The major reasons for the state of Belsen were disease, gross overcrowding by central authority, lack of law and order within the huts, and inadequate supplies of food, water and drugs. In trying to assess the causes of the conditions found in Belsen one must be alerted to the tremendous visual display, ripe for purposes of propaganda, that masses of starved corpses presented.
Hitler quickly moved to cement his power by suspending many civil liberties and allowing imprisonment without trial. By March, the first Nazi concentration camp was established at Dachau, not to imprison Jews but to hold political dissidents. Further laws targeted Jews, restricting the jobs they could hold and revoking their German citizenship. Anti-Semitic sentiment increased as the Jewish population was blamed for many of Germany's recent and historical problems.
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
SS-Hauptsturmführer Adolf Haas became the first commandant of the Bergen-Belsen camp in the spring of 1943; SS-Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer replaced him in December 1944. The number of SS functionaries in Bergen-Belsen varied over the course of the camp's existence. The SS succeeded in destroying many of the camp's files, including those on personnel.
Although not ordered to take part, psychiatrists and many psychiatric institutions were involved in the planning and carrying out of Aktion T4 at every stage. After protests from the German Catholic and Protestant churches, Hitler ordered the cancellation of the T4 program in August 1941, although the disabled and mentally ill continued to be killed until the end of the war. The medical community regularly received bodies and body parts for research. Eberhard Karl University received 1,077 bodies from executions between 1933 and 1945. The neuroscientist Julius Hallervorden received 697 brains from one hospital between 1940 and 1944: "I accepted these brains of course. Where they came from and how they came to me was really none of my business."
Under such terrible conditions, Kramer did everything in his power to reduce suffering and prevent death among the inmates, even appealing to the hard-pressed German army. "I don't know what else to do," he told high-ranking army officers. "I have reached the limit. Masses of people are dying. The drinking water supply has broken down. A trainload of food was destroyed by low-flying [Allied] war planes. Something must be done immediately." /16
Prisoners at the electric fence of Dachau concentration camp cheer American soldiers in Dachau, Germany in an undated photo. Some of them wear the striped blue and white prison garb. They decorated their huts with flags of all nations which they had made secretly as they heard the guns of the 42nd Rainbow Division getting louder and louder on the approach to Dachau. #
The industrialization and scale of the murder was unprecedented. Killings were systematically conducted in virtually all areas of occupied Europe—more than 20 occupied countries. Close to three million Jews in occupied Poland and between 700,000 and 2.5 million Jews in the Soviet Union were killed. Hundreds of thousands more died in the rest of Europe. Victims were transported in sealed freight trains from all over Europe to extermination camps equipped with gas chambers. The stationary facilities grew out of Nazi experiments with poison gas during the Aktion T4 mass murder ("euthanasia") programme against the disabled and mentally ill, which began in 1939. The Germans set up six extermination camps in Poland: Auschwitz II-Birkenau (established October 1941); Majdanek (October 1941); Chełmno (December 1941); and the three Operation Reinhard camps, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, in 1942. A seventh death camp, Maly Trostenets, was established near Minsk in Belarus, then part of the Reichskommissariat Ostland. Discussions at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 made it clear that the German "final solution of the Jewish question" was intended eventually to include Britain and all the neutral states in Europe, including Ireland, Switzerland, Turkey, Sweden, Portugal, and Spain.
The job was then offered to legendary filmmaker Martin Scorsese, who accepted. Scorsese was set to put the film into production when Spielberg had an epiphany on the set of the revisionist Peter Pan story Hook and realized that he was finally prepared to make Schindler’s List. To make up for the change of heart, Spielberg traded Scorsese the rights to a movie he’d been developing that Scorsese would make into his next film: the remake of Cape Fear.
The Nazis introduced a racial hierarchy—keeping Poles in harsh conditions, while favoring German priests.:148 697 Poles arrived in December 1941, and a further 500 of mainly elderly clergy were brought in October the following year. Inadequately clothed for the bitter cold, of this group only 82 survived. A large number of Polish priests were chosen for Nazi medical experiments. In November 1942, 20 were given phlegmons. 120 were used by Dr Schilling for malaria experiments between July 1942 and May 1944. Several Poles met their deaths with the "invalid trains" sent out from the camp, others were liquidated in the camp and given bogus death certificates. Some died of cruel punishment for misdemeanors—beaten to death or run to exhaustion.:148–9
During the last months before the liberation, the prisoners at Dachau had to live under extremely inhuman conditions, which even they would not have been able to imagine. The gigantic transports continually arriving from other Nazi camps evacuated in the face of the advancing Allied forces, brought human beings who were, for the most part, reduced to skeletons and exhausted to the point of death.
In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train or on forced marches, often called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners, as well as prisoners en route by forced march from one camp to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police officials, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist Party officials. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than a million Jewish men, women, and children, and hundreds of thousands of others.
Current estimates put the number of prisoners who passed through the concentration camp during its period of operation from 1943 to 1945 at around 120,000. Due to the destruction of the camp's files by the SS, not even half of them, around 55,000, are known by name.:269 As mentioned above, treatment of prisoners by the SS varied between individual sections of the camp, with the inmates of the exchange camp generally being better treated than other prisoners, at least initially. However, in October 1943 the SS selected 1,800 men and women from the Sonderlager ("special camp"), Jews from Poland who held passports from Latin American countries. Since the governments of these nations mostly refused to honour the passports, these people had lost their value to the regime. Under the pretext of sending them to a fictitious "Lager Bergau", the SS had them transported to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where they were sent directly to the gas chambers and killed. In February and May 1944 another 350 prisoners from the "special camp" were sent to Auschwitz. Thus, out of the total of 14,600 prisoners in the exchange camp, at least 3,550 died, more than 1,400 of them at Belsen, and around 2,150 at Auschwitz.:187