Home News World War II death toll rises by hundreds on English Channel island

World War II death toll rises by hundreds on English Channel island

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A long-running debate over a small part of Britain’s Holocaust history has been settled.

A team of historians tasked with investigating the death toll on Alderney has adjusted the island’s historical records, adding hundreds of people to the official count from the 1940s.

Britain’s special envoy for post-Holocaust issues, Lord Eric Pickles, announced last July that a panel of experts would try to resolve the sometimes heated debate. He presented the findings to a packed room at London’s Imperial War Museum on Wednesday to panellists.

The panel did not come up with an exact number. It concluded that the possible death toll ranged from 641 to 1,027, with a maximum of 1,134. Previous estimates put the death toll at less than 400.

The panel also answered questions about how many forced laborers and prisoners, the vast majority of whom were men, on the island during the occupation from 1940 to 1945, concluding that the number was between 7,608 and 7,812. Most of them were forced laborers from the Soviet Union. This number also includes 594 Jewish prisoners from France.

“We’re absolutely confident in these numbers,” Pickles said. “The truth will never hurt us.”

Pickles said that while the panel’s initial remit was to focus solely on numbers, it turned out that was not enough. Over the past nine months, the panel has broadened its investigation and examined why Britain never held any Nazi perpetrators accountable for abuses including beatings, shootings, malnutrition and horrific working conditions.

Pickles said it was a “stain on the UK’s reputation” that those who committed violence and crime in Alderney were not prosecuted.

Anthony Gliss, a historian at the University of Buckingham, said the failure to bring perpetrators to justice was a “cover-up” by the government, although he stressed his research showed the government had no intention of letting perpetrators go unpunished.

After the war, Britain handed the Alderney case to the Soviet Union in 1945 because most of the victims were Russian, Gliss said. The Soviet Union did not try any of the perpetrators, and the British government did not make this fact public.

Gliss said the British public’s appetite for prosecuting major war crimes waned in the postwar years.

“It’s not a blind eye to murder,” Mr. Grice said, “it’s a lack of determination.”

The Channel Islands were the only British territory occupied by Germany during World War II. In June 1940, the British government evacuated Alderney.

The Nazis established four camps on Alderney. Two of the camps, Helgoland and Borkum, were labor camps run by the Nazi Civil and Military Engineering Department. The SS, the organization primarily responsible for the Nazis’ brutal extermination operations, took control of two other concentration camps on the islands of Norderney and Sylt in 1943.

The group reached its conclusion by looking at archival materials and comparing each member’s work. Until then, the closest thing to an official count came from British military intelligence interrogator Theodore Pantcheff shortly after the war ended. He found at least 389 people dead in Alderney.

Over the years, debate over the numbers has drawn widespread attention to the island, sometimes to the dismay of its residents, who long for a quiet and remote lifestyle.

“I get a lot of arguments about numbers,” Mr. Pickles said. “Nothing can compare to the vicious or personal nature of the debate over numbers in Alderney.”

After learning of the panel’s conclusions, the island’s president, William Tate, said he was relieved and saddened: relieved that the numbers were not higher, and saddened by the hundreds of victims, whose identities are unknown. He remained virtually unidentified for more than seventy years.

“This is a very important moment in the history of our island,” he said.

Mr Tait said the island had a responsibility to preserve the memory of those victims and provide more information to residents and visitors in the form of signs.

The academics on the expert panel were pleased with the results of the much-anticipated report. “We succeeded beyond our expectations,” said Dr. Gilly Carr, a historian who has published books about the Nazi occupation of the island. Other members of the expert team are also confident in their findings.

Robert Jan van Pelt, a historian at the University of Waterloo and a member of the panel, said that while new information may surface that could lead to future insights, these results will stand up.

Alderney played a relatively small but extraordinary role in Britain’s Second World War history, imprinting the violence and atrocities of the Nazis directly on British soil.

The island currently has more than 2,000 residents and is about 10 miles off the coast of France. There are no gas chambers on the island. But researchers say conditions for laborers and prisoners on the island are appalling.

“In the eyes of the Nazi regime, Jewish forced laborers had a right to exist only if their labor could be exploited,” the report concluded. “The Holocaust is therefore part of Alderney’s history.”

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