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.
Hitler was driven by the racist ideas at the core of his beliefs. He did not invent anti-Semitism – these views had had been around in Europe for centuries – but he used it to win support. Many Germans, after their country’s defeat in the First World War and the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, were bitter and resentful. Hitler offered them a scapegoat to avoid facing up to the country’s problems and the faults of its leaders: he blamed everything on the Jews.
From 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, he was able to bring all the resources of a modern state to put anti-Semitism into practice. A stream of laws gradually deprived Jews of almost all their rights as citizens, from basic and important ones such as the right to an education and freedom of employment, to apparently trivial ones such as not being allowed to own pets, or a radio. Alongside these laws there were boycotts of Jewish shops and businesses and casual violence towards Jews by Nazis and their supporters.
One effect of all this was that ordinary Germans began to think of Jews as not proper citizens. This was encouraged by the Nazis’ total control of news, which was used for relentless propaganda against Jews. At the same time, Nazi control of education meant that all children were getting a similar message. While many resisted it, this decade of brain-washing may help to explain the behaviour of Germans found in these documents.
Only 1% of the population of Germany was of Jewish origin, but after the German invasion of the USSR in 1941, the Nazis took over an area of traditional Jewish settlement with up to 4 million Jews. Nazi leaders drew up what they called the ‘final solution’ to what they called the ‘Jewish question’. From then on, Nazi Germany was devoted increasingly to this ‘final solution’. More concentration camps were built, some with gas chambers designed for mass murder. Jews all over Europe, from Norway to Greece, were hunted down, arrested, listed, ferried on trains for hundreds of miles and then murdered or worked to death. Even when Germany was losing the war and every effort might have been needed to avoid defeat, trains, soldiers and resources were diverted to this task.
Belsen was never a death-camp, but was well-placed to hold Jews from western European countries. It was large anyway, but in April 1945 its numbers were swollen by huge consignments of prisoners force-marched or brought by train with no food or sanitation from camps further east. One of Belsen’s best-known prisoners was the diarist Anne Frank, who died in the camp in March 1945, only a few weeks before the camp was liberated.
The focus of many studies of the Holocaust is on the death-camps like Auschwitz, probably rightly. However, this study of Belsen reveals at least two other aspects of the subject.
First, it shows that British soldiers were aghast at what they found when they liberated the camps. Even though news of the ‘Final Solution’ – the camps, the railway journeys, the mass-murders – had been reported outside Germany, clearly it was not widely known. Allied leaders had always said that their business was winning the war and refused to divert their attention to blocking the traffic in human lives. They do not seem to have circulated knowledge of what they knew to the wider public. The apparently cold report reveals both the callousness of the camp commandant and his guards and the anger of the author at their behaviour.
Second, instead of the usual Holocaust pictures of emaciated or dead bodies, it shows the perpetrators. These photos may well be just as chilling as the more obvious horror pictures, especially when individual acts of cruelty can be linked to individuals whose faces pupils can see.
Apart from the set tasks, these two themes could provide plenty of scope for discussion.
It is worth noting that the SS had several divisions, one of which was responsible for the running of the concentration and death camps.
Nazi Germany had three types of camps in operation: Labour camps (Arbeitslager), such as Kaiserwald in Latvia and Malchow in Germany, which used political prisoners as forced labour for the German Government; Concentration camps, such as Bergen-Belsen and Dachau, both in Germany, which used Jewish prisoners as free labour for the German state and various related companies, such as IG Faber; and Death Camps, such as Sobibór and Treblinka in Poland which were set up for the sole purpose of exterminating Jews.
Some death camps were purpose built for the executions, while some were converted concentration and labour camps. Probably the best known of these is the Auschwitz camp, where sections were used as a labour camp, and the infamous Birkenau part of the camp was used as a death camp.
Illustration : FO 371/36653
Source 1, 2 and 3: WO 235/19 76008
Source 4: WO 235/19 76008 Deposition of Dora Almaleh
Source 5: WP 235/19 Photos SGC 9 and SGC 3
A site developed by Beth Shalom which explores the holocaust, including a section on the use of concentration camps.