An Essay: A short history of Belsen

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As the aircraft landed on the hastily repaired strip – a 'Jock' (Scottish) doctor raced up to us in his jeep.

"Got any medical orderlies?" he shouted above the roar of the aircraft engines. "Any K rations or vitaminised chocolate?"

"What's up?" I asked, for I could see that his face was grey with shock.

"Concentration camp up the road," he said shakily, lighting a cigarette. "It's dreadful – just dreadful." He threw the cigarette away untouched. "I've never seen anything so awful in my life. You just won't believe it 'til you see it – for God's sake come and help them!" (The words of comedian Michael Bentine – former MI9 Officer who took part in the liberation.)

Thirty years later, at age twelve, I visited Bergen Belsen, the place described by the Scottish doctor, and it changed the way I saw the world.

Now it is a peaceful open park some fourteen hundred by four hundred metres, a monument, and I can't imagine how it must have been as a camp. But there is no escape from the price paid by the minority groups herded there to die in conditions of inconceivable horror, for as you look around you see grassy mounds, mostly rectangular and huge, and each having a stone monument staying in German, Hier Ruhen 2500 Tote (Here lie 2500 Dead) - the number differs from one mound to another, but all contain a staggering quantity of bodies.

It is a quiet place and despite the area being surrounded by forest; I remember no bird song. But it is also a loud place: the burial mounds in their size and simplicity and the few stark words describing them, cry out across the years. You never forget visiting a place such as this and having done so, I knew I needed to find out more.

As a twelve-year-old, I knew next to nothing about the ethnic cleansing carried out by the Nazi regime. The rounding up and persecution of the Jews began in 1933. In the Summer of 1941, when Germany invaded Russia, there began an ideological war between the two nations. As the German Army swept East it was followed by the diabolical Einsatzgruppen. Formed into four units, their job was to round up Jews and other enemies and shoot them. However, the effect on the troops of having to execute tens of thousands of men, women and children soon led to low morale, suicides, alcohol abuse and desertion. The Nazi hierachy needed to find a better way to exterminate the Jews. On the 20th January 1942 a conference was held at a villa on the banks of the Wannsee in Berlin to decide how to do this. The outcome  was creation of the death camps in which 1.7 million Jews were murdered in a systematic, industrialised process. By war's end the Nazi regime had killed five million Hungarians, Poles, Russians, Gypsies, homosexuals, disabled people, and those considered 'Untermenschen' (subhumans), and six million Jews. Given the sheer numbers involved and as Germany collapsed it is hardly surprising that the task became impossible to hide and so on 15th April 1945 when the British troops entered Belsen they found over 13,000 unburied bodies and some 60,000 emaciated, diseased people in a camp originally designed to house only 10,000. It left no one who witnessed this unmoved and for many ordinary soldiers, who had slogged and fought their way from the beaches of Normandy to this awful place, it gave an unambiguous reason for going to war.


In the immediate days following its liberation, Brigadier Glyn Hughes, Vice Director of Medical Services for the British Army of the Rhine (BAOR) managed the medical needs and organisation of the camp. During the 1st Belsen trial, he was a key witness for the prosecution and when asked whether he had witnessed anything like Belsen before, replied:

'I have been a doctor for 30 years and have seen all the horrors of war, but I have never seen anything to touch it.'

Reading many of the transcripts of the trials of Belsen, it's still impossible to imagine what it must have been like. The details of these documents are so shocking and sickening that they belie the reality of the world in which most of us live. At the time of the liberation, 70% of the inmates needed urgent medical care. To facilitate this, they created a DP (displaced persons) camp nearby and drafted in medical people to look after the sick and dying. Among the medical staff were 96 student volunteers from London teaching hospitals, and it was their intervention that assisted in vastly reducing the casualty rate. Sadly, in the months following liberation and despite all efforts, over 13,000 prisoners died.

Bergen Belsen 1940 to 1945Where stories live. Discover now