This photo was taken in April 1945, after liberation. Originally designed as a prisoner of war and transit camp, Bergen-Belsen was to house 10,000 prisoners. From March 1944, Bergen-Belsen became a "regular concentration camp" with new prisoners arriving who were too sick to work at other camps. Some 35,000 to 40,000 inmates died of starvation, overcrowding, hard labor and disease or were killed.
Historians are divided about the motivations of the members of these mobile killing units. American historian Christopher Browning described one such unit, Police Battalion 101, as ordinary men in extraordinary circumstances in which conformity, peer pressure, careerism, obedience to orders, and group solidarity gradually overcame moral inhibitions. American writer Daniel Goldhagen viewed the very same unit as “willing executioners,” sharing Hitler’s vision of genocidal anti-Semitism and finding their tasks unpleasant but necessary. The diversity of the killers has challenged Goldhagen’s view that the motivation was a distinct form of German anti-Semitism. Yet both Browning and Goldhagen concurred that none of these killers faced punishment if he asked to be excused. Individuals had a choice whether to participate or not. Almost all chose to become killers.
Most of the Jewish ghettos of General Government were liquidated in 1942–1943, and their populations shipped to the camps for extermination.[t] About 42,000 Jews were shot during the Operation Harvest Festival on 3–4 November 1943. At the same time, rail shipments arrived regularly from western and southern Europe at the extermination camps. Few Jews were shipped from the occupied Soviet territories to the camps: the killing of Jews in this zone was mostly left in the hands of the SS, aided by locally recruited auxiliaries.[u]
In his 1965 essay "Command and Compliance", which originated in his work as an expert witness for the prosecution at the Frankfurt Auschwitz Trials, the German historian Hans Buchheim wrote there was no coercion to murder Jews and others, and all who committed such actions did so out of free will. Buchheim wrote that chances to avoid executing criminal orders "were both more numerous and more real than those concerned are generally prepared to admit", and that he found no evidence that SS men who refused to carry out criminal orders were sent to concentration camps or executed. Moreover, SS rules prohibited acts of gratuitous sadism, as Himmler wished for his men to remain "decent"; acts of sadism were carried out on the initiative of those who were either especially cruel or wished to prove themselves ardent National Socialists. Finally, he argued that those of a non-criminal bent who committed crimes did so because they wished to conform to the values of the group they had joined and were afraid of being branded "weak" by their colleagues if they refused.
Many of the prisoners at Bergen Belsen arrived there on death marches from other concentration camps. During Summer 1944, as the British and American Armies advanced in their fight against Germany from the West and the Soviet army advanced in its fight against Germany from the East, the Nazis began liquidating concentration camps, sending prisoners on death marches. They forced prisoners of concentration camps to march over long distances, under unbearable conditions. Prisoners were abused, and sometimes killed, by the guards that accompanied them.
On June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in France. In December the Germans started an unsuccessful counterattack in Belgium and northern France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Continuing to gain momentum, the Soviets began an offensive in January 1945, liberating western Poland and then forcing Hungary to surrender.
And it turned out he had chosen the right man. Regulations soon established by Eicke included the standing order that any prisoner would be hanged who: "politicizes, holds inciting speeches and meetings, forms cliques, loiters around with others – who for the purpose of supplying the propaganda of the opposition with atrocity stories, collects true or false information about the concentration camp, receives such information, buries it, talks about it to others, smuggles it out of the camp into the hands of foreign visitors, etc."
Only in 2000 did the Federal Government of Germany begin to financially support the memorial. Co-financed by the state of Lower Saxony, a complete redesign was planned which was intended to be more in line with contemporary thought on exhibition design. On April 15, 2005, there was a ceremony, commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation and many ex-prisoners and ex-liberating troops attended. In October 2007, the redesigned memorial site was opened, including a large new Documentation Centre and permanent exhibition on the edge of the newly redefined camp, whose structure and layout can now be traced. Since 2009, the memorial has been receiving funding from the Federal government on an ongoing basis.
As the Allies began to advance on Nazi Germany, the SS began to evacuate the first concentration camps in summer 1944. Thousands of prisoners were killed before the evacuation due to being ill or unable to walk. At the end of 1944, the overcrowding of camps began to take its toll on the prisoners. The unhygienic conditions and the supplies of food rations became disastrous. In November a typhus fever epidemic broke out that took thousands of lives.
After the outbreak of World War II, the Wehrmacht set up a camp for Belgian and French prisoners of war in huts at the edge of the Bergen Military Training Area. The camp was significantly expanded in the spring of 1941. Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, over 21,000 Soviet POWs were deported to the camp until the autumn of 1941. Between July 1941 and April 1942, 14,000 Soviet POWs died there of starvation, disease and exposure.
Then came the first American jeeps: a GI got out and opened the gate. Machine-gun fire burst from the center watchtower, the very one which since morning had been flying the white flag! The jeeps turned about and an armored tank came on. With a few bursts, it silenced the fire from the watchtower. The body of an SS man fell off the platform and came crashing loudly to the asphalt of the little square.
After the liberation of Dachau, the commanding officer of the Rainbow division, Major General Harry J. Collins, made sure that the Jewish survivors were taken care of properly. Some of the Jewish survivors were given private housing in homes in the town of Dachau after their owners had been evicted. In some cases, the home owners were allowed to live in the attic of their homes, but they were forbidden to remove any of the linens, china or silverware, which had to be left for the use of the new occupants. A few of the Jewish survivors settled in Dachau permanently after the war.
A protest meeting in the Bergen-Belsen camp, September 1947. For five years following the end of the war, British authorities maintained the camp as a "Displaced Persons" center. During this period it flourished as a major black market center. At this pro-Zionist gathering of 4,000 Jews, camp leader Joseph Rosensaft speaks against British policy in Palestine.
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.
Of a total of 2,720 clergy recorded as imprisoned at Dachau, the overwhelming majority, some 2,579 (or 94.88%) were Catholic. Among the other denominations, there were 109 Protestants, 22 Greek Orthodox, 8 Old Catholics and Mariavites and 2 Muslims. In his Dachau: The Official History 1933–1945, Paul Berben noted that R. Schnabel's 1966 investigation, Die Frommen in der Hölle ("The Pious Ones in Hell") found an alternative total of 2,771 and included the fate all the clergy listed, with 692 noted as deceased and 336 sent out on "invalid trainloads" and therefore presumed dead.:276–277 Over 400 German priests were sent to Dachau. Total numbers incarcerated are nonetheless difficult to assert, for some clergy were not recognised as such by the camp authorities, and some—particularly Poles—did not wish to be identified as such, fearing they would be mistreated.:157
Initially lacking sufficient manpower, the British allowed the Hungarians to remain in charge and only commandant Kramer was arrested. Subsequently, SS and Hungarian guards shot and killed some of the starving prisoners who were trying to get their hands on food supplies from the store houses. The British started to provide emergency medical care, clothing and food. Immediately following the liberation, revenge killings took place in the satellite camp the SS had created in the area of the army barracks that later became Hohne-Camp. Around 15,000 prisoners from Mittelbau-Dora had been relocated there in early April. These prisoners were in much better physical condition than most of the others. Some of these men turned on those who had been their overseers at Mittelbau. About 170 of these "Kapos" were killed on April 15, 1945.:62 On April 20, four German fighter planes attacked the camp, damaging the water supply and killing three British medical orderlies.:261