Centre of Archaeology Hosts ‘What Britain Knew’ Conference



On the 30th November 2014, Staffordshire University through the Centre of Archaeology hosted the conference ‘What Britain Knew: The Holocaust and Nazi Crimes’. The conference, which was supported by the UK Chairmanship of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) and organised by the Centre of Archaeology at Staffordshire University, focused on the various ways in which information about the Nazis’ crimes was handled, interpreted and acted upon by the British government and the public, during and after the Second World War. A select group of experts from 19 different countries took part in panel discussions examining the relationships that Britain had with the rest of Europe as a result of the movement of people and intelligence across continents. The conference attracted speakers carrying out cutting-edge research into what Britain knew about the Holocaust and many presented papers in which they considered Britain as a place where the Holocaust has been analysed and reinterpreted. The keynote address was delivered by Sir Andrew Burns, the current Chair of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, who stressed the importance of nation states’ confronting their own history, particularly if they intend to educate others about the Holocaust and other genocides. Sir Andrew also commented on the modern relevance of discussing Britain’s responses to the Holocaust in terms of current issues concerning immigration and discrimination.

The conference was opened by Vice Chancellor Professor Michael Gunn from Staffordshire University who reflected on the importance of Holocaust research and highlighted some of the vital work being undertaken at Staffordshire University by academics across a number of different disciplines at sites in Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia and the Channel Islands in particular. Dr Caroline Sturdy Colls (Associate Professor of Forensic Archaeology and Genocide Investigation at Staffordshire University), who organised the conference, said ‘the What Britain Knew conference is an important milestone in confronting the lesser-known aspects of Britain’s knowledge of, and reactions to, the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes in Europe. This event bought together experts from a variety of different fields and from a variety of different countries. This allowed us to critically reflect on the issue of what Britain knew and contextualise our findings within broader Holocaust narratives’.

Dr Sturdy Colls also presented her own research relating to the network of concentration and labour camps that existed on the island of Alderney in the British Channel Islands. She outlined how the internment of slave labourers in these camps was known about by the British government as early as 1943 and how post-war investigators failed to make public the full extent of the Nazis’ crimes. She also demonstrated how new historical and archaeological research, undertaken in collaboration with staff and students from the University, is beginning to shed new light on these crimes seventy years after the island was liberated from German occupation. Dr Gilly Carr (University of Cambridge) also outlined how the Holocaust and Nazi crimes influenced the lives of people in the other Channel Islands and how some people were forcibly interred and deported to the concentration camps in mainland Europe. Still on British soil, Professor Harold Mytum (University of Liverpool) discussed the camps for German nationals that were established on the Isle of Man and the experiences of those interred within them.

Many papers at the conference argued that the traditional redemptive stories told concerning Britain’s refugee policies during the Holocaust fail to account for the wide range of individual experiences had by individual refugees. Dr Bea Lewkowicz and Dr Anthony Grenville, from the Association of Jewish Refugees, outlined how new research has shed light on the various experiences of refugees from Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic, whilst Dr Andrea Hammel considered new research relating to the Kindertransport. Professor Michael Fleming from the Polish University Abroad in London then went on to discuss the reactions of the British government to intelligence information sent from Poland concerning the death camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Chełmno, whilst Dr Dan Plesch from the University of London discussed the United Nations’ Declaration in 1942 which condemned the Nazi atrocities being perpetrated in Europe and led to the creation of the UN War Crimes Commission (1943-48), whose archives contain much unique information around the atrocities themselves and the evolution in thinking about what constitutes a war crime. The conference also featured a paper by Dr Russell Wallis from Royal Holloway London who discussed how British POWs witnessed the ill-treatment of Jews, political prisoners and other internees in the concentration camps. In the penultimate paper, Professor David Cesarani from Royal Holloway in London considered how Britain became a refuge for Nazi war criminals in the years following the Second World War. Looking to the future, Dr Andy Pearce (Royal Holloway London) discussed what directions Holocaust consciousness may take in Britain and what still needs to be done to respond to the pressing challenges of teaching, learning, and remembering the Holocaust.

The conference took place in Staffordshire University’s £30-million Science Centre on the Leek Road Campus. It was held ahead of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s Plenary which was held in Manchester in the first week of December. Further details can be found at: