Eicke urged his SS men to treat all inmates as dangerous "Enemies of the State." He repeatedly lectured them: "There behind the barbed-wire lurks the enemy and he watches everything you do. He will try to help himself by using all your weaknesses. Don't leave yourself open in any way. Show these 'Enemies of the State' your teeth. Anyone who shows even the smallest sign of compassion for the 'Enemies of the State' must disappear from our ranks. I can only use hard men who are determined to do anything. We have no use for weaklings."
The fire signaled the demise of German democracy. On the next day, the government, under the pretense of controlling the Communists, abolished individual rights and protections: freedom of the press, assembly, and expression were nullified, as well as the right to privacy. When the elections were held on March 5, the Nazis received nearly 44 percent of the vote, and with 8 percent offered by the Conservatives, won a majority in the government.
Moshe Peer has spent many years writing a first-person account of the horror he witnessed at Bergen-Belsen. He recalls the separation from his parents as excruciating. But surviving the horrors of the camp quickly became a priority: `There were pieces of corpses lying around and there were bodies lying there, some alive and some dead,` Peer recalled, `Bergen-Belsen was worse than Auschwitz because there people were gassed right away so they didn't suffer a long time ...` Russian prisoners were kept in an open-air camp and were given no food or water. `Some people went mad with hunger and turned to cannibalism.`
Under the Nuremberg Laws, Jews became routine targets for stigmatization and persecution. This culminated in Kristallnacht, or the “night of broken glass” in November 1938, when German synagogues were burned and windows in Jewish shops were smashed; some 100 Jews were killed and thousands more arrested. From 1933 to 1939, hundreds of thousands of Jews who were able to leave Germany did, while those who remained lived in a constant state of uncertainty and fear.
On September 21, 1939, Reinhard Heydrich ordered the establishment of the Judenräte (“Jewish Councils”), comprising up to 24 men—rabbis and Jewish leaders. Heydrich’s order made these councils personally responsible in “the literal sense of the term” for carrying out German orders. When the Nazis sealed the Warsaw Ghetto, the largest of German-occupied Poland’s 400 ghettos, in the fall of 1940, the Jews—then 30 percent of Warsaw’s population—were forced into 2.4 percent of the city’s area. The ghetto’s population reached a density of more than 200,000 persons per square mile (77,000 per square km) and 9.2 per room. Disease, malnutrition, hunger, and poverty took their toll even before the first bullet was fired.
Bergen-Belsen mainly served as a holding camp for the Jewish prisoners. The camp was divided into eight sections, a detention camp, two women’s camps, a special camp, neutrals camps, “star” camp (mainly Dutch prisoners who wore a Star of David on their clothing instead of the camp uniform), Hungarian camp and a tent camp. It was designed to hold 10,000 prisoners, however, by the war’s end more than 60,000 prisoners were detained there, due to the large numbers of those evacuated from Auschwitz and other camps from the East. Tens of thousands of prisoners from other camps came to Bergen-Belsen after agonizing death marches. The POW camp was converted to a women's camp (Grosses Frauenlager) in January 1945 after a large influx of female prisoners evacuate from other camps.
In the fall of 1939, at the start of World War II, Dachau’s prisoners were relocated to Buchenwald and the concentration camps at Mauthausen and Flossenbuerg. For the time being, Dachau was used as a training site for members of the newly established “Waffen-SS,” an elite SS combat unit whose troops also helped run concentration camps. By early 1940, Dachau had been reconverted into a concentration camp. Conditions at the camp were brutal and overcrowded. The facility had been designed to house some 6,000 detainees, but the population continued to rise and by 1944 approximately 30,000 prisoners were packed into the camp.
In the view of Christian Gerlach, Hitler announced his decision to annihilate the Jews on or around 12 December 1941, probably on 12 December during a speech to the Gauleiters, part of the Nazi Party leadership. This was one day after the German declaration of war against the United States, which followed the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December and the United States declaration of war on Japan on 8 December. According to Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt, Hitler had trusted American Jews, whom he assumed were all-powerful, to keep their government out of the war in the interests of German Jews. When America declared war, the Jews were blamed. Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Propaganda, noted of Hitler's speech: "He warned the Jews that if they were to cause another world war, it would lead to their destruction. ... Now the world war has come. The destruction of the Jews must be its necessary consequence."[o]
Beginning with the British air raids on Cologne in May of 1942, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign that would target cities and industrial plants across the Reich for the next three years. In the summer of 1942, Germany and its allies focused on the Soviet Union unsuccessfully. The Soviet Union gained the dominant role, which it would maintain for the rest of the war.
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. #
The camp was originally designed for holding German and Austrian political prisoners and Jews, but in 1935 it began to be used also for ordinary criminals. Inside the camp there was a sharp division between the two groups of prisoners; those who were there for political reasons and therefore wore a red tag, and the criminals, who wore a green tag. The political prisoners who were there because they disagreed with Nazi Party policies, or with Hitler, naturally did not consider themselves criminals. Dachau was used as the chief camp for Christian (mainly Catholic) clergy who were imprisoned for not conforming with the Nazi Party line.
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.
"In the spring of 1946, less than a year after the end of World War II and the liberation of the infamous German concentration camps, a child was born in Bergen Belsen, the place where only a short time earlier tens of thousands had perished. This child was the first of over two thousand who were born in and around Bergen Belsen, of parents who had survived the Holocaust.
Methods of mass murder evolved at local levels as well as being decreed from Nazi high command. Killing squads rounded up and shot entire Jewish communities. Over two days in Kiev, 33,771 Jews were shot. The murder of Jews rapidly escalated, in part because local Nazi leaders didn’t have enough room to place them in the ghettos. By the end of the year, plans to implement the systematic slaughter of Jews by using gas in mobile trucks and gas chambers were well underway.
Last week the jubilance of impending victory was sobered by the grim facts of the atrocities which the Allied troops were uncovering all over Germany. For 12 years since the Nazis seized power, American have heard charges of German brutality. Made skeptical by World War I "atrocity propaganda," many people refused to put much faith in stories about the inhuman Nazi treatment of prisoners.
In the last months of Hitler’s Reich, as the German armies retreated, the Nazis began marching the prisoners still alive in the concentration camps to the territory they still controlled. The Germans forced the starving and sick Jews to walk hundreds of miles. Most died or were shot along the way. About a quarter of a million Jews died on the death marches.
An Inspector General report resulting from a US Army investigation conducted between 3 and 8 May 1945 and titled, "American Army Investigation of Alleged Mistreatment of German Guards at Dachau," found that 21 plus "a number" of presumed SS men were killed with others being wounded after their surrender had been accepted. In addition, 25 to 50 SS guards were estimated to have been killed by the liberated prisoners. Lee Miller visited the camp just after liberation, and photographed several guards who were killed by soldiers or prisoners.
The prisoner enclosure at the camp was heavily guarded to ensure that no prisoners escaped. A 3-metre-wide (10 ft) no-man's land was the first marker of confinement for prisoners; an area which upon entry would elicit lethal gunfire from guard towers. Guards are known to have tossed inmates' caps into this area, resulting in the death of the prisoners when they attempted to retrieve the caps. Despondent prisoners committed suicide by entering the zone. A four-foot-deep and eight-foot-broad (1.2 × 2.4 m) creek, connected with the river Amper, lay on the west side between the "neutral-zone" and the electrically charged, and barbed wire fence which surrounded the entire prisoner enclosure.
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.
Compared to the appalling number of men, women and children killed at the Nazi extermination camps—places like Sobibor, Chelmno, Treblinka and others where, cumulatively, millions perished—the death toll at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwest Germany was (a horrible thing to say!) relatively small. More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone; at Belsen, by most estimates, fewer than 100,000 died—from starvation and disease (typhus, for example), as well as outright slaughter.
The American Military Tribunal proceeding against the Waffen-SS soldiers who were accused of shooting American POWs at Malmédy was also held at Dachau, as were the proceedings against the accused guards and staff at the Buchenwald, Mauthausen, Flossenbürg and Nordhausen concentration camps. The proceedings against the infamous Ilse Koch, dubbed the "Bitch of Buchenwald" by the press, also took place in Dachau. As the wife of the Commandant at Buchenwald, she was accused of selecting tattooed prisoners to be killed by her alleged lover, Dr. Waldemar Hoven, so that their skin could be made into human lamp shades to decorate her home.
In March 1944, part of the camp was redesignated as an Erholungslager ("recovery camp"), where prisoners too sick to work were brought from other concentration camps. They were in Belsen supposedly to recover and then return to their original camps and resume work, but many of them died in Belsen of disease, starvation, exhaustion and lack of medical attention.