Belsen concentration camp 1945

Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Second World War 1939-1945

Curriculum topics: The Second World War

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these documents reveal about conditions in Belsen concentration camp after liberation by the British?

Potential activities: Students research the Nuremberg trails held after the Second World War. What were these trials? What was their outcome? Why are they so important?

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-Birkenau was the most infamous.

The SS camp at Bergen-Belsen was created in 1943. Prior to being used as a concentration camp, it was used as a Prisoner of War (POW) camp. Later, Jews and political prisoners were held at Belsen before being deported or exchanged for Germans who were being held in British and Allied occupied territories. It was not a death camp, although it was a place of unbelievable horror and brutality. After its liberation, it became a displacement camp where survivors were cared for by the Red Cross.

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 died of ill treatment, starvation and disease.

The outside world knew of the camps even before the war, but took little notice of reports of what they were like. When Allied soldiers began to advance into Germany at the end of the war and discovered the camps, they were therefore deeply shocked by the conditions. Use this lesson to find original documents that reveal what British soldiers found at Bergen-Belsen and how they responded.


History Hook – Starter Activity

1. Read Source 1. What are the different causes of death described in this document?

2. Read Source 2. This is a report about SS Guards shooting prisoners after the liberation of the camp.

  • 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?

3. Read Source 3. This section of the document describes how the problems of feeding the prisoners at Belsen was handled initially.

  • 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?

4. Read Source 4. This is a witness statement from one of the prisoners at Belsen.

  • 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?

5. Look at Sources 5 a and b. These are photographs of some of the SS guards who worked at Belsen. Those who are mentioned in the reports in Source 4 are shown here. What can we learn from these photographs?

6. Read Source 6. This is a telegram from Lisbon to the Foreign Office, 20 August 1944.

  • What type of document is this?
  • What are the key features of this type of source?
  • Who is from?
  • Who is it sent to?
  • What does it say?
  • Why do think the camp is situated in ‘a sparsley populated area’?
  • The date of this source is August 1944, before the camp was liberated in April 1945. What does the source reveal?


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 seemingly 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’. This was a carefully devised plan designed to annihilate all the Jews in Europe. From then on, Nazi Germany began a programme of expanding concentration camps to include forced labour camps and building death camps purposely 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 it was well-placed to hold Jews from Western European countries. Its expansion was rapid and its use changed according to the needs of the Nazi war effort. By April 1945 its numbers were swollen by huge consignments of starving and dying prisoners who were forcibly marched or brought by train 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.

Teachers' notes

This lesson has a History Hook starter video to hook students into the topic.

This Bergen-Belsen lesson gives students the opportunity to uncover the Nazi camp system in greater detail. It covers the unfolding events of the Nazi plan to annihilate Jews and its attempts to continue this policy even when it was apparent that defeat was inevitable.

Many studies of the Holocaust have focussed on death camps such as Auschwitz. However, this lesson, which is based on documents concerning Bergen-Belsen, offers two further themes to discuss with students:

  • Firstly, it shows that British soldiers were aghast at what they found when they liberated the camp. Even though news of the camps, railway journeys and mass-murders had been reported outside Germany, clearly it was not widely known or believed. Why did the Allies not bomb the camps? You can find more documents on this in our World War II website. Allied leaders had always said that their objective was to win the war and much of what was being reported was not circulated to the wider public. However, Allies and resistance movements in Nazi-occupied countries informed the British and US governments of atrocities as early as 1940 and continued to do so for the duration of the war.
  • Secondly, instead of photographs of those who died or survived the Holocaust, this study of Belsen reveals the perpetrators of this crime against humanity. The photographs in this lesson may be just as chilling, as they link acts of cruelty to the individuals who committed them – whom students can also find mentioned in documents in the lesson. It is worth noting that the SS had several divisions, one of which was responsible for the running of the concentration and death camps.

In this lesson students examine two extracts from a War Office report, which describes conditions found at Bergen-Belsen by the British army. The second extract tells how SS Guards started to shoot inmates after the liberation of the camp and how the British army dealt with the situation. It reveals the callousness of the camp commandant and his guards but also the anger of the author at their behaviour. The third source describes the preliminary steps taken to feed the inmates and the problems encountered when feeding those suffering from starvation. The fourth source is the harrowing witness statement of Dora Almaleh for the British War Crimes Tribunal. Source 5 reveals photographs of the some of the SS guards who worked at Belsen, including those mentioned in the earlier witness statement. The final source is a telegram from Lisbon to the Foreign Office about people transferred from Belsen to North Africa.

It is important for students to be able to distinguish between the types of camps which operated with the Nazi regime:

  • Concentration camps, which detained civilians seen as real or perceived ‘enemies of the Reich’, e.g. Dachau, Sachsenhausen, Ravensbruck
  • Forced-labour camps, where the Nazi regime brutally exploited the labour of prisoners for economic gain and to meet labour shortages, e.g. Mauthausen and Gross-Rosen
  • Transit camps, which functioned as temporary holding facilities for Jews awaiting deportation, e.g. Theresienstadt. These camps were usually the last stop before deportations to a killing centre.
  • Killing centres, which were established primarily or exclusively for the murder of large numbers of people immediately upon arrival to the site. There were five death camps used as killing centres for the murder primarily of Jews. These were Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Following the expansion of the smaller Auschwitz camp, which initially housed political prisoners mainly from Poland and Russia, Auschwitz-Birkenau became the largest and most infamous. It surpassed the other camps due to its geographical location in Europe.


Banner image: 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

Source 6: FO 916/847

External links

Imperial War Museum: The Liberation Of Bergen-Belsen: British servicemen and relief workers talk about their experiences during and immediately after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum website

Holocaust Memorial Day

The National World War II Museum: The Nuremberg Trails

The National Archives blog: The British sailor murdered at Bergen-Belsen: The 75th anniversary of the Bergen-Belsen Trials

Centre for Holocaust Education: Online resources for students

Connections to curriculum

Key stage 3

Challenges for Britain, Europe and the wider world 1901 to the present day In addition to studying the Holocaust

Key stage 4

AQA GCSE History: Germany, 1890–1945: Democracy and dictatorship
Edexcel GCSE History: c1900–present: Warfare and British society in modern era
OCR GCSE History: War and British Society c.790 to c.2010; attitudes and responses to war

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Lesson at a glance

Suitable for: Key stage 3, Key stage 4

Time period: Second World War 1939-1945

Curriculum topics: The Second World War

Suggested inquiry questions: What do these documents reveal about conditions in Belsen concentration camp after liberation by the British?

Potential activities: Students research the Nuremberg trails held after the Second World War. What were these trials? What was their outcome? Why are they so important?

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