The first proceedings against the Nazi war criminals after the war were conducted by a British Military Tribunal at Lüneburg, Germany in November 1945. Some of the staff members of Bergen-Belsen had previously worked at Auschwitz-Birkenau and former prisoners of that camp, who had been transferred to Bergen-Belsen in January 1945, testified about the crimes committed at Auschwitz-Birkenau at the Lüneburg proceedings. Dr. Klein was charged with selecting prisoners for the gas chamber at Auschwitz, but there were no charges, involving a gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen, against any of the accused.
The anti-Hitler movement inside Germany, which included German communists and Jehovah's Witnesses, was the largest indigenous resistance movement of any country during the whole war. Only in Germany was an attempt made to assassinate their leader. Around 800,000 were sent to prison at one time or another for active resistance to the regime. While the western allies did all in their power to help other resistance movements, ie in France and the Netherlands, they did nothing to help or encourage the movement in Germany which in all probability could have ended the war sooner. But the Allies were intent on unconditional surrender and refused to make any deals at all with Germans. Accordingly the Allies viewed all Germans as bad, not only Nazis.
Owing to the severe refugee crisis mainly caused by the expulsions of ethnic Germans, the camp was from late 1948 used to house 2000 Germans from Czechoslovakia (mainly from the Sudetenland). This settlement was called Dachau-East, and remained until the mid-1960s. During this time, former prisoners banded together to erect a memorial on the site of the camp, finding it unbelievable that there were still people (refugees) living in the former camp.
The Jews killed represented around one third of the world population of Jews, and about two-thirds of European Jewry, based on an estimate of 9.7 million Jews in Europe at the start of the war. Much of the uncertainty stems from the lack of a reliable figure for the number of Jews in Europe in 1939, numerous border changes that make avoiding double-counting of victims difficult, lack of accurate records from the perpetrators, and uncertainty about whether deaths occurring months after liberation, but caused by the persecution, should be counted.
The composition of the inmates reflected the Nazis’ changing choice of victims. The first inmates were Social Democrats, Communists, and other political prisoners. Throughout its existence, Dachau remained a “political camp,” in which political prisoners retained a prominent role. Later victims included Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jews were brought to Dachau after Kristallnacht in November 1938. Initially, Jews could be freed if they had a way out of Germany. When the systematic killing of Jews began in 1942, many were sent from Dachau to the extermination camps. Dachau received Jews again after the “death marches” of the winter of 1944–45. These marches, following the forcible evacuation of the extermination camps, were one of the final phases of the Holocaust.
After some time off to recover in Zwittau, Schindler was promoted to second in command of his Abwehr unit and relocated with his wife to Ostrava, on the Czech-Polish border, in January 1939. He was involved in espionage in the months leading up to Hitler's seizure of the remainder of Czechoslovakia in March. Emilie helped him with paperwork, processing and hiding secret documents in their apartment for the Abwehr office. As Schindler frequently travelled to Poland on business, he and his 25 agents were in a position to collect information about Polish military activities and railways for the planned invasion of Poland. One assignment called for his unit to monitor and provide information about the railway line and tunnel in the Jablunkov Pass, deemed critical for the movement of German troops. Schindler continued to work for the Abwehr until as late as fall 1940, when he was sent to Turkey to investigate corruption among the Abwehr officers assigned to the German embassy there.
The camp physician, Dr. Katz of Nuremberg, was also a prisoner. At first he was well treated because the guards and even the Commander admired his courageous attitude, but after he had witnessed the torture inflicted upon the prisoners, it became dangerous for the Nazis to release him. It was reported later that he had hanged himself in a detention cell—a few days before his anticipated release. His presence in the cell, however, was never explained.
Under the Nuremberg Laws, Jews became routine targets for stigmatization and persecution. This culminated in Kristallnacht, or the “night of broken glass” in November 1938, when German synagogues were burned and windows in Jewish shops were smashed; some 100 Jews were killed and thousands more arrested. From 1933 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews who were able to leave Germany did, while those who remained lived in a constant state of uncertainty and fear.
Advocacy organizations worldwide called for British Royal Air Forces to bomb concentration camps particularly at Auschwitz. Although the plan was adopted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill poor information-sharing between parts of the British government led the order to be ignored and the plan dropped. Such calculations were hardly the low point of Allied Responses. One story has that, low on supplies, the Nazis offered the British a million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks, which one British diplomat promptly refused saying, “What would I do with one million Jews? Where would I put them?”
... In Bergen-Belsen, for example, thousands of corpses of Jewish prisoners were found by British soldiers on the day of liberation, which gave the impression that this was one of the notorious extermination camps. Actually, many Jews in Bergen-Belsen as well as in the satellite camps of Dachau died in the last weeks before the end of the war as a result of the quickly improvised retransfers and evacuations of Jewish workers from the still existing ghettos, work camps and concentration camps in the East (Auschwitz) ...
^ Goebbels noted: "Regarding the Jewish question, the Fuhrer is determined to clear the table. He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their own destruction. Those were not empty words. Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence. We cannot be sentimental about it. It is not for us to feel sympathy for the Jews. We should have sympathy rather with our own German people. If the German people have to sacrifice 160,000 victims in yet another campaign in the east, then those responsible for this bloody conflict will have to pay for it with their lives."
Dachau was never a camp that was specifically intended for murdering the Jews; the Nazi plan was to consolidate all the Jews into ghettos, from which they were later sent to the death camps. German Jews were sent to the Lodz ghetto in what is now Poland where they worked in factories until 1944; those who could no longer work were sent to the Chelmno death camp. In 1942, the Jews who were still living in Germany were sent to the Theresienstadt ghetto in what is now the Czech Republic and from there to the gas chambers in Auschwitz-Birkenau.
The passengers had landing certificates and transit visas by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez. But, a week before the ship left, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru published a decree that overturned all recent landing certificates. For them to land in Cuba, they needed written authorization from the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor and a $500 bond. Most of the passengers were not prepared for the bureaucratic mess they were about to face in Cuba.
Similarly, in Ordinary Men (1992), Christopher Browning examined the deeds of German Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei ("order police"), used to commit massacres and round-ups of Jews, as well as mass deportations to the death camps. The members of the battalion were middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg, who were too old for regular military duty. They were given no special training. During the murder of 1,500 Jews from Józefów in Poland, their commander allowed them to opt out of direct participation. Fewer than 12 men out of a battalion of 500 did so. Influenced by the Milgram experiment on obedience, Browning argued that the men killed out of peer pressure, not bloodlust.
The fire signaled the demise of German democracy. On the next day, the government, under the pretense of controlling the Communists, abolished individual rights and protections: freedom of the press, assembly, and expression were nullified, as well as the right to privacy. When the elections were held on March 5, the Nazis received nearly 44 percent of the vote, and with 8 percent offered by the Conservatives, won a majority in the government.
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a "barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation."
The roots of Hitler’s particularly virulent brand of anti-Semitism are unclear. Born in Austria in 1889, he served in the German army during World War I. Like many anti-Semites in Germany, he blamed the Jews for the country’s defeat in 1918. Soon after the war ended, Hitler joined the National German Workers’ Party, which became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), known to English speakers as the Nazis. While imprisoned for treason for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote the memoir and propaganda tract “Mein Kampf”(My Struggle), in which he predicted a general European war that would result in “the extermination of the Jewish race in Germany.”
Oskar Schindler was a German who joined the Nazi Party for business reasons. Before the war, Schindler was known mainly for his interest in making quick money, drinking, and womanizing. Indeed, he saw the war at first as a chance to indulge in all three. Soon after the invasion of Poland, he came to the city of Kraków in search of business opportunities. With equal doses of bribery and charm, he managed to convince the Nazis that he was the right man to take over a failed cookware factory outside the city. He then proceeded to make a fortune turning out mess kits for German soldiers.
Tens of thousands of Jews held in the eastern territories were marched towards the heart of Germany so they could not bear witness to the Allies. Aware that the world had been alerted to the horrors of the camps, the Nazis sought to destroy evidence. In June, Soviet forces liberated the first major camp, known as Majdanek, in Lublin, Poland. The Nazis had burned down the crematorium chimney but had failed to destroy the gas chambers and barracks. Only a few hundred inmates were still alive.
As we approached the cells of the SS guards, the [British] sergeant's language become ferocious. "We had had an interrogation this morning," the captain said. 'I'm afraid they are not a pretty sight.' ... The sergeant unbolted the first door and ... strode into the cell, jabbing a metal spike in front of him. "Get up," he shouted. "Get up. Get up, you dirty bastards." There were half a dozen men lying or half lying on the floor. One or two were able to pull themselves erect at once. The man nearest me, his shirt and face spattered with blood, made two attempts before he got on to his knees and then gradually on to his feet. He stood with his arms stretched out in front of him, trembling violently.
In June 1941 Germany attacked the Soviet Union and began the "Final Solution." Four mobile killing groups were formed called Einsatzgruppen A, B, C and D. Each group contained several commando units. The Einsatzgruppen gathered Jews town by town, marched them to huge pits dug earlier, stripped them, lined them up, and shot them with automatic weapons. The dead and dying would fall into the pits to be buried in mass graves. In the infamous Babi Yar massacre, near Kiev, 30,000-35,000 Jews were killed in two days. In addition to their operations in the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen conducted mass murder in eastern Poland, Estonia, Lithuania and Latvia. It is estimated that by the end of 1942, the Einsatzgruppen had murdered more than 1.3 million Jews.
Haaretz.com, the online edition of Haaretz Newspaper in Israel, and analysis from Israel and the Middle East. Haaretz.com provides extensive and in-depth coverage of Israel, the Jewish World and the Middle East, including defense, diplomacy, the Arab-Israeli conflict, the peace process, Israeli politics, Jerusalem affairs, international relations, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, the Palestinian Authority, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, the Israeli business world and Jewish life in Israel and the Diaspora.
On April 15, 1945, Bergen-Belsen was liberated by the Allied 21st Army Group, a combined British-Canadian unit. At the time of liberation, the camp had been without food or water for three to five days. As Matthew Nesbitt, a Canadian liberator, recounted, "…the first thing we had to do when we got to camp. Prior to even distributing the food. And that was to make sure we used the guards to separate the living from the dead, from the huts, because first of all, if we are going to save anybody, we had to know who was alive and who had to be buried…The only way you could do that was to go into each individual hut and shake whoever was on that little slab…if they didn't move, they were dead."
The secretary of the Communist party, Deputy Joseph Goetz, was frequently taken out for a cross-examination. He always returned to his cell covered with wounds, and the orderly at the barracks refused to dress them. Every night at 10 o’clock, Steinbrenner, one of the overseers, entered the cell with five other special policemen equipped with long oxtails. They beat him into unconsciousness. The mattress, drenched with blood, was put out to dry in the sun every second day. After having gone through this torture for more than two weeks, Goetz was killed in his cell. His coffin was made in the cabinet-makers’ workshop by his former friends. In the meantime, his corpse lay in a coal cellar, the bleeding head wrapped in newspapers.
Schindler moved to West Germany after the war, where he was supported by assistance payments from Jewish relief organisations. After receiving a partial reimbursement for his wartime expenses, he moved with his wife, Emilie, to Argentina, where they took up farming. When he went bankrupt in 1958, Schindler left his wife and returned to Germany, where he failed at several business ventures and relied on financial support from Schindlerjuden ("Schindler Jews")—the people whose lives he had saved during the war. He and his wife, Emilie, were named Righteous Among the Nations by the Israeli government in 1993. He died on 9 October 1974 in Hildesheim, Germany, and was buried in Jerusalem on Mount Zion, the only member of the Nazi Party to be honoured in this way.
Women who became pregnant shortly after the Holocaust had not always regained full strength and health. They and their babies were often in danger. There was a constant shortage of proper nutrition in the DP camp, undernourished mothers found it difficult to breastfeed, and there was not enough baby food in the DP camp. The fact that new mothers did not usually have guidance from their own mothers, grandmothers, sisters or aunts, as they would have had in previous happier times, also posed a challenge. As a result, the welfare agencies that operated in Bergen Belsen made great efforts to care for new mothers and babies. Moreover, young mothers at Bergen Belsen reached out to help one another, creating extended "families."
Denazification courts were created by the Allies to try members of the SS and other Nazi organisations. Between 1947 and 1949 these courts initiated proceedings against at least 46 former SS staff at Belsen. Around half of these were discontinued, mostly because the defendants were considered to have been forced to join the SS.:39 Those who were sentenced received prison terms of between four and 36 months or were fined. As the judges decided to count the time the defendants had spent in Allied internment towards the sentence, the terms were considered to have already been fully served.