Last week, I visited the Channel Island to see for myself the row that has erupted over the history of the Nazi occupation – and how it should be memorialised.
This just popped up on Twitter today. Holocaust historian Marcus Roberts with more info…
An interesting, thought provoking piece, Guy. Having read The Occupation a couple of months ago, I can imagine the present scenario. Alderney seems to be a delightful island. I doubt finding a satisfactory outcome will be easy. Too much emotion invested. Deep and mutual distrust exhibited on all sides.
Very interesting piece. I have just done a quick evaluation of Lagers Norderney, Borkum and Helgoland. I have relied on published sources for this so there may be some inaccuracies.
Lager Borkum seems to have been built in January 1942 by Organisation Todt (OT) -the Nazi civil and military engineering body. It was ostensibly a ‘voluntary’ labour camp run by OT. Workers appear to have been treated harshly but their conditions were much better than those of Lager Sylt.
Lager Helgoland also seems to have been built in January 1942 by OT. It was also a ‘voluntary’ labour camp run by OT and conditions appear to have been similar to those experienced in Lager Borkum.
Lager Nordeney was apparently also built in January 1942 by OT and run by them until they came under the jurisdiction of the SS in March 1943. It has been stated that this was an enforced labour camp with dire conditions but I have been unable to establish whether this was the case whilst it was operated by OT or after it had come under SS jurisdiction.
Lager Sylt is also listed as having been built in January 1942 by OT and run by them until mid-February 1943 when SS Baubrigade 1 assumed control of the camp. SS Baubrigade 1 reported directly to the Hamburg-Neuengamme Concentration Camp. Hauptsturmführer Maximilian List was transferred from Neungamme and appointed commandant of SS Baubrigade 1. Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler personally authorised the transfer of the brigade to Alderney on 7th January 1943. List apparently arrived on the island on the 23rd February. The majority of the prisoners who made up the brigade, worked in co-operation with OT , building fortifications, road construction, making building materials and strengthening German field defensive positions. Their main activity in the spring and early summer of 1943 was building bunkers -15 in total. These included 5 for heavy batteries in the Western Battery position and one heavy duty combat bunker constructed with an anti-tank wall.
By July 1943 work was still proceeding on a tunnelling programme for the supply store. Alderney’s entire requirement for stone, ballast sand and chippings were being extracted by the prisoners from available quarries. Prisoners were also employed on unloading work at the harbour.
In a report to Himmler on the 26th July SS Brigadeführer Hans Kammler made the following statement. ‘On account of the highly changeable climatic conditions, most of the prisoners who came from the East were severely affected in health. The current effective strength, owing to drop outs and the return to base of those unfit for work, is 864 prisoners. The command HQ on the island is currently seeking to bring the unit up again to 1000 prisoners'.
Lager Sylt was closed in June 1944 so it was basically operated by the SS for around 15 months. Presumably, if the SS had taken over Lager Nordeney in March 1943, the maximum strength of both camps would have been around 1000 prisoners.
Assuming that most of the prisoner deaths were inflicted by the SS rather than OT I would hazard a guess that the numbers involved are more likely to have been in their hundreds rather than thousands but that, of course, is just my personal opinion.
But that is not quite the end. On the 19th August 1943 Himmler sent a Top-Secret letter to List. It was taken personally by courier and List was to read the letter three times and hand it back to the courier. List signed a receipt which, along with Himmler’s letter was sent, on September 15th 1943, to Himmler’s adjutant, Dr Rudolf Brandt by SS Obergruppenführer Oswald Pohl who explained that all other documents relating to the subject had been destroyed.
This is what Himmler wrote:
You are in command of the SS Construction Brigade on the island of Alderney. Take all steps to train your men Understand clearly that you and your men must, in the event of an emergency give a shining example of the offensive spirit and of a resistance which never surrenders.
You must concern yourself with every detail in your defence sector and must ensure, by countless training exercises, that every man knows his way about in the area assigned to him as certainly by night as in daytime.
Maintain the strictest discipline and turn your men, by orienting their whole outlook, into SS veterans.
Should there be – in the event of an attack – even the slightest sign, on the part of the prisoners, that they intend to cause trouble, you must act immediately and without ceremony, and shoot the culprits. If order is then still not restored you must shoot all prisoners, without a moment’s delay.
“He’s only saying the Holocaust happened here so that he can bring Jewish tourists here,” says Mr Davenport.
He sounds like a real charmer...
Fascinating. I wonder if part of the problem is public understanding of The Holocaust. I imagine many visualise the event in terms of Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, and the Operation Reinhard camps, the Vernichtungslager. Tens of thousands died in the legion of smaller sub camps, the arbeitslager. The continent wide network of KLs were lethal. If they had a better understanding of the complexity of the subject perhaps the argument would be less heated. And more simply if it’s not completely certain how many died, where they were buried or their faith would not be better, the respectful thing to drill somewhere else?
Fascinating - and also elegantly structured. The image of that distinctive striped uniform, with all the horror and tragedy it evokes, is hugely effective. I would gladly have read a book-length version of this article and genuinely think you should consider creating such a thing, not least because it's not over-exposed as a narrative but at the same time cuts to the heart of a lot of contemporary discussions about memorialisation, the moral content of history, and indeed what the past is 'for' anyway.
A few quick questions, stemming from genuine ignorance on my part - are there really no German documents that shed light on what happened on Alderney, including documents that might not have been available to British investigators in the immediate aftermath of the war? Did all the prisoners at Alderney come via Neuengamme, or from somewhere else? And assuming that some prisoners survived the war, not all of whom can have been questioned about events in the camp in the investigation you mention, surely there ought to be quite a lot of evidence one way or the other, via memoirs or interviews or even family stories, about the persecution and death of thousands of Jewish prisoners?
Either way, though, I feel strongly that the history here doesn't simply belong to the people who happen to live on the island now, any more than any history simply belongs to the people who now live where it happened. Or to put it another way, if we give up on the idea of shared curiosity, sympathy and empathy about all human experience, and start allowing parts of it to be 'owned' by some people but not by others, we are conceding something to the ideology that created these camps in the first place.
I've been awaiting this post since watching the TV documentary to which you refer. V pleased you went to see for yourself!
I've recently been writing a piece on memorialisation myself & that is what seems to be at the heart of this sad situation on Alderney. It is sad because it has brought division & dispute & has helped the cause of History & its role in the world not one jot.
I doubt anyone could fail to be moved at the plight of those slave labourers who suffered so terribly on Alderney, whatever their religious faith. Like the millions of others who suffered & died at the hands of the Nazis they deserve to be honoured.
What is it then about how their sacrifice is memorialised that causes such angst?
When it comes down to it, it appears to be personal subjectivity above all, or, as historian Dan Hicks has recently argued, "a particular kind of moral judgement...[that has the ability to]...silence the past."
In my memorialisation battle, albeit on a tiny scale in comparison to the Alderney debate, some Christians were really put out that a statute of a Victorian atheist-feminist-humanitarian was to be placed in their High Street. The relatively minor dispute this created was soon overcome, but Hill's point about moral judgement remains. I hate to state the obvious, Guy, but there are as many interpretations of morals as there are individuals on the planet. (Although I'm sure we're all slightly nonplussed that List lived out his natural lifespan.)
I wonder though...is it truly significant if it is 389 or 5000 human beings who lay beneath the sand & soil of Alderney? However many, they were all once men, doctors, bricklayers, train drivers, soldiers. We need to memorialise their humanity & suffering as a representative group of the slain and acknowledge that historians care about all those gathered there, especially as it might be not be possible to name individuals. This should be our moral duty, far far more important than moral judgement.
Hicks concludes that in the 2020s the historian's task is to acknowledge "the remembrance of absence, of loss that endures, a void from which we can still learn...human endurance." He concludes, poignantly in this regard, that the "archaeologist's trowel" is not always the best means to this end. I couldn't put it better myself, so will quote my source below.
Dan Hicks, 'Glorious Memory', in Helen Carr & Suzannah Lipscombe (eds.), What is History Now, (2021), pp. 101-15.
What a mess. I just hope that the outcome will be a suitable memorial to those who died due to being used as slave labour by the Germans on Alderney, regardless of nationality or religion. If there is found to be one, or a hundred, or a thousand, or many thousands, they should all be commemorated as victims of the Nazi regime. Whether known or unknown. They were all someone's son, and a sea of tears will have been shed by their families and loved ones over their unknown fate. Maybe some of those most loud in their objections should think of that, of them.
This is awful. The only thing i do feel is that the more complex a memorial or monument is designed, the more disagreements and arguments there will be from different groups. Often the most simple and understated memorials have the greatest impact. This has been shown in many countries that experienced the horrors of the Nazis. Local residents should certainly have more of a say than anyone as they are the people who live there.