And the Birds Will Still be Singing: Bergen-Belsen, Germany and Britain, 70 Years On (part one)

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On April 15th 1945, British and Canadian forces liberated the concentration camp near the Saxon village of Bergen Belsen, where they found some 13,000 unburied bodies and around 60,000 inmates, many gravely ill or dying from starvation and the terrible typhus epidemic that had killed thousands, and would kill many more. Yesterday, two of us from the RGS went with the Holocaust Educational Trust as part of the commemoration of that day.

For anyone that knows northern Germamy, the area around Belsen would look very familiar. Flat, or gently undulating, covered in forest interspersed with meadow and ploughed fields, and neat small villages of neat red tile roofs and small farms. As a starting point, that’s a good one. Anyone who knows  and, perhaps, is rather fond of Germany and the Germans, faces this conundrum when coming to terms with the Germany of the Third Reich.

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The last site we visited today, more of which anon, was the soon to be closed British Army base of Bergen-Hohne. It was, originally, a home to the German army, as the freize above the doorway to its famous Roundhouse shows. When I first encountered German history, many believed in the idea of the sonderweg seriously now. The idea was that German history took a wrong turn with Bismarck, becoming wedded to blood and iron and Prussian militarism, and setting out on the road that would lead to Nazism. We no longer accept this idea. Perhaps, instead, Germany took its wrong turn when that army threw itself into the cataclysm of the Great War. Even then, though, there was nothing inevitable about the rise of Nazism. For me, the real story might be symbolised by that frieze and the army base built in the great wave of rearmament that followed the re-introduction of conscription in 1935.

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If you look carefully at the emblem at its entrance you will see a laurel wreath, as pointed out to us by a British officer yesterday. Up until 1945, there was a swastika inside the wreath. If you wanted a symbol of what happened to the Wehrmacht under Nazism you could do worse than think about the swastika within the laurel, and the camp that was built beside it. The great rearmament bore fruit in the invasion of Poland in 1939 which was, militarily, a success. But that victory, along with those of 1940, also saw the army come under criticism from within the regime for not being sufficiently National Socialist. What that meant would be revealed in all its grisly horror and barbarity with the launch of Operation Barbarossa in 1941.

When Bergen-Hohne was being built, the workers were housed in a temporary camp of wooden huts nearby. With the building complete, they were left empty. They were empty for the last time: with the invasion of Poland, huts in the village of Fallingbostel were used to house prisoners of war. Fallingbostel, Stalag XI-B, would house some 95,000 POWs in time, becoming one of Germany’s larger prisoner of war camps. With the invasion of France and the Low Countries in 1940, the workers’ huts near Bergen-Belsen came into use to come with a new influx of POWs.

The invasion of the Soviet Union saw the Nazi regime embrace barbarity and genocide. It was no accident. The so-called Einsatzgruppen order, along with a whole slew of propaganda about the fundamental sub-humanity of Jews and Slavs, committed all German forces, the Wehrmacht included to racial war. As such, Barbarossa marked the real beginning of the Holocaust as the Ss, the Einsatzgruppen, the army and their local collaborators set about the mass murder of Jews and others seen as enemies of the regime. In truth, Nazi plans were even more terrible. If the hoped for quick victory in 1941 had materialised, the so-called Hunger Plan envisaged the deliberate starvation of something like one third of the population of the Slavic East.

In that context, the fate of the over 3 million Soviet soldiers captured by the Wehrmacht in 1941 makes terrible sense. In the summer of 1941 the Germans took Soviet prisoners of war on a scale unprecedented in history. At Vyazma and Bryansk alone, they captured over half a million. Over three million Soviet soldiers were captured in that heady and dreadful summer.

Over the whole course of the Second World War the Germans captured close to six million Russian prisoners of war; almost two thirds of them would die. The Germans committed what were, at that time, unimaginable atrocities. Russian POWs were burned alive, shot, or gassed.  Most Russians prisoners died of disease, exposure and starvation. This happened in German transit camps, or the stalags.

One of those stalags was Bergen-Belsen: Stalag XI-C. It had originally been envisaged that it would hold 20,000 Soviet POWs. The circumstances of 1941blew all such calculations out of the water; the descent of the Nazi regime and with it the Wehrmacht did the rest. The treatment of the POWs of the western allies, even of the Poles, was harsh and sometimes cruel, and sometimes murderous. But, for the most part, the Nazis kept to the letter of the Geneva Convention in those camps. In the terrible and bizarre world or wartime Nazi Germany, even those Soviet POWs inmates of Bergen-Belsen and the two nearby satellites also reserved for them, were lucky: they had not been murdered, or starved outright. However, in Bergen-Belsen and its neighbouring Soviet camps, 41,000 were dead by March 1942; 50,000 by the end of the war. In Bergen-Belsen itself, nearly 20,000 Soviet POWs were killed.

In 1943, Stalag XI-C was dissolved. Bergen-Belsen became the hospital wing of Stalag XI-B. In 1944, it became the hole of Italian soldiers interned after the Italain change of sides in 1943; it also housed members of the Polish Home Army after the domed Warsaw Uprising of 1944. By the spring of 1944, its population had dwindled to some 7,000. 

And we haven’t yet mentioned the Jews. Until late 1944, the Holocaust was, in one sense, not a German phenomenon, happening outside of Germany. In that nasty statistical sense playing with such numbers can have, the Holocaust might be seen as consisting of two overlapping phases. In the first, as the Wehrmacht swept east, a mixture of the army, the Einsatzgruppen, the SS and local collaborators began shooting Jews. Most of the Jews east of the Soviet border were killed that way. Gradually, the SS sought to formalise that arrangement, and look for cleaner methods of killing people. That is where we get the development of the great slave labour camps and, of course, the death camps to the east of Poland. It was in the likes of Treblinka, Chelmno, Majdanek, Belzec and Sobibor, camps designed purely to kill people, that saw the nazis industrialise this process with the gas chambers and the crematoria that give the Holocaust its name. 

In one sense, the Holocaust and all that attended it was an admission of failure and then incipient defeat. The dreamed of eastern empire, in which Jews could be shipped as helots had not materialised. The useful mouths, those who could be worked to the death, were now needed as slave labour. The useless mouths had no purpose. That all this happened well to the east, beyond what the Nazis saw as the civilised world is indicative of the fact the new they had to hide something. In Czechoslovakia, the Nazis built a different kind of camp, Theresienstadt. There the Nazis shipped favoured Jews, such as the few who did not escape Denmark, using it to present to the Red Cross in 1944. In truth, most of its inhabitants were quickly moved on to their deaths.

Those killed after the Red Cross visit in 1944 did not meet their deaths in the east of Poland. By 1944, the Russian advance had led to Nazis to tear up the camps and destroy all evidence of what they had done. Those Jews of 1944 were murdered in the recently opened Auschwitz-Birkenau, a recently opened slave labour and death camp attached to a previously standing concentration camp.

If some of the Jews of Theresienstadt were, by the standards of Nazi criminality, lucky for a while, so were the first Jewish inmates of Bergen-Belsen. In 1943, part of Bergen-Belsen was taken over by the SS as a holding camp for a special category of Jews, those who were thought to be of value because they could be exchanged for German prisoners overseas or for hard currency. Gradually, it was expanded to house sick prisoners and then, a special women’s section in. November 1944. It was that section that Margot and Anne Frank would be moved into and it was where they would die, sometime in the February or March of 1945.

By the end of 1944, the Germans were losing the war and evacuating the east, including Auschwitz, most notoriously in the infamous death marches. It was in theta context that, in the first four months of 1945, the population of Bergen-Belsen expanded to over 60,000. The SS could neither feed, nor do anything for them (and, of course, neither did they really want to). Instead, people began to die in droves from disease and malnutrition, and most of all from typhus:,it was typhus that killed Anne Frank. It is estimated that over 35,000 people, most of them Jewish, died in 1945 before the liberation (most in those last terrible weeks).

Looked at it in purely statistical terms, given the enomority and the almost unfashionable scale of the Nazi’s crimes against humanity, compared to the killing fields of the Soviet Union, the death camps of the east, or Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen was small beer. It’s importance would, in part, come from the circumstances of its liberation. It would also owe something to the memory and the enduring legacy of Anne Frank. Nor was it central to the history of the Holocuast.

Perhaps, therein lies its true importance. That a place where many tens of thousands of Jews suffered indescribably, and where tens of thousands of Soviet men were treated with brutally, a place where tens of thousands died in indescribable misery, where others were foully mistreated and killed, is a detail? Where a mass grave of 1,000 souls is some kind of footnote?

The Holocaust did not exist in a vacuum, as the fate of the Soviet prisoners reminds us. But the Jews of Bergen-Belsen were and remain symbolic of something more than what one liberator described as something like the half human wretches he found strewn about the unburied bodies around him.

The second part of this article will look at liberation, death and life, hope, and the British. For now, we have to focus on barbarity and death. And that is one reason why Bergen-Belsen still matters.

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