How Deadly Were the UK’s Secret Nazi Concentration Camps?
A new Smithsonian Channel documentary, ‘Adolf Island,’ examines the only SS-run concentration camps on British soil in an attempt to uncover new mass graves.
Six million Jews died in the Holocaust, and yet not a word about them is spoken during Adolf Island, a new documentary special premiering on the Smithsonian Channel (June 23) that investigates the only SS-run concentration camps on British soil—specifically, on the island of Alderney, 60 miles off the south coast of England. According to the program, the men and women rounded up by the Nazis were “dissidents and outsiders” and “political opponents,” but as for Jews, well, they don’t warrant a single mention, even in passing—an omission that epitomizes the speciousness of this hour-long program.
Adolf Island claims that it wants to uncover long-buried WWII Alderney atrocities in order to pay tribute to the experiences of the slain. However, it goes out of its way to not actually identify the types of people who might have perished on the island. The northernmost of the inhabited Channel Islands, Alderney boasted two work camps, Borkum and Helgoland, plus two concentration camps, Norderney and Sylt. Sylt was operated by the SS—and housed Jews. Regardless, the show only discusses these facilities’ victims in the most general way, even as archival footage depicts gaunt concentration camp inmates. Its narrative-warping silence is all the more striking considering its purported goal, articulated by a Washington, D.C., Holocaust Museum interviewee: to learn more about small concentration camps because “one of the things that we really try to do here is bring back people’s identities, humanize them. That they’re not just numbers, but that they’re actual people who had lives.”
That they did—many of them Jewish lives!—although good luck finding out much about them here. Adolf Island details the work of professor and forensic investigator Caroline Sturdy Colls, whose research previously led to the discovery of mass graves at the Treblinka concentration camp. As Colls explains, Hitler invaded Alderney in 1940 as part of his larger takeover of the Channel Islands, which he planned to fortify as military bases that would help him control the English Channel. Archival footage of German officers having their car doors opened by British police officers certainly proves chilling, as does present-day imagery of the remnants of the German occupation—concrete barrier walls, gun turrets and army barracks—that still pepper the windswept locale’s landscape.
Colls arrives in Alderney with the hope of excavating near a cemetery at Longis Common where 336 German prisoners were buried, because she suspects that the actual body count was far greater. Given the Nazis’ homicidal ruthlessness, Colls’ suspicions seem perfectly valid. The actual evidence she has to suggest this is true, however, only amounts to her familiarity with Nazi practices, and a few anecdotal accounts about which we’re briefly informed. Nonetheless, Colls acts as if she’s on the verge of making monumental history. “This is probably the biggest murder case on British soil in the modern age,” she proclaims at the outset.
An impediment to Colls’ research soon arises in the form of the local Alderney government, via a letter denying her request to perform archaeological digs; only non-invasive measures are permitted. This is cast by Colls, and Adolf Island, as a blatant denial of history and cover-up of wartime horrors, because doing so allows Colls to present herself as a persecuted crusader. The problem is, we never directly hear from the Alderney government about its reasoning, which makes this David-vs.-Goliath dynamic feel as false and manufactured as the many shots of Colls walking around Alderney. Never fear, though, as Colls enlists the help of an expert team of drone operators (their airborne devices equipped with LIDAR technology) to photograph the sites in question—techniques that afford never-before-seen views of the structures hidden beneath Alderney’s brush-covered surface.
The results, you’ll be stunned to hear, are… underwhelming. Moreover, they fail to achieve Colls’ stated aims: to comprehend the true scale of the camp (which remains only vaguely known); to deduce how it functioned (the best she can tell, it was a labor camp, and sometimes sent prisoners back to Germany’s Neuengamme camp); and to determine who its victims were (again, maybe… Jews?!?). Rather than providing real insight into its central questions, Adolf Island provides unsubstantiated tidbits as a means of implying that the fluff it’s serving viewers is concrete proof of something. That’s never more true than during the finale, when Colls reports that she’s “identified features that have characteristics of unmarked burials”—and then the narrator baldly triples down by stating that Colls has unearthed “a crime scene” and that her data “confirm the presence of the mass grave.”
Speaking of the narrator: rarely has voiceover been as bluntly expository. Everything is relayed in the most loaded, portentous and/or overblown language imaginable, and that goes for Colls as well. Practical maps, cursory newsreel clips and ominous music round out this unimaginative package. While it’s easy to excuse such crude aesthetics as part and parcel of a reality-TV production designed for easy digestion—replete with post-commercial recaps of the prior action, for those viewers just tuning in—they stand in sharp contrast to the more daring non-fiction artistry that can be found, on a routine basis, on HBO, Netflix, and numerous other small-screen outlets.
In effect, Adolf Island is a lot like those dishonest ghost-hunting cable shows that overhype the importance of their sleuthing, treat each new development like a bombshell (before speeding on to the next one), and then end by making definitive conclusions that aren’t supported by the preceding findings. Colls comes across as sincerely interested in examining and exposing hitherto ignored Nazi malevolence. Nonetheless, by trading in faux-revelations, and treating common-sense logic as headline-deserving news—I mean, can you believe Himmler gave SS commandants the authority to kill concentration camp prisoners?—her Alderney inquiry comes across as a disingenuous attempt to give voice to those who died in the Holocaust.
The vast majority of whom were, you know, Jews.