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’s worldview revolved around two concepts: territorial expansion (that is, greater Lebensraum—“living space”—for the German people) and racial supremacy. After World War I the Allies denied Germany colonies in Africa, so Hitler sought to expand German territory and secure food and resources—scarce during World War I—in Europe itself. Hitler viewed the Jews as racial polluters, a cancer on German society in what has been termed by Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer “redemptive anti-Semitism,” focused on redeeming Germany from its ills and ridding it of a cancer on the body politic. Historian Timothy Snyder characterized the struggle as even more elemental, as “zoological,” and “ecological,” a struggle of the species. Hitler opposed Jews for the values they brought into the world. Social justice and compassionate assistance to the weak stood in the way of what he perceived as the natural order, in which the powerful exercise unrestrained power. In Hitler’s view, such restraint on the exercise of power would inevitably lead to the weakening, even the defeat, of the master race.
Over the decades that followed, ordinary Germans struggled with the Holocaust’s bitter legacy, as survivors and the families of victims sought restitution of wealth and property confiscated during the Nazi years. Beginning in 1953, the German government made payments to individual Jews and to the Jewish people as a way of acknowledging the German people’s responsibility for the crimes committed in their name.
Of the 430,000 sent to the first death camp at Bełżec in Poland, there were only two survivors. 700,000 were killed at Treblinka in just five months. In July, Himmler ordered that all Jews in key areas of Poland, except for those needed for essential labour, were to be killed by the end of the year. Most were. Despite Allied intelligence receiving detailed reports of the mass murders in Europe, the public reaction in Britain was largely a mixture of apathy and disbelief.
Throughout German-occupied territory the situation of the Jews was desperate. They had meagre resources and few allies and faced impossible choices. A few people came to their rescue, often at the risk of their own lives. Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg arrived in Budapest on July 9, 1944, in an effort to save Hungary’s sole remaining Jewish community. Over the next six months, he worked with other neutral diplomats, the Vatican, and Jews themselves to prevent the deportation of these last Jews. Elsewhere, Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, a French Huguenot village, became a haven for 5,000 Jews. In German-occupied Poland, where it was illegal to aid Jews and where such action was punishable by death, the Zegota (Council for Aid to Jews) rescued a similar number of Jewish men, women, and children. Financed by the London-based Polish government in exile and involving a wide range of clandestine political organizations, Zegota provided hiding places and financial support and forged identity documents.
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.
By mid-1944 those Jewish communities within easy reach of the Nazi regime had been largely exterminated, in proportions ranging from about 25 percent in France to more than 90 percent in Poland. On 5 May Himmler claimed in a speech that "the Jewish question has in general been solved in Germany and in the countries occupied by Germany". As the Soviet armed forces advanced, the camps in eastern Poland were closed down, with surviving inmates shipped to camps closer to Germany. Efforts were made to conceal evidence of what had happened. The gas chambers were dismantled, the crematoria dynamited, and the mass graves dug up and the corpses cremated. Local commanders continued to kill Jews, and to shuttle them from camp to camp by forced "death marches". Already sick after months or years of violence and starvation, some were marched to train stations and transported for days at a time without food or shelter in open freight cars, then forced to march again at the other end to the new camp. Others were marched the entire distance to the new camp. Those who lagged behind or fell were shot. Around 250,000 Jews died during these marches.
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.