An Essay: A short history of Belsen

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The main problem was getting food into starving people. They tried Three diets and ultimately decided on a Bengali Famine mix, successfully used during that country's highly controversial famine in 1943. This proved to have some effect, and people recovered. There are conflicting reports about the effectiveness of this mixture, which comprised powdered milk, flour and lots of sugar, but as it was sickly sweet, many patients found it unpalatable. As most of the inmates were from Eastern Europe, they preferred a more acidic, vinegar and spiced diet, so to make the mix more palatable, they added paprika, which seems to have had a positive effect. Reading the evidence accounts, the recovery was a mixture of medical care, other rations, clean water to drink and 'hope'. For those too weak to eat, they attempted intravenous feeding but as SS doctors had murdered many prisoners using injections of benzol and creosote, at the sight of the feeding equipment, these people became hysterical.

So how did Belsen become the infamous symbol of this Nazi genocide? Following the invasion of Poland in 1939 the barracks at Belsen, which had been a camp for workers constructing the military base nearby (Belsen was a famous Panzer training ground), became a POW camp. The camp grew following the invasion of Russia, and at its peak housed over 100,000 prisoners in 3 Stalags (prison camps). The Wehrmacht (regular German army) ran these Stalags and harshly treated the inmates: by war's end, some 50,000 Russian POWs had died in Belsen.

In 1943 part of the camp came under the control of the SS department, euphemistically called, 'the Economic-Administration Main Office' and became part of the concentration camp system - in total there were some 20,000 concentration camps controlled by the SS. They designated Belsen a civilian internment camp and initially housed Jewish prisoners intended for exchange with German interns from other countries, and for hard cash. By concentration camp standards, many of these prisoners were less harshly treated because of their perceived transfer value, but in reality, through this exchange programme, fewer than 2500 Jews were freed.

The SS sub-divided the camp into smaller units for individual groups: The Hungarian camp, The Special camp - for Polish Jews; the Neutrals camp, and the Star camp - for Dutch Jews. That summer and now in full operation, some 14,600 Jews, including nearly 3,000 children, arrived. They set most of these people to work; the majority salvaging usable leather pieces from shoes brought in from all over Germany and occupied countries.

By March 1944 they re-designated Belsen as a 'recovery' camp and housed prisoners from other camps too sick to work, under the auspice that they would return to their former places once better. Naturally, the SS denied any medical treatment and so very few ever returned to their work camps, most dying from disease, starvation and exhaustion.

In August 1944 they formed the now famous Women's camp and following the failed uprising there, the first inmates came from the Warsaw Ghetto. The most famous inmate of this camp was Anne Frank who, together with her sister Margot, arrived from Auschwitz; both dying in March 1945, probably from typhus.

At no time was Belsen designated a death camp in the way of Auschwitz, but they sent there many inmates from Belsen for immediate execution and cremation. In December 1944 the new commandant, Josef Kramer, arrived from Auschwitz and it was during this time the camp unravelled as it took in tens of thousands of prisoners from the east, transferred away from the advancing Russian army - (the march from the East is known as the Death Marches where thousands of concentration camp inmates and Allied POWs (prisoners of war) where herded west in freezing, bestial conditions. My Uncle, a POW in Poland, took part in this March and credited his survival to a new pair of boots his mother had sent him through the Red Cross, which he received just days before they left.

On 5th February 1945, lice-infested Hungarian prisoners from the east brought with them Typhus, which then raged through the camp decimating the already weak and sick.

It was this virulent outbreak, together with the infestation of lice and the sea of filth that enveloped this wretched place that led the liberating-authorities to order Belsen's destruction by fire in June 1945. Flame-throwing 'Bren Gun' Carriers and Churchill Crocodile tanks laid waste: a befitting end to 'hell-on-earth'. Flying overhead that day was comedian Michael Bentine on his way to Denmark with pilot, Kelly, who remarked on seeing the flames and destruction: 'Thank Christ for that.' Bentine said that Kelly's words sounded like a benediction.

Prior to its destruction, The Number 5 Army Film Unit made a film and photographic record of the conditions at the camp which have been seen all over the world and have made Belsen a synonym for Nazi crimes during the war.

In the aftermath, they rounded up former officers and guards and put them on trial. In all there were three Belsen trials, the first lasted 54 days and prosecuted 45 individuals including Commandant, Josef Kramer. At its conclusion, they sentenced 11 to death; they acquitted a few, and the rest sentenced to terms of imprisonment ranging from one year to life. But by June 1955, through pleas for clemency and appeals, they had released all of those imprisoned. There was only one trial in a German court and that ended in acquittal. Over 200 other named SS personnel known to have been at Belsen never stood trial. Although the Nuremberg trials found that the actions of the Wehrmacht in the treatment of Russian POWs constituted a war crime, no trials took place for those atrocities.

For years after her death, Nazis sympathisers declared that Anne Frank never existed and that her diary was a fake. Doubters challenged the famous Nazi hunter, Simon Wiesenthal, to track down her arresting officer, Karl Silberbauer, which he did in 1963. Shown a photograph of Anne, Silberbauer confirmed her identity. On the death of Anne's father, Otto, in 1980, he bequeathed her papers and diary to the Dutch Institute of War Documentation who ordered a full forensic examination. At its conclusion in 1986, they declared the documents to be genuine.

An entry from her diary foretells a future still tarnished by the hatred, intolerance, and violence of mankind: dated 3rd May 1944, she wrote:

"There's in people simply an urge to destroy, an urge to kill, to murder and rage, and until all mankind, without exception, undergoes a great change, wars will be waged, everything that has been built up, cultivated, and grown will be destroyed and disfigured, after which mankind will have to begin all over again." (From Anne Frank - The Diary of a Young Girl).


Note: We'll never know the true figure of how many were killed during the Nazi genocide: a best guess is about 11 million but that does not include many of the Russian POWs who died in captivity. Now we are nearly a century away from these crimes, it is important to note that many of the victims were Germans and that in the final months of the war, as allied troops entered Germany, many vile crimes were committed by them on German civilians. I dedicate this essay - 'A short History of Bergen Belsen' to all victims of war crimes.

Tim Wickenden, April 13 2020.


Learn more:

Imperial War Museum -

Belsen Museum -

Anne Frank -

The World Holocaust Remembrance Centre -

Holocaust Memorial Day Trust -

The Holocaust Education Trust -

Archive film and photographic evidence, including Richard Dimbleby's report, can be found on

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