25 November 2023

Bergen-Belsen 1945 (part 5: the SS)

Continuation of Part 4.

References and Part 1: here.


For the SS, a distinction is necessary between Wachmannschaften (guards) and Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungspersonal (supply and administration personnel). Female SS members were mostly of the latter kind [K, p.177]. 

Also note that by 1945 many were included in the SS without having chosen so. In December 1944 the Austrian prisoner Ella Lingens-Reiner travelled for five days with eighteen S.S. men from Auschwitz to Dachau, and wrote: among those eighteen S.S. men there were exactly three genuine Nazis [L, p.160]. She also describes the case of a girl of a good family who had applied for "supervision of foreign workers" and was surprised to end up as an SS wardress [L, p.185]. At Belsen, most of the female SS members were recently conscripted civilians of low standards. The civil firms were compelled to deliver a certain number of women [K, p.176-177] and, understandably, did not send the best of their personnel.

In the agreement it had been clearly stipulated that any SS guards remaining in the camp would become Prisoners of War. What would happen to the other SS personnel, once their duties under British command performed, was not. The camp commander, camp doctor, administration and supply personnel had stayed, and the female SS members had even voluntarily returned in the camp. One might argue that Wardresses were "guards" and that the female SS would immediately become Prisoners of War — at least those who were wardresses. This did not happen, and no distinction was made between them and the others; all were disarmed and imprisoned as soon as they were no longer considered useful for the administration of the camp. No doubt, the worst they had feared was to be Prisoners of War under the Geneva convention. In fact, all without exception (including cooks and the like) were very brutally treated.

Quotations from [T]

The whole lot were locked in the cells, just outside the concentration camp proper, much to the delight of the inmates. The men were later set to work carting the corpses from the camp to the big pit – the women joined them later helping with this job.  They were given the same ration at the internees had had prior to our entry. (p.5)

 During the first night one committed suicide and 2 more attempted but failed to do so.  The following day 2 tried to run away but were immediately shot. (p.5)


a. There is no proof that the Germans deliberately chose to starve their Belsen prisoners, but the British did exactly that, adding forced labour and brutal beatings.

b. In the following weeks some 20 SS people died, some from sepsis (induced by ptomaine), the major part from spotted fever, which they probably contracted handling the corpses. [Kolb 169] 


BU 4259:
British troops have to keep the women internees back 
from attacking the S.S. men

(Actually, the women seem more amused than threatening, probably enjoying the insults being shouted.)

Quotations from [M,A].

(a) "the women guards". [Note: this terminology is debatable, see introduction above.]

We saw the women guards first. A British sergeant threw open the cell door and some twenty women wearing dirty gray skirts and tunics were sitting and lying on the floor. “Get up,” the sergeant roared in English. 

They got up and stood to attention in a semi-circle round the room and we looked at them. Thin ones, fat ones, scraggy ones and muscular ones; all of them ugly and one or two of them distinctly cretinous. I pointed out one, a big woman with bright golden hair and a bright pink complexion. 

“She was Kramer’s girl friend,” [Irma Grese, see photograph below, where the couple is displayed as some sort of curiosity.] the sergeant growled. “Nice lot, aren’t they?” 

There was another woman in a second room with almost delicate features, but she had the same set staring look in her eyes. The atmosphere of the reformatory school and the prison was inescapable. 

(b) "the SS guards" [Note: this terminology is definitely not correct; the SS guards had long left the camp.]

As we approached the cells of the SS guards the sergeant’s language became ferocious. 

“We have had an interrogation this morning,” the captain said. “I’m afraid they are not a pretty sight.” 

“Who does the interrogation?” 

“A Frenchman. I believe he was sent up here specially from the French underground to do the job.” 

The sergeant unbolted the first door and flung it back with a crack like thunder. He strode into the cell jabbing a metal spike in front of him. “Get up,” he shouted. “Get up; get up, you dirty bastards.” 

There were half a dozen men lying or half-lying on the floor. One or two were able to pull themselves erect at once. The man nearest me, his shirt and face spattered with blood, made two attempts before he got on to his knees and then gradually on to his feet. He stood with his arms half stretched out in front of him trembling violently. 

“Get up,” shouted the sergeant. They were all on their feet now, but supporting themselves against the wall. “Get away from that wall.” 

They pushed themselves out into space and stood there swaying. Unlike the women they looked not at us but vacantly in front, staring at nothing. 

Same thing in the next cell and the next, where the men, who were bleeding and very dirty, were moaning something in German. 

(c) "the doctor" [Note: Klein had been the responsible camp doctor for three days only.]

“You had better see the doctor,” the captain said. “He’s a nice specimen. He invented some of the tortures here. He had one trick of injecting creosote and petrol into the prisoners’ veins. He used to go round the huts and say: ‘Too many people in here. Far too many.’ Then he used to loose off his revolver round the hut. The doctor has just finished his interrogation.” 

The doctor had a cell to himself. 

“Come on. Get up,” the sergeant shouted. The man was lying in his blood on the floor, a massive figure with a heavy head and a bedraggled beard. He placed his two arms on to the seat of a wooden chair, gave himself a heave and got half-upright. One more heave and he was on his feet. He flung wide his arms towards us. 

“Why don’t you kill me?” he whispered. “Why don’t you kill me? I can’t stand any more.” 

The same phrases dribbled out of his lips over and over again. 

“He’s been saying that all morning, the dirty bastard,” the sergeant said. 

(d) forced labour.

We came on a group of German guards flinging bodies into a pit about a hundred feet square. They brought the bodies up in hand-carts, and as they were flung into the grave a British soldier kept a tally of the numbers. When the total reached five hundred a bulldozer driven by another soldier came up and started nudging the earth into the grave. 

(e) Kramer.
“But how did you come to accept a job like this?” he [Kramer] was asked. 
The reply: “There was no question of my accepting it. I was ordered. I am an officer in the SS and I obey orders. These people were criminals and I was serving my Führer in a crisis by commanding this camp. I tried to get medicines and food for the prisoners and I failed. I was swamped. I may have been hated, but I was doing my duty.” 

Quotations from [M,L pp. 93-94] 

The British soldiers who took over Belsen had no time to inquire into the background of the S.S. men and women who had remained behind. They had no time to inquire how Belsen itself had come about. They looked around, and what they saw made them mad with rage. They beat the S.S. guards and set them to collecting the bodies of the dead, keeping them always at the double; back and forth they went all day long, always running, men and women alike, from the death pile to the death pit, with the stringy remains of their victims over their shoulders. When one of them dropped to the ground with exhaustion, he was beaten with a rifle-butt. When another stopped for a break, she was kicked until she ran again, or prodded with a bayonet, to the accompaniment of lewd shouts and laughs.   
It made one pensive to see British soldiers beating and kicking men and women, even under such provocation. These S.S. guards were a brutalised and inhuman lot, and yet when you talked to their victims it seemed that they were, in many cases, by far the best of the lot; the worst had decamped while they still had time, and would probably never be caught.

After a few days, observers and investigators moved into Belsen and some of the facts about it began to emerge. The victims were questioned, and it became apparent that the camp had been a collecting point for sick men and women from other concentration camps in other parts of Germany. Its camp staff had been brutal enough, but not nearly so cruel as at other camps in Germany; and, until the Russian push, it had coped well enough with its dead and dying. Then trainload after trainload of diseased German and Allied prisoners began to pour into the camp. Thousands began to die every day; there was not enough food to feed them; and the crematoria could not handle the enormous number of bodies. It was then, with no isolation wards possible, with dead lying all over the camp awaiting burial, that the situation got so completely out of hand that Kramer and his staff no longer tried to handle it. 

Eventually, 17 SS men and 16 SS women, 33 of those who had remained in the camp under British command, would be tried in Lüneburg, September 1945. Those who had left in time were not. [Kolb, p. 176]

BU 9745:
Irma Grese and Josef Kramer together in the prisoners' yard.
Of the whole lot to be tried, these two will rank as the worst.
(8 August 1945)

Final note. "Bergen-Belsen" with its unbearable images is a standard reference to the inhumane nazi regime. Many may have come to regard it as typical of the criminal German killing machinery. Yet, the Bergen-Belsen of 1945 was anything but typical, and it was by design the opposite of an extermination camp. It had collapsed and ceased to function as a result of external factors caused by the war. 

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