In 1935, just after the Wehrmacht’s political and armed formation was recognised as the national armed forces of Germany, the construction of the training ground began near the village of Belsen in Lower Saxony. The training ground, which still exists and remains in operation to this day, covers an area of 284 km2, which places it at the forefront of the largest European military training grounds*. After the invasion of Poland, some infrastructure was adapted to create a prisoner-of-war camp. In 1940, a few kilometres from the military base, construction of the Bergen-Belsen camp began. Initially it was supposed to be a prisoner-of-war camp – in a different place than the military barracks, but eventually the area began to serve as a concentration camp. At that time, more than 15,000 Wehrmacht troops were stationed and trained in the garrison.
The new prisoner-of-war camp (Stalag 311 [XI C]) existed until 1945, but soon after its creation it started to be expanded until it reached its final size and began to form a complex of various types of sub-camps, including:
– ‘Star Camp’, i.e. a labour camp where approximately 4,000 Jews, mainly Dutch, were kept,
– In April 1943, the Aufenthaltslager (residence camp) was created as a collective camp for several thousand Jews for possible exchange for interned Germans,
– In 1943, a special (residence) camp was created for several thousand Jews from Poland, possessing South American documents, isolated because of their knowledge about the extermination;
– A lighter camp for Jews from neutral countries, e.g. Switzerland,
– In 1944 a Hungarian residence camp was created,and its prisoners were intended to be exchanged for ransom,
- Great Lazaret, place of death …
– The “female” part, initially intended as a women’s transit camp, eventually became a place of internment for women, especially from Poland and Hungary, for Jewish as well as Polish women brought here after the Warsaw Uprising. Beginning in December 1944, Germans also began to imprison other victims here: more than 10,000 women and children regarded as political prisoners, Jews, as well as the Roma and Sint people who arrived in death marches and transports from various directions. Accordingly, the female part of the camp was expanded in January 1945.
In December 1944, the transformation of Bergen-Belsen into a concentration camp was completed. The inflow of prisoners from other camps, including in the cruel “death marches”, worsened the prisoners’ living conditions so much that it led to mass mortality (turn of 1944/1945).
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945 by the British troops. There were about 60,000 prisoners there, mostly seriously ill and half starved. There were 13,000 unburied bodies around the camp. Due to the lack of water – people saved themselves by drinking “fluid” from fire-fighting pools, where bodies were also found. There were even cases of cannibalism in the camp …
At least 50,000 people died in Bergen-Belsen, and after the liberation this number rose by up to 30,000 when we include the sick and debilitated prisoners.
Because the epidemiological risk was enormous, thousands of corpses were pushed with bulldozers into mass graves and buried; the barracks were burned, and half-dead prisoners disinfected and transported to the Berhen-Hohne garrison buildings, whereas the so-called Bergen-Belsen displaced persons camp was supervised by the National Aid and Rehabilitation Organisation (UNRRA). Some of the prisoners remained there until September 1950.
On the other hand, the military training area itself was taken over by the British army on April 15, 1945, and was expanded in the following years. During the Cold War it was intensively used as a strategically important unit for NATO. In 1957, the Bundeswehr also began to use the area – in contact with the British commandant. At that time up to 50,000 British, American and German troops were stationed there, and the area became the largest military training ground in Europe and one of the NATO land forces training areas in the Federal Republic of Germany. Today, the area is intensively used by British forces, the Bundeswehr and the troops of the Netherlands and Belgium. All British forces are to be withdrawn from Germany by 2020, and plans for the future use of military facilities are still unknown.
The first commemoration appeared in the former KL Bergen-Belsen, as early as 1946, when Poles unveiled a wooden cross set in the ground. In 1947, work began on the construction of the main memorial, which was finally unveiled in 1952. It was not until thirty years later that an inscription dedicated to German Sinti appeared on the wall with commemorative inscriptions, and their victims were commemorated in 1999 on a bronze plaque embedded in the pavement.
It is also worth noting that today several important “points” related to the Bergen-Belsen camp are located in the area administered by the army – in Bergen-Hohne, and to visit them one needs to apply for a special permit and a pass. These locations include, for example, the Tented Theatre Cemetery (with 4,500 graves of Jewish and non-Jewish victims of all nationalities buried at the end of 1945) as well as the kapo cemetery.
- Note that probably the largest military training ground in Europe is the Drawsko Land Forces Training Centre, commonly known as the Military Training Ground of Drawsko (Pomorskie), which started its operation in 1946 and covers the area of over 360 km2.
Date of the unveiling
1946 – the Polish Cross; 1952 – the Main Memorial
Bergen-Belsen Memorial (Gedenkstätte Bergen-Belsen), Anne-Frank-Platz, 29303 Lohheide, Germany
+49 5051 4759200
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The KL Bergen-Belsen Main Memorial:
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