A brief history of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where Anne Frank died
A site of unimaginable horror, some 52,000 prisoners from across Europe died at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in Germany during the Holocaust, including the famous diarist Anne Frank. A further 14,000 inmates, sick or injured, died after the camp was liberated in 1945. Ahead of the 75th anniversary of the camp’s liberation by British troops, historian Jens-Christian Wagner reveals what life was like inside Bergen-Belsen…
Please note: This article contains images some readers may find distressing
When was the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp first set up?
Bergen-Belsen was established as a concentration camp in 1943. However, it had been used as a prisoner of war (PoW) camp since 1940, with close to 20,000 Soviet PoWs dying in 1941–42 as a result of starvation and disease.
In fact, Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was composed of three camps. In spring 1943, the SS and the German Foreign Office set up a so-called ‘exchange camp’ (Austauschlager) for Jewish hostages alongside the PoW camp. In some cases, entire families were held there with the intention of exchanging them for commodities, ransom money, or for Germans interned abroad. However, few exchanges ever took place.
The SS also set up a camp in the spring of 1944 for sick and dying male prisoners from other camps who were no longer able to perform forced labor. Many of the male prisoners in the men’s camp (Männerlager) had been imprisoned for political reason (in April 1945, a few days before Bergen-Belsen was liberated, the SS set up a sub-camp of the men's camp at the neighbouring Bergen-Hohne barracks).
A women’s camp (Frauenlager) was added in the summer of 1944. These women and girls were used as forced labourers in the nearby satellite camps for the armaments industry. Many of the women were Jewish and had been deported from Auschwitz concentration camp to Bergen-Belsen.
How many people were held at Bergen-Belsen, and how many died?
Around 15,000 men, women and children had been crammed into the Jewish exchange camp in 1943 and 1944. The men and women’s camps each held more than 50,000 prisoners. Roughly 52,000 of around 120,000 prisoners from across Europe died in Bergen-Belsen, most of them in the spring of 1945.
What were the conditions like?
Living conditions varied greatly depending on when and in which part of the camp complex you were detained. Until the winter of 1944–45, conditions in the Jewish exchange camp were relatively decent in comparison to the men’s camp or the women's camp. The worst conditions were in the men's camp, since the men housed there were basically left to die.
Starting in early 1945, transports arrived in great numbers to Bergen-Belsen from other concentration camps that had been evacuated near the front, e.g. Auschwitz. A total of 85,000 additional prisoners arrived at Bergen-Belsen until April 1945. As a result, food was scarce and overcrowded conditions led to the outbreak of diseases such as typhus and dysentery. Soon, apocalyptic conditions prevailed and the SS did nothing to contain the misery. In March 1945 alone, some 18,000 prisoners died. Towards the end of the war, there were more than 1,000 deaths per day.
Was Bergen-Belsen a death camp? What’s the difference between a concentration camp and a death camp?
Bergen-Belsen was not an extermination camp, but due to the high death rate in the final months of the war, one could indeed call it a death camp in the end. However, aside from the 200 men who were poisoned with carbolic acid injections in the summer of 1944, there was no active killing at Bergen-Belsen. Mass deaths were not planned as such; there were no gas chambers and no shootings. Yet the SS consciously accepted the extremely high death rates, especially in the men's camp, where inmates died as a result of organised, deliberate neglect.
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In fact, Bergen-Belsen differed from both the extermination camps – where mass murder took place in the gas chambers – and from other Nazi concentration camps, whose main function was to detain all ‘undesirables’ (racial, political or social) and exploit them for the wartime economy.
The women's camp at Bergen-Belsen could be considered the closest to a concentration camp. These inmates were used for forced labor in the war economy, as was the case in other concentration camps, such as Buchenwald or Dachau during the second half of the war.
The men's camp, on the other hand, was set up only for sick and dying male prisoners, and the Jewish hostage camp was fundamentally different from other concentration camps. The inmates held there were not supposed to die (but were needed for a possible exchange); they were allowed to wear civilian clothes instead of the striped prisoner uniform, and a small number of them were actually released (around 2,500).
When was Anne Frank sent to Bergen-Belsen? How long was she there, and how did she die?
Due to the popularity of her diary after the war, Anne Frank is probably the most well-known victim of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp. Together with her sister, Margot, she was deported from Auschwitz to the women's camp of Bergen-Belsen in early November 1944. In Bergen-Belsen, both sisters, who were already severely weakened by their time in Westerbork and Auschwitz, contracted typhus. According to reports from fellow inmates, they died in late February or early March 1945 and their bodies were burned or buried in one of the many anonymous mass graves on the camp’s grounds.
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Who was the leader of the camp?
The first commandant of Bergen-Belsen was SS-Sturmbannführer (Major) Adolf Haas. He started working in the concentration camp system in 1940 and served as commandant of Wewelsburg concentration camp before his transfer to Bergen-Belsen in 1943. In December 1944, he was sent into battle.
His successor was SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Josef Kramer. Kramer had been working in the concentration camp system since 1934, most recently as commandant of Natzweiler and Auschwitz-Birkenau. He stayed at Bergen-Belsen from December 1944 until the liberation of the camp on 15 April 1945, when he was arrested by the British forces. At the British Belsen Trial in Lüneburg, he was sentenced to death and executed in Hameln in December 1945.
Of course, Haas and Kramer were not the only ones responsible for the catastrophic conditions in Bergen-Belsen. Many other members of the SS and Wehrmacht, who were guards or commandant functionaries at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, as well as the military and civilian authorities of the SS, Wehrmacht and the Foreign Office, also bore much responsibility.
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Who liberated Bergen-Belsen and what did they find when they arrived? When did the camp officially close?
Bergen-Belsen was liberated by British troops on 15 April 1945.
Due to the rampant typhus epidemic, the SS did not evacuate the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp as the British troops were approaching. Instead, the Wehrmacht and the British negotiated a local armistice, under which the camp’s commandant, Josef Kramer, handed over the camp to British soldiers without a fight.
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The British witnessed an unimaginable horror: 10,000 unburied corpses in various stages of decomposition lay scattered on the camp’s grounds, and 50,000 others lay ill and dying. British soldiers and civilian relief workers had the dead buried in mass graves to stem the further spread of typhus. They moved the survivors to emergency hospitals in the neighboring Bergen-Hohne barracks. Yet despite the help of the British, 14,000 liberated inmates were too sick to recover and died between April and June 1945.
What happened to the survivors?
As soon as survivors were fit enough to travel, they could return to their countries of origin. But many Jews and Polish survivors in particular stayed in the Bergen-Hohne barracks and were given the status of “displaced persons” (DPs).
Due to restrictive immigration regulations, Jewish survivors had to wait for the opportunity to emigrate to the USA or Palestine. The Jewish Displaced Persons (DP) Camp at Bergen-Belsen was dissolved in 1950. The Polish DP camp, meanwhile, was disbanded in September 1946.
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Can you visit Bergen-Belsen today?
The site of the former Bergen-Belsen concentration camp is now a large cemetery. Mass graves and monuments from 75 years ago are a reminder of the site’s horrible past. There is little left of the physical camp. Visitors can have an in-depth look at the history of the PoW camp and concentration camp as well as the Bergen-Belsen DP (displaced persons) camp in the documentation centre’s extensive permanent exhibition. Multi-lingual guided tours and seminars are offered for groups of visitors. In 2019, a part of the former DP camp in the neighboring barracks opened its doors to visitors.
Jens-Christian Wagner is a German historian who specialises in the history of National Socialism, particularly forced labour and concentration camps, and in politics after 1945. He is also director of the Lower Saxony Memorials Foundation, which has offices at the Bergen-Belsen Memorial.