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.
During this forced march anyone who could not keep up were shot, and many others died from hunger, cold, or exhaustion. At the beginning of May 1945, American troops overtook the remnants of these marching prisoners, left unguarded by SS who had fled. After the war, it was revealed that plans had existed to kill all the inmates by bombs and poison.
On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ordered the establishment of the Judenräte (“Jewish Councils”), comprising up to 24 men—rabbis and Jewish leaders. Heydrich’s order made these councils personally responsible in “the literal sense of the term” for carrying out German orders. When the Nazis sealed the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of German-occupied Poland’s 400 ghettos, in the fall of 1940, the Jews—then 30 percent of Warsaw’s population—were forced into 2.4 percent of the city’s area. The ghetto’s population reached a density of more than 200,000 persons per square mile (77,000 per square km) and 9.2 per room. Disease, malnutrition, hunger, and poverty took their toll even before the first bullet was fired.
Eicke urged his SS men to treat all inmates as dangerous "Enemies of the State." He repeatedly lectured them: "There behind the barbed-wire lurks the enemy and he watches everything you do. He will try to help himself by using all your weaknesses. Don't leave yourself open in any way. Show these 'Enemies of the State' your teeth. Anyone who shows even the smallest sign of compassion for the 'Enemies of the State' must disappear from our ranks. I can only use hard men who are determined to do anything. We have no use for weaklings."
In many instances, their imprisonment was a result of the emergency decree that Adolf Hitler proposed and President Paul Von Hindenberg approved on February 28, 1933. The Decree for the Protection of the People and the State (commonly called the Reichstag Fire Decree) suspended the civil rights of German civilians and prohibited the press from publishing anti-government materials.
Methods of mass murder evolved at local levels as well as being decreed from Nazi high command. Killing squads rounded up and shot entire Jewish communities. Over two days in Kiev, 33,771 Jews were shot. The murder of Jews rapidly escalated, in part because local Nazi leaders didn’t have enough room to place them in the ghettos. By the end of the year, plans to implement the systematic slaughter of Jews by using gas in mobile trucks and gas chambers were well underway.
The name Dachau became a household word for Americans following World War II. This was because it was the only major Nazi concentration camp in the American occupation zone in western Germany. Bergen-Belsen was in the British zone of occupation and Natzweiler was in the French zone. Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen were in the Soviet zone of occupation in eastern Germany and Mauthausen was in the Soviet zone of Austria.
Throughout the Middle Ages in Europe, Jews were subjected to antisemitism based on Christian theology, which blamed them for killing Jesus. Even after the Reformation, Catholicism and Lutheranism continued to persecute Jews, accusing them of blood libels and subjecting them to pogroms and expulsions. The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in the German empire and Austria-Hungary of the völkisch movement, which was developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The movement embraced a pseudo-scientific racism that viewed Jews as a race whose members were locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. These ideas became commonplace throughout Germany, with the professional classes adopting an ideology that did not see humans as racial equals with equal hereditary value. Although the völkisch parties had support in elections at first, by 1914 they were no longer influential. This did not mean that antisemitism had disappeared; instead it was incorporated into the platforms of several mainstream political parties.
"I ascertain that the Americans are now masters of the situation. I go toward the officer who has come down from the tank, introduce myself and he embraces me. He is a major. His uniform is dusty, his shirt, open almost to the navel, is filthy, soaked with sweat, his helmet is on crooked, he is unshaven and his cigarette dangles from the left corner of his lip.
While concentration camps were meant to work and starve prisoners to death, extermination camps (also known as death camps) were built for the sole purpose of killing large groups of people quickly and efficiently. The Nazis built six extermination camps, all in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz, and Majdanek. (Auschwitz and Majdanek were both concentration and extermination camps.)
The photo above shows some of the members of the International Committee of Dachau. The second man from the left, who is wearing a cardigan sweater and a coat, is Albert Guérisse, a British SOE agent from Belgium, who was hiding his identity by using the name Patrick O'Leary. He was one of five British SOE agents who had survived the Nazi concentration camps at Mauthausen in Austria and Natzweiler in Alsace before being transferred to Dachau. Guérisse greeted Lt. William P. Walsh and 1st Lt. Jack Bushyhead of the 45th Infantry Division and took them on a tour of the camp, showing them the gas chamber and the ovens in the crematorium.
On April 21, 1945, the evacuation of the camp began. The prisoners were first deloused and then moved into the barracks of the German Army Training Center next to the camp. Two days later, 6 detachments of the Red Cross arrived to help. The epidemics had yet to be brought under control and 400 to 500 prisoners were still dying each day, but by April 28, the German guards had caught up with the burial of the bodies and the mass graves were completed.
Despite, wide reporting of Holocaust atrocities including gas chambers, many prominent analysts doubted the authenticity of these reports. Prominently, Roger Allen, a member of the British Foreign Office discounted intelligence reports on the use of gas chambers in Polish extermination camps because he could “never understand what the advantage of a gas chamber over a simple machine gun or over starving people would be.”
The survivors at Bergen Belsen, living under improved conditions, began to establish educational institutions shortly after liberation. They set up an elementary school as early as July 1945. After three years the number of pupils in the elementary school had grown to 340. This number was impressive considering that most children did not survive the Holocaust. In December 1945 the survivors founded a high school, where studies were carried out with the help of soldiers from the Jewish Brigade. Over the course of time the number of pupils in the high school reached 200. The school also included a yeshiva (institute of higher Jewish learning). The DP camp also had kindergartens, an orphanage and ORT vocational training institutions.There was a lively theatrical life in Bergen Belsen. In addition, the main Jewish newspaper in British-occupied Germany, "Unzer Sztyme" ("Our Voice") was published there.
It is frequently stated that such cruelties as are outlined above are due to certain deficiencies in the character of the German people. I am strongly opposed to this view, having observed that even among this selected group of Special Police, only about five percent take an active part in, or favor, the brutalities inflicted upon the prisoners. The atrocities committed are the work of a few criminal types who are strongly backed by their superiors. This substantiates the statement made by Dimitroff during the Reichstag trial, that “neither the Bulgarian nor any other people is barbaric, but fascism is barbaric wherever it appears.” The happenings in Dachau were not the uncontrolled actions of minor officials. The camp was continually visited by leading members of the Nazi party and government, among them being Heinrich Himmler, Commander of the Special Police; General Von Epp; Bavarian Minister of the Interior Wagner and others.
“ ...Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ... Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
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."
"Well the General (Brig. Gen. Linden) attempted to get the thing organized and an American Major who had been held in the Camp since September (1944) came out and we set him up as head of the prisoners. He soon picked me to quiet the prisoners down and explain to them that they must stay in the Camp until we could get them deloused, and proper food and medical care. Several newspaper people arrived about that time and wanted to go through the Camp so we took them through with a guide furnished by the prisoners. The first thing we came to were piles and piles of clothing, shoes, pants, shirts, coats, etc. Then we went into a room with a table with flowers on it and some soap and towels. Another door with the word showers lead off of this and upon going through this room it appeared to be a shower room but instead of water, gas came out and in two minutes the people were dead. Next we went next door to four large ovens where they cremated the dead. Then we were taken to piles of dead. There were from two to fifty people in a pile all naked, starved and dead. There must have been about 1,000 dead in all."
By negotiations between British and German officers, British troops took over from the SS and the Wehrmacht the task of guarding the vast concentration camp at Belsen, a few miles northwest of Celle, which contains 60,000 prisoners, many of them political. This has been done because typhus is rampant in the camp and it is vital that no prisoners be released until the infection is checked. The advancing British agreed to refrain from bombing or shelling the area of the camp, and the Germans agreed to leave behind an armed guard which would be allowed to return to their own lines a week after the British arrival.
Indelibly scarred by the savagery and suffering he confronted during World War II—in England during the Blitz; in war-torn Southeast Asia and Europe; and, especially, in Bergen-Belsen—George Rodger did not work as a war photographer again. He did, however, continue to travel and photograph around the world in the decades after the war—particularly in Africa, where he made some of his most celebrated pictures.
I was surprised to find records, going back for two or three years, of large quantities of food cooked daily for distribution. I became convinced, contrary to popular opinion, that there had never been a policy of deliberate starvation. This was confirmed by the large numbers of well-fed inmates. Why then were so many people suffering from malnutrition? [...]
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.
The area of the former Bergen-Belsen camp fell into neglect after the burning of the buildings and the closure of the nearby displaced persons' camp in the summer of 1950. The area reverted to heath; few traces of the camp remained. However, as early as May 1945, the British had erected large signs at the former camp site. Ex-prisoners began to set up monuments. A first wooden memorial was built by Jewish DPs in September 1945, followed by one made in stone, dedicated on the first anniversary of the liberation in 1946. On November 2, 1945, a large wooden cross was dedicated as a memorial to the murdered Polish prisoners. Also by the end of 1945 the Soviets had built a memorial at the entrance to the POW cemetery. A memorial to the Italian POWs followed in 1950, but was removed when the bodies were reinterred in a Hamburg cemetery.
On April 29, the day after the German guards completed their gruesome task of 10 days of burying the 10,000 decomposed bodies with their bare hands, they were taken to the prison in the city of Celle, which is 16 kilometers northwest of the camp. Also on that day, April 29, 1945, American soldiers entered the Dachau concentration camp and discovered bodies of prisoners who had died of typhus. The next day, 97 medical students arrived in Bergen-Belsen to help with the sick prisoners, and on May 4th, more British medical units arrived. On that same day, May 4, 1945, part of the German Army surrendered to the British in the area near the camp.
After the regular guards had escaped from the camp on the day before the liberation, 128 SS soldiers who had been imprisoned in a special wing of the Dachau bunker were released and ordered to serve as guards until the Americans arrived to take over the camp. 2nd Lt. Wicker had stayed behind when the other guards escaped because his mother was staying at the Dachau garrison, visiting him. Wicker's mother reported him missing after the war, and it is presumed that he was killed after he surrendered the camp to the Americans.
Two specialist teams were dispatched from Britain to deal with the feeding problem. The first, led by Dr A. P. Meiklejohn, included 96 medical student volunteers from London teaching hospitals who were later credited with significantly reducing the death rate amongst prisoners. A research team led by Dr Janet Vaughan was dispatched by the Medical Research Council to test the effectiveness of various feeding regimes.