Artist's discovery of an 'execution wall' sheds light on the brutal history of Nazi concentration camps on British soil
Thousands of prisoners were forced under horrifying conditions into labor and concentration camps in the English Channel by Hitler's Third Reich.
Lager Sylt 2023 German gunpowder ink on paper.
A British artist probing an almost forgotten chapter of the Nazi occupation of the small island in the English Channel hopes his work will "serve as a warning from history."
Seeing art as a historical and political tool, Piers Secunda will exhibit new artwork of a reproduction of a "little understood" Nazi execution site later this month in London.
Secunda — whose art explores the impact of destructive conflicts worldwide — first traveled to Alderney in 2019 to explore the island that Adolf Hitler once called an "impregnable fortress," he told Insider. The tiny island has been called the
"Island of silence"
Because there has not been much investigation into the exact atrocities committed during Nazi occupation.
Hitler believed the occupation of the Channel Islands — including Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, and Sark — might be a "stepping stone" to invade Britain,
the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust. The Nazis occupied all four islands in the English Channel until the end of the war in 1945, after encountering no resistance from the British.
The Channel Islands in relation to France and England
While many civilians on larger islands like Jersey and Guernsey stayed, almost all residents of the three-mile-long Alderney were forced to evacuate after France fell to the Nazis in 1940. This added to the somewhat hazy history of the brutalities in Alderney, with very few people to witness.
Before the Germans occupied the Channel Islands, the whole population of Alderney were evacuated to England. The British Garrison welcomed the returning islanders in January 1946.
Francis Reiss/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Thousands of prisoners were brought to Alderney — referred to by Nazis during the war as "Adolf Island" — and forced under horrifying conditions into labor camps to build the Nazis' "Atlantic Wall" of concrete fortifications. The island also contained two concentration camps run by Hitler's notorious SS units.
Prisoners in the camps were
From Ukraine, Poland and Russia. Also included were significant numbers of French Jews. Officially, Alderney's death toll was around 300. However, scholars claim that the actual death toll is closer to 300.
is likely much higher
in the tens of thousands.
Secunda stated that Alderney was an "extraordinarily picturesque, idyllic agricultural community" and is still so.
The small island of Alderney
Part of his exhibit uses cordite — a form of gunpowder — found on the island to make silkscreen prints, highlighting the area's natural beauty.
Secunda's artwork reveals the island’s darker side most clearly with a bullet-ridden wall in a Victorian Fort on the north shore. Secunda first suspected that it was Nazi execution site based on his previous artwork about conflict and destruction by Taliban and Islamic State.
Close up of bullet impact marks on wall in Fort Platte Saline, Alderney.
As he made a mold of the wall in a place that is now a construction site, one of the employees told Secunda that he had found a bullet in the concrete, which he had kept in a cup in his desk drawer.
Secunda was able to match the bullet with German rifle ammunition using the assistance of a weaponry specialist. Secunda also sought out the help of two ballistic experts at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York. Secunda's theory regarding the wall being damaged was confirmed by all three forensic experts.
"I've gone down a rabbit hole with this project in a way that I never have with anything previously," Secunda said. The horrors of the historical circumstance of the island are not concretely understood, and there is a "wealth of information that had never been unfolded," he said.
While Secunda said he received immediate support and enthusiasm for the project from locals and the island's government, there has historically been controversy over research into the once-occupied island's tragic past.
A recent archeological study and a subsequent
"Adolf Island" assessed the crimes committed at labor camp Lager Sylt on the island. In 1943, Sylt became a
concentration camp run by an SS group
called the "Death's Head Unit."
German occupying troops parading in St. Helier on Jersey, Channel Islands in 1940.
Photo by Heinrich Hoffmann/ullstein bild via Getty Images
lead author of the study
Caroline Sturdy Colls said she and her team faced resistance from residents. She told
Megan Gannon for National Geographic
The atrocities at Sylt were "physically and metaphorically buried".
The British government tried documentation at the end of the war.
a leaked secret document
known as the "Pantcheff Report" found that 337 people had been killed in the camps.
The report conceded that "it is impossible to say with any exactitude that the general figure of 337 could represent the full number of deaths on the island,"
to Coda Story. But no prosecutions were ever made by the British government for the deaths or possible war crimes — making it difficult for some locals to reckon the island's history and marred landscape, Coda Story reported.
Several reasons account for the uncertainty of exactly what happened on Alderney between 1940 and 1945 — embarrassment and secret-keeping from the British government, disagreements between scholars and local people about the immensity of the tragedy, and Nazis
Destroying the camps
Before they fled.
A group of German soldiers arrived from Alderney on the Channel Island. There, hundreds, if no thousands, were killed in concentration camps in Southampton, UK, May 22, 1945.
Keystone-France/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images
There is a general lack of awareness in global memory, unlike in Germany and Poland. Many were tortured to death by Nazis on British soil. This is what a recent policy suggestion suggests. Last year, a
Proposed right-wing British think tank
That asylum seekers heading to the UK should be held on the island.
Andrew Muter, the former chief executive of States of Alderney was shocked that the proposal had been rejected. He said, "Pause, for a moment, to think about the slave labour camps which were on Alderney in order to fulfill Hitler’s Atlantic Wall strategy,"
Local news reported that they are urging policy-makers not to forget the "thousands" of Jewish, Romany and French citizens who were sent there.
Secunda's exhibit aims to remember those who were subjected to the cruelty of the Nazis and died as a result. It also serves as a way to discover hidden violent histories that could be repeated. He said that the art is a warning about the current "huge shift" in global politics to the right.
"Alderney: A Holocaust on British Soil"
at Cromwell Place Gallery on March 15.