The camp of Bergen-Belsen, located near the towns of Bergen and Belsen in Saxony, northern Germany, got its start in 1940 as a P.O.W. camp for French and Belgian prisoners. In 1941, the camp was renamed Stalag 311 and housed some 20,000 Russian prisoners. Conditions were terrible, resulting by 1942 in the deaths of 16,000 to 18,000 prisoners from disease, starvation and exposure.
In the first few decades after the Holocaust, scholars argued that it was unique as a genocide in its reach and specificity. This began to change in the 1980s during the West German Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute"), an attempt to re-position the Holocaust within German historiography. Ernst Nolte triggered the dispute in June 1986 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte" ("The past that will not pass: A speech that could be written but not delivered"), in which he compared Auschwitz to the Gulag and suggested that the Holocaust was a response to Hitler's fear of the Soviet Union: "Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the 'racial murder' of National Socialism? ... Was the source of Auschwitz a past that would not go away?"[aa]
Several books published after the war maintained that there was a gas chamber at Bergen-Belsen. For example, in a book entitled "Jews, God and History," Jewish historian Max Dimont mentioned gassings at Bergen-Belsen. Another book, entitled "A History of World War II" claimed that "In Belsen, Kramer kept an orchestra to play him Viennese music while he watched children torn from their mothers to be burned alive. Gas chambers disposed of thousands of persons daily." (Josef Kramer was the Commandant of Bergen-Belsen from 2 December 1944 until the camp was liberated.)
He began by turning his factory into an official subcamp of a newly constructed labor camp at Plazów. For a time, it was a haven for about 500 Jews. Then, in the fall of 1944, the Nazis ordered both camps closed and all workers shipped to Auschwitz, a killing center. Schindler refused to let that happen. He put together a list of 1,100 men, women, and children that he claimed as his workers. He then used his money and influence to transport those workers to a new factory he was building at Brinnlitz, Czechoslovakia. When the Jewish women who worked in his factory were transported to Auschwitz by mistake, he accomplished the impossible: he managed to get the women back by offering Nazi officials a fortune in bribes.
A tablet at the camp commemorates the liberation of Dachau by the 42nd Infantry Division of the U.S. Seventh Army on 29 April 1945. Others claim that the first forces to enter the main camp were a battalion of the 157th Infantry Regiment of the 45th Infantry Division commanded by Felix L. Sparks. There is an on-going disagreement as to which division, the 42nd or the 45th, actually liberated Dachau because they seem to have approached by different routes and by the American Army’s definition, anyone arriving at such a camp within 48 hours was a liberator. General Patton visited the Buchenwald camp after it was liberated, but not Dachau.
On 6 January 1942, the Soviet Minister of Foreign Affairs, Vyacheslav Molotov, sent out diplomatic notes about German atrocities. The notes were based on reports about bodies surfacing from poorly covered graves in pits and quarries, as well as mass graves found in areas the Red Army had liberated, and on witness reports from German-occupied areas. The following month, Szlama Ber Winer escaped from the Chełmno concentration camp in Poland, and passed detailed information about it to the Oneg Shabbat group in the Warsaw Ghetto. His report, known by his pseudonym as the Grojanowski Report, had reached London by June 1942. Also in 1942, Jan Karski sent information to the Allies after being smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto twice.[s] On 27 April 1942, Vyacheslav Molotov sent out another note about atrocities. In late July or early August 1942, Polish leaders learned about the mass killings taking place inside Auschwitz. The Polish Interior Ministry prepared a report, Sprawozdanie 6/42, which said at the end:
By May 19, 1945, all the former prisoners had been evacuated to the nearby Army barracks and on May 21, 1945, the last hut at the Bergen-Belsen camp was burned to the ground. The horror that was Bergen-Belsen had been completely wiped off the face of the earth. Today the former camp is a landscaped park with heather, which blooms in August, covering the mass graves. Most of the visitors to the Memorial Site are German students who come on tour buses.
Overall, the Dachau concentration camp system included 123 sub-camps and Kommandos which were set up in 1943 when factories were built near the main camp to make use of forced labor of the Dachau prisoners. Out of the 123 sub-camps, eleven of them were called Kaufering, distinguished by a number at the end of each. All Kaufering sub-camps were set up to specifically build three underground factories (Allied bombing raids made it necessary for them to be underground) for a project called Ringeltaube (wood pigeon), which planned to be the location in which the German jet fighter plane, Messerschmitt Me 262, was to be built. In the last days of war, in April 1945, the Kaufering camps were evacuated and around 15,000 prisoners were sent up to the main Dachau camp. Typhus alone was estimated to have caused 15,000 deaths between December 1944 and April 1945. "Within the first month after the arrival of the American troops, 10,000 prisoners were treated for malnutrition and kindred diseases. In spite of this one hundred prisoners died each day during the first month from typhus, dysentery or general weakness".
By the spring of 1945, German leadership was dissolving amid internal dissent, with Goering and Himmler both seeking to distance themselves from Hitler and take power. In his last will and political testament, dictated in a German bunker that April 29, Hitler blamed the war on “International Jewry and its helpers” and urged the German leaders and people to follow “the strict observance of the racial laws and with merciless resistance against the universal poisoners of all peoples”–the Jews. The following day, he committed suicide. Germany’s formal surrender in World War II came barely a week later, on May 8, 1945.
As the first American officer, a major, descended from his tank, "the young Teutonic lieutenant, Heinrich Skodzensky," emerged from the guard post and came to attention before the American officer. The German is blond, handsome, perfumed, his boots glistening, his uniform well-tailored. He reports as if he were on the military parade grounds near Unter den Linden during an exercise, then very properly raising his arm he salutes with a very respectful "Heil Hitler!" and clicks his heels. "I hereby turn over to you the concentration camp of Dachau, 30,000 residents, 2,340 sick, 27,000 on the outside, 560 garrison troops."
During the first year, the camp held about 4,800 prisoners. Initially the internees were primarily German Communists, Social Democrats, trade unionists, and other political opponents of the Nazi regime. Over time, other groups were also interned at Dachau, such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, as well as "asocials" and repeat criminal offenders. During the early years relatively few Jews were interned in Dachau and then usually because they belonged to one of the above groups or had completed prison sentences after being convicted for violating the Nuremberg Laws of 1935.
By March 9, 1945, a total of 28,838 prisoners had been brought to Dachau and then transferred to the 11 Landsberg sub-camps. Approximately 14,500 prisoners died in these camps. In April 1945, the Kaufering camps were evacuated, except for the Kaufering IV camp where sick prisoners were left behind. Kaufering IV was liberated by American soldiers two days before the main camp was liberated.
Uprisings broke out in some extermination camps. The few remaining Jews kept alive to dispose of bodies and sort possessions realised the number of transportees was reducing and they would be next. Civilian uprisings occurred across Poland as mainly young Jews, whose families had already been murdered, began to resist Nazi oppression. With reports of rebellion and mass murder in the British press, the situation in the camps could no longer be be ignored.
The British forced the former SS camp personnel to help bury the thousands of dead bodies in mass graves. Some civil servants from Celle and Landkreis Celle were brought to Belsen and confronted with the crimes committed on their doorstep.:262 Military photographers and cameramen of No. 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit documented the conditions in the camp and the measures of the British Army to ameliorate them. Many of the pictures they took and the films they made from April 15 to June 9, 1945 were published or shown abroad. Today, the originals are in the Imperial War Museum. These documents had a lasting impact on the international perception and memory of Nazi concentration camps to this day.:243 According to Habbo Knoch, head of the institution that runs the memorial today: "Bergen-Belsen [...] became a synonym world-wide for German crimes committed during the time of Nazi rule.":9
SS Officer Hosler, under arrest, stands in front of a truck which is loaded with corpses at Belsen concentration camp © The Final Solution moved into its last stages as Allied forces began to close in on Germany in 1944. The Project Reinhardt camps were razed. A prisoner work-gang called the Blobel Commando began digging up and burning the bodies of those killed by the Einsatzgruppen. Prisoners remaining in Auschwitz and other concentration camps were transported or force-marched to camps within Germany. Hardly fit for such an effort, thousands of prisoners on these death marches succumbed to starvation, exhaustion and cold, or were shot for not keeping up the pace.
Before and after the March 1933 Reichstag elections, the Nazis intensified their campaign of violence against opponents. They set up concentration camps for extrajudicial imprisonment. One of the first, at Dachau, opened on 9 March 1933. Initially the camp contained mostly Communists and Social Democrats. Other early prisons were consolidated by mid-1934 into purpose-built camps outside the cities, run exclusively by the SS. The initial purpose of the camps was to serve as a deterrent by terrorizing Germans who did not conform.
When British and Canadian troops finally entered they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and (including the satellite camps) around 60,000 inmates, most acutely sick and starving. The prisoners had been without food or water for days before the Allied arrival, partially due to allied bombing. Immediately before and after liberation, prisoners were dying at around 500 per day, mostly from typhus. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by the BBC's Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them: