hour days of hard physical labor on almost no food. 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,” Mr. Partridge said. “All these people died for no purpose.”

The Nazis weren’t the first who saw the need to fortify Alderney. In the 19th century, Britain built structures along the coast to protect the harbor against France. Eighteen such forts and batteries survive. The Germans occupied most of them.

Remnants of the camps are less visible. The site of one is now a street with houses, its entry pillars blending into the streetscape. Another is a camping ground for vacationers. A third has a road running through it, past 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 the story in a very different way than any online tool or any exhibition or book could,” said Kathrin Meyer, the IHRA’s secretary general. Establishing facts, including numbers of victims, is an important part of fighting Holocaust distortion, she said.

She also acknowledged the difficulties of coming to a place like Alderney and telling residents how to deal with their history. “You need to find an agreement with people who also have to live there,” she said.

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

To people like Mr. James, that idyll does not block out the history.

“Even though we were not to blame for the Holocaust, we are to blame for the diminishment and covering up of it,” he said. On Alderney, he said, “Jews were murdered, and we allowed the culprits to walk free.”