The Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated by British forces on 15 April 1945. In this blog post, we will look at the liberation of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, war reporting and photography and the idea of Belsen in the British imagination.
Content Warning: This article links to external resources that contain distressing images and audio. The reader is advised to use their own discretion if they choose to use these resources.
This blog article was written by Nicole Hartland, Archive Assistant (Trainee).
At the end of the Second World War, the Allies advanced across Europe and discovered Nazi concentration camps. The first major camp discovered was Majdanek near Lublin, Poland in July 1944. In January of the following year, Auschwitz was liberated by Russian troops. In response to this advance, the Nazis transported prisoners from the frontline much deeper into Germany, with many force-marched hundreds of miles. Holocaust survivors discuss these marches in this clip from Channel 4’s Auschwitz Untold: In Colour, available on YouTube.
Survivors of these death marches were moved to camps such as Bergen-Belsen, Buchenwald and Ravensbrück in central Germany which led to huge issues with overcrowding. At Bergen-Belsen, the camp population grew to 90,000 with no additional food or resources. Most died from starvation and disease and the mortality rate amongst those suffering from typhus was over 60 per cent.
BUCHENWALD CAMP: REPORT OF A PARLIAMENTARY DELEGATION
The Buchenwald Concentration Camp was liberated on 11 April 1945 by American forces, 4 days before Bergen-Belsen. Photographs from the two camps had reached the British press and a Parliamentary delegation were sent to provide eye-witness accounts:
‘Our object was “to find out the truth,” while the evidence was still fresh, at this important camp… so to test the accuracy of the reports already published’
The details in the report make for disturbing reading, and the impact on those in the delegation is evident from its concluding paragraph:
‘In preparing this report, we have endeavoured to write with restraint and objectivity, and to avoid obtruding personal reactions or emotional comments. We would conclude, however, by stating that it is our considered and unanimous opinion, on the evidence available to us, that a policy of steady starvation and inhuman brutality was carried out at Buchenwald over a long period of time; and that such camps as this mark the lowest point of degradation to which humanity has yet descended. The memory of what we saw and heard at Buchenwald will haunt us ineffaceably for many years.’
The Parliamentary delegation did not make it as far as Bergen-Belsen, which remained behind enemy lines. As well as the photographs of Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen in the national newspapers, film footage was captured of the two camps and shown in cinemas after 30th April in a Pathe News broadcast. Mavis Tate, the only woman member of the Parliamentary Delegation, introduced these scenes, urging viewers: ‘Do believe me when I tell you that the reality was indescribably worse than these pictures.’
You can read more on Buchenwald Camp: The Report of a Parliamentary Delegation on the History of Parliament’s blog.
WAR REPORTING & THE ARMY FILM AND PHOTOGRAPHIC UNIT
The immediate aftermath of Bergen-Belsen’s liberation was captured by Army photographers, cameramen and leading war correspondents. The British Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) were instructed to document the harrowing conditions found at Bergen-Belsen through photographs and film footage.
The AFPU’s images were used widely in reporting, providing stark images for what became the archetypal Nazi ‘horror camp’. Such images provided moving and distressing evidence of the nature of the Nazi regime. Photographs taken by the AFPU in the days following the liberation are now held at the Imperial War Museum, you can browse the collection here.
Richard Dimbleby’s famous BBC broadcast was aired on 19th April 1945, shortly after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen. He was the first broadcaster to enter the camp, you can listen to his broadcast here on the BBC Archive. Recorded five days after the liberation and broadcast on 27 May 1945 was Belsen Facts and Thoughts from Patrick Gordon Walker, a similarly vivid and emotional account of the horrific conditions in the camp.
Film footage and short documentary films from British Pathe also give an insight into how the scenes from Bergen-Belsen were reported in Britain towards the end of the war. These include films such as British Troops Enter Belsen and The Beasts Of Belsen On Trial from later in 1945. You can take a look at all the titles relating to Belsen from the British Pathe archive.
‘BELSEN’ IN BRITISH POPULAR CONCIOUSNESS
Such an outpouring of harrowing audio and visual ‘evidence’ had an impact on the British public, becoming lodged in the collective national psyche. The collections linked above can provide some insight into the horror of the discovery, but we will now turn to thinking about this in the context of the end of the Second World War.
The British Pathe film The Beasts Of Belsen On Trial is a good example of how the camp became an archetype or emblem of Nazi evils. We can also see this in Hansard. ‘..on the same moral level as the beasts of Belsen’ and ‘…a bagatelle compared to Belsen’ are used in a House of Lords debate from 1 May 1945, which references the Report of a Parliamentary Delegation, Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen camps (read the full debate here)
‘Belsen’ became a benchmark of Nazi evils, often wrapped up in a good vs evil narrative which celebrated British triumph. On May 21, 1945 a wooden prisoner hut with the German War Flag and a portrait of Adolf Hitler were set alight and the Union Jack raised – a striking representation of this triumphant narrative.
Debates in Hansard and the majority of news reports mirror this, having a morale-boosting effect on the British public towards the end of the war. However, whilst it was known by those involved in the relief effort that Jewish people made up the majority of victims at the camp, this grand narrative failed to address the prejudice and antisemitism underpinning this incarceration and horrific treatment – detaching ‘Belsen’ from the actual site and individual experiences of those held prisoner. You can read more on the idea of ‘Belsen’ in British Memory here.
Audio clips from Dr Laurence Wand and Reverend Leslie Hardman, the first Jewish chaplain to enter the camp, reflect on the idea of systematic dehumanisation and the importance of survivors sharing their experiences – listen here.
On anniversaries such as these, it is important to remember those individuals who faced persecution for their religion, race, sexuality, disability amongst others factors. For those who survived the camps, the process of recovery and repatriation continued long after the end of the Second World War.