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This quiet British island was once the site of Nazi atrocities. A new inquiry reveals its truths

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Alderney, a quiet British island in the English Channel known for its outstanding natural beauty, was once the site of the only Nazi camps on British soil – and a hell on Earth for its thousands of inmates.

A fresh inquiry, ordered by the UK’s Special Envoy for Post Holocaust Issues, Eric Pickles, and led by a panel of experts, has sought to determine the exact death toll of prisoners and laborers on Alderney, while also bringing an end to the conspiracy theories and misinformation surrounding the island.

The findings were published on Wednesday and determined there were a greater number of deaths than initially documented following liberation, but found no evidence of a “mini-Auschwitz.”

The inquiry also explored why the Nazi perpetrators – most of whom evaded justice – never stood trial in Britain.

Stretching for three square miles, the island was occupied by the Nazis for most of World War II. During that time, three forced labor camps and a concentration camp called Lager Sylt were built.

Nearly eight decades later, the fingerprints of Nazi occupation are still visible on the picturesque island, including bunkers, anti-tank walls and the notorious Water Lane tunnels constructed by the occupying forces to store munitions and fuel.

According to its tourist board, the residents of Alderney – which has a population of just over 2,000 – gather once a year in May for a memorial service to commemorate the island’s victims.

Described by Pickles as housing the “most westerly concentration camp in the Third Reich,” questions over the scale of horror that occurred on the island have persisted among locals as well as internationally – and the exact number of dead has never been clear, until now.

The Channel Islands were the only British land the Germans occupied during World War II. Unlike Jersey and Guernsey – the other Nazi-occupied islands – Alderney was evacuated of nearly all of its residents, meaning the island does not have extensive war-time records.

According to Pickles, the lack of records has led to unsubstantiated claims being made about Alderney and the war crimes that took place there.

“Claims of mass murder that anywhere else would be checked carefully have been accepted at face value,” Pickles – who has stressed the importance of historic accuracy regarding the Holocaust – said.

“Third- or fourth-hand testimonies of atrocities, without any supporting evidence, are given as a fact… What happened on Alderney was bad enough with its brutality, sadism and murder, without the need for embellishment.”

‘Unvarnished truth’

Following the island’s liberation from the Nazis, official figures from a post-war investigation put the death toll at 389.

This figure has long been disputed. Historians, members of the Jewish community and members of the public have estimates ranging from hundreds to several thousand.

Speculation has also been rife that the true scale of what happened on the island may have been deliberately concealed by the British government.

The inquiry denies such theories. It found that the number of deaths in Alderney is unlikely to have exceeded 1,134, with a more likely range of deaths being between 641 and 1,027.

In addition, at least 97 people died and one disappeared during transit to and from the island.

The estimated minimum number of prisoners or laborers sent to Alderney throughout the German occupation stands between 7,608 and 7,812, the panel found.

Alderney’s camps, according to the inquiry, shared many of the traits of those in mainland Europe. Laborers were kept in atrocious conditions and forced to work long hours carrying out dangerous construction work. They were subject to beatings, maiming, torture and in some cases executions.

The inquiry found that there is “no evidence” for arguing that many thousands of victims died.

Assertions that Alderney housed an extermination center and constituted a “mini-Auschwitz” are also untrue, the panel found.

“Prisoners were treated appallingly, and life was cheap, but Alderney did not house a ‘mini-Auschwitz’; there was no extermination centre on the island,” Pickles said.

He added, “Anyone who claims so has never visited Auschwitz or understood the extent of the Nazi’s death factories in Eastern Europe.”

Pickles believes overestimated death tolls at the hands of the Nazis can be damaging and play into the hands of Holocaust deniers.

“At a time when parts of Europe are seeking to rinse their history through the Holocaust, the British Isles must tell the unvarnished truth,” he said. “Numbers do matter. It is as much of a Holocaust distortion to exaggerate the number of deaths as it is to underplay the numbers.”

He added, “Exaggeration plays into the hands of Holocaust deniers and undermines the six million dead. The truth can never harm us.”

‘Egregious injustice’

A separate section of the inquiry focused on the failure to prosecute war crimes committed in Alderney, something that it described as an “egregious injustice.”

This was due to the British government’s decision to hand the case over to the Soviet Union after World War II as the majority of victims were Soviet citizens.

Research conducted by Anthony Glees, an academic and adviser to Pickles, found there had been a “succession of cover-ups” on the part of the British government, which handed all Alderney’s files of evidence over to the Soviet Union via the United Nations War Crimes commission on September 12, 1945.

From there, the USSR decided to “do nothing with the evidence,” according to Glees, meaning that the majority of perpetrators who had systematically tortured and in some cases murdered their victims escaped trial.

Glees believes that this has deliberately been hidden from public view by the British government. He is calling on the government to issue an apology.

“It seems scarcely understandable that Britain, of all countries, declined to try Nazi war criminals for appalling atrocities committed on British soil against citizens of some 30 nations,” he said.

“Instead, the British authorities passed all the evidence that they had carefully collected in the so-called ‘Alderney Case’ to the USSR… despite the USSR not having requested it and so, apparently, directly contravening Britain’s international treaty obligations.”

According to Glee, the lack of trials of Alderney’s war criminals has meant that justice was denied to victims and their families.

Pickles, meanwhile, said the fact that the perpetrators never faced British justice is a “stain on the reputations of successive British governments.”

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