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Commandant Kramer, who was vilified in the British and American press as "The Beast of Belsen" and "The Monster of Belsen," was put on trial and then executed, along with chief physician Dr. Fritz Klein and other camp officials. At his trial, Kramer's defense attorney, Major T.C.M. Winwood, predicted: "When the curtain finally rings down on this stage Josef Kramer will, in my submission, stand forth not as 'The Beast of Belsen' but as 'The Scapegoat of Belsen'." /24
Timothy D. Snyder (Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, 2010): "In this book the term Holocaust signifies the final version of the Final Solution, the German policy to eliminate the Jews of Europe by murdering them. Although Hitler certainly wished to remove the Jews from Europe in a Final Solution earlier, the Holocaust on this definition begins in summer 1941, with the shooting of Jewish women and children in the occupied Soviet Union. The term Holocaust is sometimes used in two other ways: to mean all German killing policies during the war, or to mean all oppression of Jews by the Nazi regime. In this book, Holocaust means the murder of the Jews in Europe, as carried out by the Germans by guns and gas between 1941 and 1945."
Also in 1936, a new camp called Sachsenhausen was built to replace the former "wild camp" that had been set up in an abandoned brewery in Oranienburg in 1933. The camp in the old brewery was the place where the famous "Arbeit Macht Frei" sign was first erected. When the new Dachau gate house was finished in June 1936, this slogan was put on the iron gate. The words mean "work will set you free." According to Rudolf Hoess, who was on the Dachau staff in 1936, the slogan meant that work sets one free in the spiritual sense, not literally.
Dan Stone, a specialist in the historiography of the Holocaust, lists ethnic Poles, Ukrainians, Soviet prisoners of war, Jehovah's Witnesses, black Germans, and homosexuals as among the groups persecuted by the Nazis; he writes that the occupation of eastern Europe can also be viewed as genocidal. But the German attitude toward the Jews was different in kind, he argues. The Nazis regarded the Jews not as racially inferior, deviant, or enemy nationals, as they did other groups, but as a "Gegenrasse: a 'counter-race', that is to say, not really human at all". The Holocaust, for Stone, is therefore defined as the genocide of the Jews, although he argues that it cannot be "properly historically situated without understanding the 'Nazi empire' with its grandiose demographic plans".[d] Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia, in The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (2000), favour a definition that focuses on the Jews, Roma, and Aktion T4 victims: "The Holocaust—that is, Nazi genocide—was the systematic, state-sponsored murder of entire groups determined by heredity. This applied to Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped."
Responding to domestic pressures to act on behalf of Jewish refugees, U.S. Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt convened, but did not attend, the Évian Conference on resettlement, in Évian-les-Bains, France, in July 1938. In his invitation to government leaders, Roosevelt specified that they would not have to change laws or spend government funds; only philanthropic funds would be used for resettlement. Britain was assured that Palestine would not be on the agenda. The result was that little was attempted and less accomplished.
In the last months of the war, the conditions at Dachau became even worse. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners in concentration camps near the front to more centrally located camps. They hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau. After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, insufficient provisions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
The political situation in Germany and elsewhere in Europe after World War I (1914–1918) contributed to the rise of virulent antisemitism. Many Germans did not accept that their country had been defeated, which gave birth to the stab-in-the-back myth. This insinuated that it was disloyal politicians, chiefly Jews and communists, who had orchestrated Germany's surrender. Inflaming the anti-Jewish sentiment was the apparent over-representation of Jews in the leadership of communist revolutionary governments in Europe, such as Ernst Toller, head of a short-lived revolutionary government in Bavaria. This perception contributed to the canard of Jewish Bolshevism.
Most of the survivors in the DP camp at Bergen Belsen were young people. They found themselves entirely alone, having lost their parents, spouses, children and siblings during the Holocaust. They commonly chose to establish a feeling of normality and fight despair by marrying in the DP camp. During the first year after liberation, in the Bergen Belden DP camp, there were often six weddings a day, and up to fifty weddings a week. During 1946, there were 1,070 weddings at Bergen Belsen.
Bergen-Belsen, near Hanover in Germany, was the first concentration camp to be liberated by British troops, on 15 April 1945. When soldiers of the 2nd Army arrived they found the camp littered with dead and dying prisoners. Around 60,000 starving people, many suffering from typhus and dysentery, required immediate aid. Despite the best efforts of the medical services, hundreds died in the days after the liberation. In the weeks that followed, British troops buried 10,000 bodies in mass graves. An estimated 70,000 Jews, Slavs, Roma, political prisoners, gays, Jehovah's witnesses and criminals were killed at Belsen.
In the view of Christian Gerlach, Hitler announced his decision to annihilate the Jews on or around 12 December 1941, probably on 12 December during a speech to the Gauleiters, part of the Nazi Party leadership. This was one day after the German declaration of war against the United States, which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the United States declaration of war on Japan on 8 December. According to Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Hitler had trusted American Jews, whom he assumed were all-powerful, to keep their government out of the war in the interests of German Jews. When America declared war, the Jews were blamed. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, noted of Hitler's speech: "He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their destruction. ... Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence."[o]
In his 1983 book, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw examined the Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life) in Bavaria during the Nazi period. The most common viewpoint of Bavarians was indifference towards what was happening to the Jews, he wrote. Most Bavarians were vaguely aware of the genocide, but they were vastly more concerned about the war. Kershaw argued that "the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference". His assessment faced criticism from historians Otto Dov Kulka and Michael Kater. Kater maintained that Kershaw had downplayed the extent of popular antisemitism. Although most of the "spontaneous" antisemitic actions of Nazi Germany had been staged, Kater argued that these had involved substantial numbers of Germans, and therefore it was wrong to view the extreme antisemitism of the Nazis as coming solely from above. Kulka argued that "passive complicity" would be a better term than "indifference". Focusing on the views of Germans opposed to the Nazi regime, the German historian Christof Dipper, in his essay "Der Deutsche Widerstand und die Juden" (1983), argued that the majority of the anti-Nazi national-conservatives were antisemitic. No one in the German resistance supported the Holocaust, but Dipper wrote that the national conservatives did not intend to restore civil rights to the Jews after the planned overthrow of Hitler.
Only one trial was ever held by a German court for crimes committed at Belsen, at Jena in 1949; the defendant was acquitted. More than 200 other SS members who were at Belsen have been known by name but never had to stand trial. No Wehrmacht soldier was ever put on trial for crimes committed against the inmates of the POW camps at Bergen-Belsen and in the region around it, despite the fact that the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg had found in 1946 that the treatment of Soviet POWs by the Wehrmacht constituted a war crime.:39
As we moved down along the west side of the concentration camp and approached the southwest corner, three people approached down the road under a flag of truce. We met these people about 75 yards north of the southwest entrance to the camp. These three people were a Swiss Red Cross representative and two SS troopers who said they were the camp commander and assistant camp commander and that they had come into the camp on the night of the 28th to take over from the regular camp personnel for the purpose of turning the camp over to the advancing Americans. The Swiss Red Cross representative acted as interpreter and stated that there were about 100 SS guards in the camp who had their arms stacked except for the people in the tower. He said he had given instructions that there would be no shots fired and it would take about 50 men to relieve the guards, as there were 42,000 half-crazed prisoners of war in the camp, many of them typhus infected. He asked if I were an officer of the American army, to which I replied, “Yes, I am Assistant Division Commander of the 42d Division and will accept the surrender of the camp in the name of the Rainbow Division for the American army.”
During the war, all sorts of other groups of prisoners from the occupied territories were sent to Dachau, and it increasingly became a place of mass murder. In October 1941, several thousand Soviet prisoners of war were deported and subsequently shot. From January 1942 on, some of the prisoners, known as the „invalids“, were taken to the castle of Hartheim near Linz, where they were murdered using gas. A gas chamber was also built in Dachau next to the large crematorium, but it was never used for mass murder. Killing at the camp took place by means of execution, until it was liberated.
In early 1937, the SS, using prisoner labor, initiated construction of a large complex of buildings on the grounds of the original camp. The construction was officially completed in mid-August 1938 and the camp remained essentially unchanged and in operation until 1945. A crematorium that was next to, but not directly accessible from within the camp, was erected in 1942. KZ Dachau was therefore the longest running concentration camp of the Third Reich. The Dachau complex included other SS facilities beside the concentration camp—a leader school of the economic and civil service, the medical school of the SS, etc. The camp at that time was called a "protective custody camp," and occupied less than half of the area of the entire complex.
Prisoners continued to die, in spite of the medical treatment provided by the Red Cross and the British Army. Nine thousand died in the first two weeks after the British arrived, and another 4000 died in May. The bodies were thrown into unmarked mass graves, even though the identities of these prisoners were known. Today none of the mass graves at Bergen-Belsen has a stone with the names of those who are buried there.
Now Albert Goering, who died in 1966, is being considered for an honour given to those who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust. A file is being prepared at Yad Vashem The Holocaust Martyrs' and Heroes' Remembrance Authority, the Holocaust memorial and research centre in Israel, to put Albert Goering forward for the Righteous Among the Nations award. A campaign to honour him follows growing recognition of his efforts to save victims of the Nazis.
The Germans' overwhelming repression and the presence of many collaborators in the various local populations severely limited the ability of the Jews to resist. Jewish resistance did occur, however, in several forms. Staying alive, clean, and observing Jewish religious traditions constituted resistance under the dehumanizing conditions imposed by the Nazis. Other forms of resistance involved escape attempts from the ghettos and camps. Many who succeeded in escaping the ghettos lived in the forests and mountains in family camps and in fighting partisan units. Once free, though, the Jews had to contend with local residents and partisan groups who were often openly hostile. Jews also staged armed revolts in the ghettos of Vilna, Bialystok, Bedzin-Sosnowiec, krakow, and Warsaw.
In the fall of 1939, at the start of World War II, Dachau’s prisoners were relocated to Buchenwald and the concentration camps at Mauthausen and Flossenbuerg. For the time being, Dachau was used as a training site for members of the newly established “Waffen-SS,” an elite SS combat unit whose troops also helped run concentration camps. By early 1940, Dachau had been reconverted into a concentration camp. Conditions at the camp were brutal and overcrowded. The facility had been designed to house some 6,000 detainees, but the population continued to rise and by 1944 approximately 30,000 prisoners were packed into the camp.
The Nazis used the phrase Lebensunwertes Leben (life unworthy of life) in reference to the disabled and mentally ill. On 14 July 1933, the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring (Gesetz zur Verhütung erbkranken Nachwuchses), the Sterilization Law, was passed, allowing for compulsory sterilization. The New York Times reported on 21 December that year: "400,000 Germans to be sterilized". There were 84,525 applications from doctors in the first year. The courts reached a decision in 64,499 of those cases; 56,244 were in favor of sterilization. Estimates for the number of involuntary sterilizations during the whole of the Third Reich range from 300,000 to 400,000.
Lieutenant Skodzensky was dead. Within an hour, all five hundred of his garrison troops were to be killed, some by the inmates themselves but more than three hundred of them by the American soldiers who had been literally sickened by what they saw of rotting corpses and desperate starving inmates. In one incident, an American lieutenant machine gunned 346 of the SS guards after they had surrendered and were lined up against a wall. The lieutenant, who had entered Dachau a few moments earlier, had just seen the corpses of the inmates piled up around the camp crematorium and at the railway station.
The death marches served a dual purpose for the Nazis. On one hand, the Nazis intended for large numbers of Jewish prisoners to die on death marches. Indeed, about 250,000 prisoners, many of whom were Jews, died on death marches. On the other hand, the death marches were also an attempt to move concentration camp prisoners into Germany's borders, so that the Nazis could continue to exploit them for slave labor. Those who survived the death marches were imprisoned in concentration camps in Germany, such as Bergen Belsen, Ravensbrueck and Mauthausen.
Außenlager Hambühren-Ovelgönne (Lager III, Waldeslust) at Hambühren south of Winsen was in use from August 23, 1944 to February 4, 1945. It was an abandoned potash mine, now intended as an underground production site for Bremen plane manufacturer Focke-Wulf. Around 400 prisoners, mostly female Polish or Hungarian Jews, were forced to prepare the facility and to help lay train tracks to it. This was done for the company Hochtief.:204