Though at the time of liberation the death rate had peaked at 200 per day, after the liberation by U.S. forces the rate eventually fell to between 50 and 80 deaths per day. In addition to the direct abuse of the SS and the harsh conditions, people died from typhus epidemics and starvation. The number of inmates had peaked in 1944 with transports from evacuated camps in the east (such as Auschwitz), and the resulting overcrowding led to an increase in the death rate.
Originally established as a prisoner of war camp, in 1943, parts of Bergenbelsen became a concentration camp. Initially it was an “exchange camp,” where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas. The camp was later expanded to accommodate Jews from other concentration camps. It is also the location where writer Anne Frank passed away.
Being fully aware that Germany was about to be defeated in World War II, the SS invested its time in removing evidence of the crimes it committed in the concentration camps. They began destroying incriminating evidence in April 1945 and planned on murdering the prisoners using codenames "Wolke A-I" (Cloud A-1) and "Wolkenbrand" (Cloud fire). However, these plans were not carried out. In mid-April, plans to evacuate the camp started by sending prisoners toward Tyrol. On 26 April, over 10,000 prisoners were forced to leave the Dachau concentration camp on foot, in trains, or in trucks. The largest group of some 7,000 prisoners was driven southward on a foot-march lasting several days. More than 1,000 prisoners did not survive this march. The evacuation transports cost many thousands of prisoners their lives.
From the start, camp detainees were subjected to harsh treatment. On May 25, 1933, Sebastian Nefzger (1900-33), a Munich schoolteacher, was beaten to death while imprisoned at Dachau. The SS administrators who operated the camp claimed that Nefzger had committed suicide, but an autopsy disclosed that he likely lost his life due to asphyxiation or strangulation. The Munich public prosecutor summarily indicted Wäckerle and his underlings on a murder charge. The prosecutor was immediately overruled by Hitler, who issued an edict stating that Dachau and all other concentration camps were not to be subjected to German law as it applied to German citizens. SS administrators alone would run the camps and hand out punishment as they saw fit.
Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. German propaganda portrayed the war against the Soviet Union as both an ideological war between German National Socialism and Jewish Bolshevism and a racial war between the Germans and the Jewish, Romani and Slavic Untermenschen ("sub-humans"). Local populations in some occupied Soviet territories actively participated in the killing of Jews and others, and helped identify and round up Jews. German involvement ranged from active instigation and involvement to general guidance. In Lithuania, Latvia, and western Ukraine, locals were deeply involved in the murder of Jews from the beginning of the German occupation. Some of these Latvian and Lithuanian units also participated in the murder of Jews in Belarus. In the south, Ukrainians killed about 24,000 Jews and some went to Poland to serve as concentration and death-camp guards. Military units from some countries allied to Germany also killed Jews. Romanian units were given orders to exterminate and wipe out Jews in areas they controlled. Ustaše militia in Croatia persecuted and murdered Jews, among others. Many of the killings were carried out in public, a change from previous practice.
Most Holocaust historians define the Holocaust as the enactment, between 1941 and 1945, of the German state policy to exterminate the European Jews.[a] In Teaching the Holocaust (2015), Michael Gray, a specialist in Holocaust education, offers three definitions: (a) "the persecution and murder of Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which views the events of Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938 as an early phase of the Holocaust; (b) "the systematic mass murder of the Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1941 and 1945", which acknowledges the shift in German policy in 1941 toward the extermination of the Jewish people in Europe; and (c) "the persecution and murder of various groups by the Nazi regime and its collaborators between 1933 and 1945", which includes all the Nazis' victims. The third definition fails, Gray writes, to acknowledge that only the Jewish people were singled out for annihilation.
The Nazis then combined their racial theories with the evolutionary theories of Charles Darwin to justify their treatment of the Jews. The Germans, as the strongest and fittest, were destined to rule, while the weak and racially adulterated Jews were doomed to extinction. Hitler began to restrict the Jews with legislation and terror, which entailed burning books written by Jews, removing Jews from their professions and public schools, confiscating their businesses and property and excluding them from public events. The most infamous of the anti-Jewish legislation were the Nuremberg Laws, enacted on September 15, 1935. They formed the legal basis for the Jews' exclusion from German society and the progressively restrictive Jewish policies of the Germans.
By January 1946, 18,000 members of the SS were being confined at the camp along with an additional 12,000 persons, including deserters from the Russian army. The occupants of one barracks rioted as 271 of the Russian deserters were to be loaded onto trains that would return them to Russian-controlled lands, as agreed at the Yalta Conference. Ten of the soldiers, who had been captured in German Army uniforms, committed suicide during the riot. Twenty-one others attempted suicide, apparently with razor blades. Many had "cracked heads" inflicted by 500 American and Polish guards, in the attempt to bring the situation under control. Inmates barricaded themselves inside and set fire to the building, tore off their clothing, and linked arms to resist being removed from the building. Some begged American soldiers to shoot them. Tear gas was used by the soldiers before rushing the building.
The worst killer was typhus, but typhoid fever and dysentery also claimed many lives. Aggravating the situation was a policy during the final months of transferring already sick inmates from other camps to Belsen, which was then officially designated a sick or convalescence camp (Krankenlager). The sick women of Auschwitz, for example, were transferred to Belsen in three groups in November-December 1944. /12
In August 1944, a new section was created and this became the so-called "women's camp". By November 1944 this camp received around 9,000 women and young girls. Most of those who were able to work stayed only for a short while and were then sent on to other concentration camps or slave-labour camps. The first women interned there were Poles, arrested after the failed Warsaw Uprising. Others were Jewish women from Poland or Hungary, transferred from Auschwitz. Among those who never left Bergen-Belsen were Margot and Anne Frank, who died there in February or March 1945.