Estimates of the number of people who died in Bergen-Belsen have ranged widely over the years. Many have been irresponsible exaggerations. Typical is a 1985 York Daily News report, which told readers that "probably 100,000 died at Bergen-Belsen." /39 An official German government publication issued in 1990 declared that "more than 50,000 people had been murdered" in the Belsen camp under German control, and "an additional 13,000 died in the first weeks after liberation." /40
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.
Prisoners at the electric fence of Dachau concentration camp cheer American soldiers in Dachau, Germany in an undated photo. Some of them wear the striped blue and white prison garb. They decorated their huts with flags of all nations which they had made secretly as they heard the guns of the 42nd Rainbow Division getting louder and louder on the approach to Dachau. #
Due to the number of sub-camps over a large area that comprised the Dachau concentration camp complex, many Allied units have been officially recognized by the United States Army Center of Military History and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum as liberating units of Dachau, including: the 4th Infantry Division, 36th Infantry Division, 42nd Infantry Division, 45th Infantry Division, 63rd Infantry Division, 99th Infantry Division, 103rd Infantry Division, 10th Armored Division, 12th Armored Division, 14th Armored Division, 20th Armored Division, and the 101st Airborne Division.
In August 1944 a women's camp opened inside Dachau. In the last months of the war, the conditions at Dachau deteriorated. As Allied forces advanced toward Germany, the Germans began to move prisoners from concentration camps near the front to more centrally located camps. They hoped to prevent the liberation of large numbers of prisoners. Transports from the evacuated camps arrived continuously at Dachau. After days of travel with little or no food or water, the prisoners arrived weak and exhausted, often near death. Typhus epidemics became a serious problem as a result of overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions, insufficient provisions, and the weakened state of the prisoners.
"The persecution of Jews in occupied Poland meant that we could see horror emerging gradually in many ways. In 1939, they were forced to wear Jewish stars, and people were herded and shut up into ghettos. Then, in the years '41 and '42 there was plenty of public evidence of pure sadism. With people behaving like pigs, I felt the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them. There was no choice."
Men and women lived in separate barracks, but members of the same family were permitted to meet. Most of the prisoners in the “star camp” were Jews from the Netherlands. In the period from January to September 1944, eight transports from the Westerbork transit camp in the Netherlands arrived in Bergen- Belsen, made up of 3,670 persons who were classified as “exchange Jews.”
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.)
After WWII had ended, photographs of the Holocaust stunned the public. Newspapers in the United States had reported on the oppression of the Jews in Germany during the war. In 1942, many newspapers were writing details of the Holocaust, but these stories were short and were not widely read. In 1943, after sources had confirmed the killings of at least two million Jews in concentration camps across Europe a Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans believed these reports to be true; 28% thought they were “just a rumor”. The reports were unconfirmed and sometimes denied by the United States government.
Similarly, in Ordinary Men (1992), Christopher Browning examined the deeds of German Reserve Police Battalion 101 of the Ordnungspolizei ("order police"), used to commit massacres and round-ups of Jews, as well as mass deportations to the death camps. The members of the battalion were middle-aged men of working-class background from Hamburg, who were too old for regular military duty. They were given no special training. During the murder of 1,500 Jews from Józefów in Poland, their commander allowed them to opt out of direct participation. Fewer than 12 men out of a battalion of 500 did so. Influenced by the Milgram experiment on obedience, Browning argued that the men killed out of peer pressure, not bloodlust.
Germany implemented the persecution of the Jews in stages. Following Adolf Hitler's appointment as German Chancellor in January 1933, the regime built a network of concentration camps in Germany for political opponents and those deemed "undesirable", starting with Dachau on 22 March 1933. After the passing of the Enabling Act on 24 March, which gave Hitler plenary powers, the government began isolating Jews from civil society, which included a boycott of Jewish businesses in April 1933 and enacting the Nuremberg Laws in September 1935. On 9–10 November 1938, during Kristallnacht (the "Night of Broken Glass"), Jewish businesses and other buildings were ransacked, smashed or set on fire throughout Germany and Austria, which Germany had annexed in March that year. After Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, triggering World War II, the regime set up ghettos to segregate Jews. Eventually thousands of camps and other detention sites were established across German-occupied Europe.
In the summer of 1943, Stalag XI-C (311) was dissolved and Bergen-Belsen became a branch camp of Stalag XI-B. It served as the hospital for all Soviet POWs in the region until January 1945. Other inmates/patients were Italian military internees from August 1944 and, following the suppression of the Warsaw Uprising in October 1944, around 1,000 members of the Polish Home Army were imprisoned in a separate section of the POW camp.