When Belsen was liberated in April 1945, the impact in the UK was huge. While there had been information about concentration camps for some years, the impact on the British troops who had fought their way into Northern Germany through France, Belgium and the Netherlands, is hard to express in words.
The scenes that the liberating troops found is all the more shocking, as Belsen was not an extermination camp and did not have any gas chambers.
THE BERGEN-BELSEN WAR CRIMES TRIAL
The Belsen trial, which lasted from Monday 17 September 1945 until Saturday 17 November 1945, was one of the most famous war crimes trials mounted by the UK.
Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp, located about 10 miles (16 km) north-west of Celle, was the only concentration camp liberated by British soldiers. Consequently, the trial that followed occupies an important part in the history of British War Crimes trials.
Belsen, like the other concentration camps was established to hold what were considered, by the Nazi regime, as undesirable people, ranging from Jews to relatives of famous German citizens who had fled overseas. Notable inmates of Belsen include Marlene Dietrich’s sister and the Frank sisters Margot and Anne.
Belsen was not an extermination camp (whose sole purpose was the mechanical process of killing thousands of people at a time, and utilising their by-products). Originally, it had contained a comparatively small number of “exchange Jews”; Jews that had been allowed to leave Germany for reasons of state or profit. At that time it had been relatively well managed. Towards the end of 1944 it was designated a sick camp, and it was only then and in 1945 that the numbers increased and that the appalling conditions developed. The conditions discovered at the time of the camp’s liberation may not have been the result of a calculated plan on the part of either of those in command of the camp or of those in authority, except in so far as it was a part of their policy to disregard, and to do nothing to alleviate, the suffering of their prisoners. The essential difference between the conditions at Belsen and Auschwitz is that the conditions at Belsen were due to a criminal and inexcusable neglect coupled with an administrative breakdown. The conditions at Auschwitz were the direct results of a carefully designed and executed policy of long standing.
The world renowned British radio journalist Richard Dimbleby made a radio broadcast from Belsen not long after its liberation. It describes in simple and unemotional language the conditions found by British troops in the camp.
Due to the dreadful state of the survivors, and the outbreaks of typhus, 13,000 survivors died in the 6 weeks after the liberation by British troops.
Due to the risk of even greater disease epidemics, the British troops were forced to use bulldozers to bury the hundreds of corpses; people who died and were just left were they fell. The captured guards, men and women, were forced to help bury the dead.
All that now remains at the site of the Belsen camp are several mass graves. The camps infrastructure was burnt down, to prevent further disease epidemics.
The London Agreement, and the Allied Control Council’s Law Order 10, established the instruments for trying war criminals. However, British Military Law already permitted the trial of war criminals, through a Royal Warrant dated 14 June 1945. The main legal items at the trial were constituents of international law which applied at the time the offences were alleged to have taken place. This contrasts with the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremburg, where the IMT’s Charter together with international law, were the main legal instruments.
The Military Court sat at No. 30 Lindenstrasse, Luneburg, Germany.The Court’s Members were
- President: Major-General H.M.P. Berney-Ficklin, CB, MC
- Members: Brigadier A. De L. Casonove, CBE, DSO, MVO, Colonel G.J. Richards, CBE, DSO, MR, Lieutenant-Colonel R.B. Morrish, TD, RA and Lieutenant-Colonel R. McLay, RA.
- Judge-Advocate: C.L. Stirling, Esq, CBE, KC
Prosecution team was Colonel T.M. Blackhouse, MBE, TD, Major H.G. Murton-Neale, Captain S.M. Stewart and Lieutenant-Colonel L.J. Genn.
Although the trial was called by the papers “The Belsen Trial”, there were two distinct charges which the accused faced. The first related to activities at Belsen, the second related to activities at Auschwitz.
At Bergen-Belsen, Germany, between 1 October 1942 and 30 April 1945, when members of the staff of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp responsible for the well-being of the persons interned there, in violation of the law and usages of war, were together concerned as parties to the ill-treatment of certain of such persons, causing the deaths of Keith Meyer (a British national), Anna Kis, Sara Kohn (both Hungarian nationals), Heinrich Glinovjechy and Maria Konatkevicz (both Polish nationals) and Marcel Freson de Montigny (a French national), Maurice Van Eijnsbergen (a Dutch national), Maurice Van Mevlenaar (a Belgian national), Jan Markowski and Georgej Ferenz (both Polish nationals), Salvatore Verdura (an Italian national) and Therese Klee (a British national of Honduras), Allied nationals, and other Allied nationals whose names are unknown, and physical suffering ot other persons interned there, Allied nationals, and particularly to Harold Osmund le Druillenec (a British national), Benec Zuchermann, a female internee named Korperova, a female internee named Hoffmann, Luba Rormann, Isa Frydmann (all Polish nationals) and Alexandra Siwdowa, a Russian national and other Allied nationals whose names are unknown.
At Auschwitz, Poland, between 1 October 1942 and 30 April 1945, when members of the staff at Auschwitz Concentration Camp responsible for the well-being of the persons interned there, in violation of the law and usages of war, were together concerned as parties to the ill-treatment of certain of such persons, causing the deaths of Rachella Silberstein (a Polish national), Allied nationals, and other Allied nationals whose names are unknown, and physical suffering to other persons interned there, Allied nationals, and particularly to Eva Gryka and Hanka Rosenwayg (both Polish nationals) and other Allied nationals whose names are unknown.Count 2.
There were a total of 45 accused. Of these 45, 11 were charged with the second “Auschwitz” charge, as well as the Belsen charge. Only one defendant was only charged with the second charge. The defendants were represented by one Polish Officer and eleven British Officers, all of whom had held a legal qualification in civil life. It was the defendants’ choice to be represented by British, rather than German, counsel.
On the tenth day of the trial, Thursday 27 September 1945, Colonel H.A. Smith was allowed to become an additional defending officer. Colonel Smith was a Professor of International Law at London University. He assisted the defence concerning points and interpretations of international law.
There were in the dock 16 members of the SS. Of these, three held the most important positions: Kramer (Camp Commandant), Klein (Camp Doctor) and Hoessler (Compound Commandant & in charge of Camp No. 2). The other (Weingartner, Kraft, Klippel, Francioh, Egersdorf, Kulessa, Mathes, Soffel, Otto, Pichen, Dorr, Schreier and Barsch) were mostly conscripts, and held subordinate positions, such as being in charge of working parties, kitchens and ration stores. Only Kramer, Klein and Hoessler were officers; the others were mostly NCOs.
There were also 16 female members of the SS. The most important were Grese (Compound Commander) and Volkenrath (as an Oberaufscherin, she alloted duties to the others). The others (Bormann, Ehlert, Ilse Forster, Ida Forster, Opitz, Klein, Bothe, Walter, Haschke, Fiest, Sauter, Lisiewitz, Hempel and Hahnel) were mostly employed upon duties of a minor administrative kind. They were mostly conscripts, having worked in factories and been appointed to supervise the slave labour allotted to their factory.
The remaining 12 were prisoners themselves: 7 male and 5 female, who were alleged to have taken office as Kapos, and then to have ill-treated their fellow prisoners. Of these 12, 6 were Polish. Almost all the Kapos had served as ordinary prisoners for a considerable time before being “promoted” to Kapos.
After all the evidence, witnesses and affidavits had been presented and closing speeches had been made, the court adjourned at 10.57am on the fifty-third day of the trial (Friday 16 November 1945).
Last that afternoon, at 4.05pm, the court returned and announced it verdicts. The President of the court reminded everyone that findings of guilty were subject to the approval of superior military authority. Findings of not guilty were final, and cleared the accused of the particular charges that they faced.
The 14 defendants who were found not guilty were removed by the court’s Provost Marshal.
On the fifty-fourth and final day of the trial, Saturday 17 November 1945, the court heard the pleas in mitigation of those people who had been found guilty. The speeches were made by their defending officers. After hearing these pleas, the court’s President read its sentences.
A total of 8 men, and 3 women, were sentenced to death by hanging. The other 19 guilty people were sentenced to varying terms of imprisonment. The eleven people sentenced to death appealed to the convening officer, which was Field-Marshal Montgomery. All the appeals for clemency were rejected.
On 13 December 1945, at Hameln Jail, the 11 people sentenced to death were hanged by Albert Pierrepoint, assisted by Regimental Sergeant-Major O’Neill. The three women were hanged one at a time, in the order of Grese, Volkenrath and Bormann. The eight men were hanged in double executions, beginning with Josef Kramer and Fritz Klein.