What did the British find when they entered Belsen concentration camp?
Adolf Hitler set up his first concentration camp in Germany in 1933, soon after coming to power. He used it to keep his opponents locked away without trial. Soon many more camps were built, usually in remote areas, or forests. These camps were run by the SS (Shützstaffel). Concentration camps were soon being used to imprison Jews and other victims of the Nazi race policies. When the 'final solution' - Hitler's plan to kill all the Jews in Europe - was put into effect in 1941, gas chambers were built at several death-camps, of which Auschwitz was the most infamous.
Belsen (full name Bergen-Belsen) was set up in 1943. It was never used as a death-camp, but was still a place of unbelievable horrors and brutality. Towards the end of the war, thousands of Jews had been evacuated from camps in eastern Europe and marched west to avoid the advancing Soviet army. There were 40,000 prisoners at Belsen in April 1945, many dying each day, as well as thousands who had recently died and had not been buried.
The outside world knew of the camps even before the war, but took little notice of reports of what they were like. Thus when Allied soldiers began to advance into Germany at the end of the war and discovered the camps, they were deeply shocked by the conditions. These documents record what the British soldiers found, and how they responded.
1. Read Source 1. What are the different causes of death described in this document?
- Give your own account of what had happened at the cookhouse. How did the incident end?
- What does this account tell you about the attitudes of Kramer and the SS Guards towards the Jews?
- What does it tell you about the attitude of the British towards Kramer and the SS? What does the writer say which tells you this?
2. Read Source 2. This is a report about SS Guards shooting prisoners after the liberation of the camp.
- How did the British army set about meeting the basic needs of the prisoners?
- What effect did this have?
- The writer describes this as 'amazing'. Why do you think he used this word?
3. Read Source 3. This section of the document describes how the problems of feeding the prisoners at Belsen was initially handled.
- What had Hilde Lisiewitz done?
- What had Karl Egersdorf done?
- Look at the photographs in Source 5. Do the people you are looking at seem capable of the actions you have read about?
- Kramer and some of the SS Guards were put on trial for war crimes by the British. Kramer's defence was that he was only following orders. Some guards said the same. Do you think this is an acceptable defence?
- Kramer and several guards were executed. Hilde Lisiewitz was sentenced to one year's imprisonment and Karl Egersdorf was acquitted and released. Do you agree with these punishments?
- Many guards escaped and lived quietly for many years. Do you think it is right to arrest and try former concentration camp guards 40 or 50 years after the events described here?