Why I fear that next week’s inquiry into Alderney deaths will not be objective

Members of the panel have already expressed trenchant views


The entrance to S.S Lager Sylt Concentration Camp on Alderney

May 16, 2024 12:34

Next Wednesday, 22 May, will see the belated launch of Lord Pickles’ Alderney Expert Review at the Imperial War Museum. It has been avidly trailed with self-praise by some of the chosen experts themselves.

Apart from research by Professor Anthony Glees on the British failure to conduct trials of Nazi perpetrators of war crimes on the island, the other findings will be of narrow importance. The number of slave and forced labourers murdered on the island or resulting from their treatment there – the core inquiry question – is relatively insignificant compared with the overall dimensions of the Shoah. It is, of course, of special relevance to Channel Islanders.

The risk is that the status of Holocaust studies stands to be damaged by the quarrels and bickering that have characterised bad-tempered disputes over many years among a small circle of specialists on the topic. Some of them have been Inquiry members.

I much hope that Lord Pickles will emerge relatively unscathed. The British public owes huge debts to this former cabinet member for his tireless work as the UK Special Envoy on Post-Holocaust Issues. Anglo-Jewry has no better, wiser and more active friend.

This article does not implicitly suggest a high death total. That must depend on evidence. But suggestions in the Inquiry literature that some higher estimates promote Holocaust denial are far-fetched.

Prominent pro-Israel commentator Colonel Richard Kemp is seemingly one of the high total “conspiracy theorists” under attack. The panel member responsible for replying to questions on the Inquiry’s official website has implied that so far unidentified “conspiracy theorists” have suggested that more than 160,000 Alderney victims died. This is an exaggerated caricature.

Life among small island populations evidently gives rise to feuds. The JC reported in 2011 that Freddie Cohen, then leader of Jersey’s Jewish Congregation and the author of an important study on the Islands' experience under the Nazis, had been subject to antisemitic abuse including a death threat.

More recently, the Alderney Inquiry co-odinator felt she needed to resign as the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance representative for Alderney (she still represents Guernsey and Jersey).

All of the chosen experts would have been ideal in offering testimonies based on their previous researches. But there is an important issue: should scholars be asked to perform a quasi-judicial role after some of them have already expressed strong views and have been so critical of others about the Inquiry question? Moreover, a number of them have close Channel Islands connections.

This raises questions about neutrality and objectivity.

As happens too often, the term “expert” has been used ambiguously. To have strong academically-grounded knowledge and strong opinions is different to being dispassionate in weighing evidence brought by others.

A weak self-serving argument has been that Inquiry members’ previous writings have passed the academic “gold standard” test of “peer review”. In practice this procedure of anonymous evaluation by colleagues is subject to manipulation. In a very narrow field such as Holocaust archaeology, that of nearly half of the panellists, the worldwide circle is especially small.

Information from one Holocaust museum indicates that 30 percent of the global total of Holocaust archaeologists served on the Inquiry despite the dubious relevance, in my opinion, of their specialism.

“Lidar” drones revealing buried foundations of labour camps prove little about the numbers who died from their work on Alderney. Exhausted and starved prisoners were not always murdered on Alderney itself and buried in a single grave; they were often sent back to die in mainland concentration camps. Counting them requires, at the very least, comprehensive records of shipping movements to and from Alderney and numbers of labourers carried on each ship.

A further requirement is to find reliable and comprehensive evidence [1] of deaths of prisoners during land transportation to and [2] from Alderney and [3] of the number of those dying either during subsequent imprisonment in concentration camps or, indeed, [4] shortly after their release.

My grandmother spent time in a Neuengamme sub-camp; some Alderney camps also were Neuengamme sub-camps. A panel member who has researched deaths in Neuengamme worryingly excluded deaths-in-transit as well as deaths from exhaustion after release from his earlier calculations. In the process of examining my Grandmother’s experience, I have discovered how common such deaths were.

Even 80 years later, Jewish/Israeli and German Holocaust scholars still tend to have different approaches. Though not universal, it makes the composition of the panel feel uncomfortable from a Jewish viewpoint.

Finally, the timely release of all documents used by the panel is vital. Release of the main sets of newly discovered documents should have occurred considerably in advance of the report’s publication as repeatedly requested.

The lack of timely documentary transparency raises fear of a campaign of spin to capture initial headlines before independent scholarly checks are possible.

These are five things to check when the report is released on 22 May:

[1] Availability of documents used by the Inquiry.

[2] Has the Inquiry succeeded in tracing all shipping movements to and from Alderney, 1940-1945?

[3] Will the report give maximum as well as minimum likely totals of dead?

[4] Does the research cover deaths of labourers en route to and from Alderney, in mainland camps, and resulting from the effects of their ordeals?

[5] are Inquiry internal papers subject to the FOIA?

Michael Pinto-Duschinsky was a member of the UK Commission on a Bill of Rights and consultant to the Committee on Standards in Public Life.

May 16, 2024 12:34

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