A soldier stands in front of a sign erected by British Forces at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945.
© IWM BU 6955 A sign erected by British Forces at the entrance to Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, Germany, 29 May 1945.

In early April 1945 troops of the British 11th Armoured Division were speeding across northern Germany as part of the final push towards Allied victory over the forces of Nazism.

Their progress was temporarily checked by a German request for a localised truce at a place called Bergen-Belsen, which lay on the Division’s path of advance.

The envoy sent to negotiate the truce explained that typhus had taken hold in a prison camp there, and that there was a danger of the disease spreading beyond its confines.

The British verified the truth of this statement, and the area was declared a neutral zone.

On 15 April soldiers of 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, were the first to enter the Belsen camp.

What they found there came to epitomise the horror of the Nazi concentration camps, and its imagery has continued to shape popular perceptions of the Holocaust to this day.

A young girl suffering from typhus recovers in her new cot in No 3 Camp. She has been bathed, reclothed and put into a
© IWM BU 4102 A young girl suffering from typhus recovers in her new cot in No 3 Camp.

The most urgent task confronting the liberating troops was a medical and humanitarian rescue operation of major proportions.

More than 60,000 starving, dying and disease-ridden survivors were packed into the camp, over 10,000 corpses lay unburied.

In the weeks and months that followed, British soldiers, medical personnel and volunteers brought an almost miraculous degree of order into the ghastly chaos.

The dead were buried, the sick were treated and rehabilitated, barely living skeletons began to have their humanity restored to them, children even began to enjoy fun and games again.

Many challenges remained, but the immediate disaster had been transformed into a manageable situation.

Attention now turned to those who had been responsible for what was revealed to the world in April 1945. 

Foremost amongst these was the Commandant of the Belsen camp at the time of its liberation, SS-Hauptsturmführer (Captain) Josef Kramer.

He had been in charge of Belsen concentration camp since December 1944, having previously been a senior camp administrator at Auschwitz, where he oversaw many of the gassings of Jews in the Birkenau sub-camp.

Towards the end of the war Belsen became a reception camp for many of the prisoners evacuated from camps further east as the Soviet Army advanced westwards, resulting in the chronic overcrowding, starvation and disease discovered by the British liberating forces.

These conditions were made even worse by Kramer’s brutal regime, which earned him the nickname of the `Beast of Belsen’.

Josef Kramer, Camp Commandant, photographed in irons at Belsen.
© IWM BU 3823 Josef Kramer, Camp Commandant, photographed in irons at Belsen.

Among the official photographers and film cameramen sent to Belsen to record the first days after liberation was Sergeant A N Midgley, of No 5 Army Film and Photographic Unit.

In a letter written at the time, Midgley described the impression made by Kramer on him and others:

“When our troops arrived at the camp he met them resplendent in his uniform, full of arrogance....The commandant looked a real thug. His feet were shackled to prevent his escape. He will surely be tried as a war criminal.” 

And so he was. In September 1945 Kramer and 44 of his former associates at Belsen and Auschwitz were brought before a British military tribunal in the town of Lüneburg.

Notable defendants alongside Kramer were the Belsen camp doctor Fritz Klein, Kramer’s deputy Franz Hössler, and the  female camp `overseer’ Irma Grese, who was nicknamed the `Hyena of Auschwitz’ for her sadistic behaviour.

Prosecution and defence were conducted by British Army officers, those in the dock were charged with having committed crimes of war and crimes against citizens of the Allied nations.

Being a British military tribunal, charges such as those of crimes against humanity and genocide could not be employed. These were reserved for the high-level trials at Nuremberg which began two months later.

Major T. C. M. Winwood, Josef Kramer's Defence Council, speaking to him at the courtroom in Luneburg, 19 September 1945.
© IWM AP 281835 Major T. C. M. Winwood, Josef Kramer's Defence Council, speaking to him at the courtroom in Luneburg, 19 September 1945.

The unenviable task of acting as defence counsel to Kramer himself fell to Major Thomas Winwood. A serving Royal Artillery officer, Winwood had also qualified as a solicitor just before the war, and it was on this account that he was called on to serve the tribunal at Lüneburg. He only found out on arrival there that he was to defend Kramer, Klein and another Belsen staff member. He later recalled:

“There were immense problems facing the defence. The charges were heinous, time was short, and pressure came from the British Government to get the trial over before the Americans got going at Nuremberg... We had little time to formulate a coherent defence policy beyond agreeing that we would put forward a joint objection to the jurisdiction [of the court] and other legal matters.”

Winwood was, understandably, uncomfortable in his role, but “someone had to do it”. He was subjected to much criticism from various quarters in England for `defending the indefensible’, and also felt that the court itself “took the view that the Defence was making difficulty at every occasion”. He felt obliged to point out that he was fulfilling a legal requirement, not in any way `taking sides’ with those in the dock.

Josef Kramer and his 43 associates from Belsen and Auschwitz concentration camps in the dock in the courtroom at Luneburg, 10 September 1945.
© IWM HU 59545 Josef Kramer and his 43 associates from Belsen and Auschwitz concentration camps in the dock in the courtroom at Luneburg, 10 September 1945.

Amongst those who testified as witnesses against the defendants was Anita Lasker, a young Jewish woman who had survived Auschwitz and Belsen.

She owed her survival in Auschwitz in large part to being a member of the women’s orchestra created on the orders of the camp authorities. She later wrote:

“The trial struck me as a huge farce. This was the first time that I came face to face with British justice, where you are `innocent’ unless proven `guilty’. This is no doubt a very commendable concept, but hardly applicable or even adaptable to the sort of crimes that were being dealt with in Lüneburg.”

The witnesses were often asked to describe events from their camp experiences in more detail than they could remember: The mere fact that one could not answer such a question was enough to make one feel that one was not telling the truth”.

Looking back on the trial, Anita wrote:

“It was then that I understood for the first time how totally incomprehensible the events which led to the Lüneburg Trial were to the rest of the world. One cannot apply law in the conventional sense to anything so outside the law as the massacre of millions of people, which was perpetrated in the name of `purifying the human race’”.       

The trial ended in mid-November 1945. Kramer and 10 others were sentenced to death, with the rest being acquitted or sent to prison (most of these were released by the early 1950s).

Amongst the trial papers retained by Major Winwood is a letter written by Josef Kramer whilst awaiting his execution. It is a plea for clemency, addressed to Field Marshal Bernard Law Montgomery, at that time Commander-in-Chief of the British Army of the Rhine.

In his own mind, the former SS officer was writing as one `soldier’ to another, clearly expecting to be understood as such. He blamed the appalling conditions in Belsen on his superiors in Berlin who, he said, ignored his requests to stop further transports of prisoners into the overcrowded camp:

“With the limited resources at my disposal I then worked tirelessly to avoid the worst [….]. As a soldier it was my duty to follow the orders I was given. Selflessly and without regard for my own person I did my duty until the last day.”

Kramer prided himself on not having deserted his post like so many others did:

“While others were concerned for their personal safety, my only care was for the prisoners who were entrusted to me.”

Kramer went on to deny any responsibility for what had gone on in Auschwitz, and specifically any involvement in gas chamber `selections’, with which he claimed to have “not been in agreement”. Kramer concluded his plea with the assertion that he was innocent of all charges against him, was not a war criminal, and - rather contradicting these statements- was “only a soldier and as such carried out the orders of my military superiors”.

There is no evidence that `Monty’ ever saw this letter, and in any case Kramer’s fate had been sealed. On 13th December 1945 he and the other condemned defendants were executed in Hamelin (Hameln) Prison by Britain’s chief hangman Albert Pierrepoint, who shortly afterwards made a note of the day’s work.

The Belsen Trial attracted considerable international media attention. It gave the world its first real glimpse of the fathomless horror of the Holocaust, and of the `death factory’ of Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was also the first occasion on which film was submitted as evidence in a war crimes trial.

Although it was soon overshadowed by the major trials at Nuremberg, the Belsen Trial broke the ground on which subsequent war crimes tribunals were constructed. Seventy-six years on, the images and the testimony it presented to the world remain as shocking now as they did then.

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