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15 October 2014
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Timeline - 1939-1945

Fact File : Liberation of Belsen

15 April 1945

After the liberation of Belsen, hungry internees wait at the cook house gate for their rations
After the liberation of Belsen, hungry internees wait at the cook house gate for their rations©
Bergen-Belsen was first established by the Nazis in 1940 near Celle in northern Germany. Until 1943, it was a prisoner-of-war and internment camp. It was later used to house Jewish prisoners whom the Germans planned to exchange for German nationals held by the Allies. Sick and injured prisoners were also transferred to Belsen from other parts of the huge system of camps the Nazis set up in occupied Europe.

From the end of 1944, the numbers in Belsen soared as thousands of Jewish prisoners arrived, evacuated by the Nazis from camps closer to the front as Allied forces advanced on Germany. Many of these prisoners were survivors of 'death marches' - long marches in appalling conditions, with little food or shelter.

Overcrowding, poor sanitary conditions and the lack of adequate food and shelter led to a typhus epidemic at Belsen. In the first few months of 1945 as many as 35,000 prisoners died. Amongst these were the young Jewish diarist Anne Frank and her sister Margot, who had been sent to Belsen from Auschwitz.

The first British troops entered Belsen on 15 April. They were horrified to discover thousands of dead and dying prisoners from nearly every country occupied by the Nazis. Despite the best efforts of the British authorities, more than 10,000 prisoners died after liberation.

Film and photographs of the conditions in the camp had a powerful impact in Britain and elsewhere. It was the first time most people in Britain learnt of the atrocities committed against the civilian populations of Europe, particularly the Jews. Belsen became a symbol of Nazi inhumanity and brutality.

After the camp had been evacuated, the British burned the buildings to prevent the spread of disease. A displaced persons camp (known as a 'DP Camp') was established in German barracks near the site. Many of the inhabitants were survivors of the Holocaust.

The term 'holocaust', derived from the Greek for 'sacrifice by fire', now refers to the mass killing of approximately six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Second World War. Some refer to this genocide as the Shoah, from the Hebrew word for 'catastrophe' or 'total destruction'.

The Jews were not the only victims of Nazism. The Nazis also imprisoned and killed Roma and Sinti (otherwise known as Gypsies), Germans with physical and mental disabilities, homosexuals and political opponents of their regime. More than three million Soviet prisoners of war, 1,800,000 non-Jewish Poles (some sources say as many as three million) and many hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians, Belarussians, Czechs and other Slavs were also killed. In total, at least eleven million people are estimated to have been killed by the Nazis and their collaborators for racial and political reasons.

Hatred of the Jews was central to Nazi ideology. After coming to power in 1933, the Nazis initially hoped to force all German Jews to leave the country. Jews were gradually excluded from German society. They were dismissed from the civil service and from university, medical and legal posts. Jewish businesses were 'Aryanised' or confiscated. Antisemitic propaganda was widespread. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 deprived German Jews of their citizenship.

Localised violence against Jews became a national campaign on the night of 9 November 1938 when Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes were attacked and destroyed. Jews were terrorised and 91 individuals murdered. About 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps. This came to be known as 'Kristallnacht', the Night of Broken Glass. By the outbreak of war in 1939 it is estimated that 282,000 Jews had left Germany and another 117,000 had fled annexed Austria.

In 1939, with the German occupation of Poland, 2 million Jews came under Nazi control. By mid-1941, most of these Jews had been driven into ghettos. 500,000 Jews starved or died of disease in squalid, over-crowded conditions.

In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. Murder squads known as 'Einsatzgruppen' moved from region to region, rounding up and shooting Jews. Whole communities were wiped out, and at least 1 million people killed. The Einsatzgruppen were assisted by the German police and armed forces and by local collaborators.

While these massacres were happening, the Nazi leadership were making plans for a 'Final Solution of the Jewish question'. In December 1941, the first 'death factory' opened at Chelmno, near Lodz in western Poland. Gas vans were used to kill about 150,000 Jews. Three more extermination camps were established in Poland in 1942, mainly for the murder of Polish Jews. These camps were Belzec (650,000 victims), Sobibor (250,000 victims) and Treblinka (850,000 victims).

Across Europe, Jews were rounded up and imprisoned in ghettos or transit camps. From there the majority were transported in horrific conditions in cattle wagons to extermination camps. Those who were not murdered immediately were forced to become slave labourers.

Auschwitz was the last camp to go into full-scale operation, but was the biggest and most sophisticated of the death camps, where the Nazis perfected their technology of killing. Just over a million people are estimated to have been murdered there, most of them Jewish.

Early in 1945, as Russian troops advanced westwards, the Nazis began to move survivors of the camps back into Germany on foot. Thousands of Jews died on these 'death marches'. In the closing months of the war, the Allied armies liberated all the camps in occupied Europe. Despite Allied relief efforts many more victims died from the effects of starvation, disease and ill-treatment.

In all, six million Jews were murdered, two thirds of the pre-war Jewish population of Europe.

The fact files in this timeline were commissioned by the BBC in June 2003 and September 2005. Find out more about the authors who wrote them.

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