Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain paid a historic visit to the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in June 2015. The Queen visited the camp on the last day of an official state visit to Germany to pay respects to the individuals exterminated there by the Nazis during the Holocaust. It was the first time that the 89-year-old Monarch had visited a concentration camp. The Queen met with British army veterans, who shared horror stories of their first impressions upon arrival at the camp in April 1945. Official sources reported that the Queen had a “personal and reflective” visit to the camp, accompanied by her husband, Prince Philip.
By April 1945 the Germans were aware that the British would soon overrun the camp and were fearful that typhus would spread if the prisoners escaped. On 12 April, they approached elements of the British 11th Armoured Division to negotiate a temporary local truce and surrender the camp. The British entered Bergen-Belsen three days later. Harry Oakes and Bill Lawrie both served with the Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU), which was set up in 1941 to produce an official record of the British Army’s role during the Second World War. Both men arrived at Bergen-Belsen to record conditions in the camp. Here they explain how British forces gained access to the camp.
While Bergen-Belsen contained no gas chambers, an estimated 50,000 people died of starvation, overwork, disease, brutality and sadistic medical experiments. By April 1945, more than 60,000 prisoners were incarcerated in Belsen in two camps located 1.5 miles apart. Camp No. 2 was opened only a few weeks before the liberation on the site of a military hospital and barracks.
The camp was divided into two sections: the camp area and the crematorium. The camp area consisted of 32 barracks, including one for clergy imprisoned for opposing the Nazi regime and one reserved for medical experiments. The courtyard between the prison and the central kitchen was used for the summary execution of prisoners. The camp was surrounded by an electrified barbed-wire gate, a ditch, and a wall with seven guard towers.
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.
After 1942, the economic functions of the camps, previously secondary to their penal and terror functions, came to the fore. Forced labor of camp prisoners became commonplace. The guards became much more brutal, and the death rate increased as the guards not only beat and starved prisoners, but killed them more frequently. Vernichtung durch Arbeit ("extermination through labor") was a policy—camp inmates would literally be worked to death, or to physical exhaustion, at which point they would be gassed or shot. The Germans estimated the average prisoner's lifespan in a concentration camp at three months, due to lack of food and clothing, constant epidemics, and frequent punishments for the most minor transgressions. The shifts were long and often involved exposure to dangerous materials.
New arrivals at Dachau were never told how long they would be imprisoned, a factor that weakened their morale and left them more vulnerable to the remolding that would follow. Often, their journey to Dachau marked the first time they had ever been arrested or involved with police. Many had been sent there by the Gestapo upon vague accusations or denunciations by persons who simply disliked them or who wanted to settle an old score. Some were even arrested on suspicion they might commit a crime in the future.
"Ceremony Recalls Victims of Bergen-Belsen," The Week in Germany (New York: German Information Center), April 27, 1990, p. 6; A figure of 50,000 is also given in Time magazine, April 29, 1985, p. 21; According to a stone memorial at the Belsen camp site, 30,000 Jews were "exterminated" there; A semi-official Polish account published in 1980 reported 48,000 Belsen "victims." Czeslaw Pilichowski, No Time Limit for These Crimes (Warsaw: Interpress, 1980), pp. 154-155.
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.