At the end of July 1944 there were around 7,300 prisoners interned in the Bergen-Belsen camp complex. At the beginning of December 1944, this number had increased to around 15,000, and in February 1945 the number of prisoners was 22,000. As prisoners evacuated from the east continued to arrive, the camp population soared to over 60,000 by April 15, 1945.
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.
The prisoners are divided into three classifications, each treated differently. The first class is picked at random. These men act as firemen, and their only routine consists of some drilling. The second class is made up of the majority of the prisoners, who receive the treatment outlined above. The third class is composed of leading Communists and all the Jews. This class performs the hardest work on the smallest rations. They receive no sheets to cover their straw sacks. For a long time they were confined to dilapidated barracks where on rainy days the water would stand six inches deep on the floor. They are beaten more than the other prisoners, and nearly all of the murders are perpetrated on members of this class. Even within the last-mentioned class, the Jews are segregated, because no Aryan is allowed to share sleeping accommodations with a Jew. The Jews are refused cigarettes, and the other prisoners are forbidden to converse with them. However, the solidarity among the prisoners makes it impossible to put this rule into effect: camaraderie between the Jews and the other confined men is very strong. The prisoners are allowed to write one letter, or postcard, a week, which has to be turned in to the authorities unsealed. Any remarks about the conditions at the camp means daily beatings and severe punishment in dark cells.
In 1935 the Wehrmacht began to build a large military complex close to the village of Belsen, a part of the town of Bergen, in what was then the Province of Hanover. This became the largest military training area in Germany of the time and was used for armoured vehicle training. The barracks were finished in 1937. The camp has been in continuous operation since then and is today known as Bergen-Hohne Training Area. It is used by the NATO armed forces.