After Day­break: The Lib­er­a­tion of Bergen-Belsen, 1945

Ben Shep­hard
  • Review
By – July 16, 2012

More than 60 years after the end of the Nazi regime, the­crimes against human­i­ty com­mit­ted dur­ing the Holo­caust con­tin­ue to evoke­hor­ror and dis­gust among most civ­i­lized peo­ple. As a result, inter­estin the Holo­caust and relat­ed top­ics con­tin­ues unabat­ed, through­out the­Unit­ed States and Europe. Even if we dis­count mem­oirs by survivors(which is not wise, con­sid­er­ing the num­ber of new mem­oirs being­pub­lished annu­al­ly), the lit­er­a­ture is vast and still grow­ing. Accord­ing­to a recent count, the New York Pub­lic Library holds 150 books oncon­cen­tra­tion camps pub­lished in Eng­lish since 1992 (the lat­est date ofma­te­r­i­al includ­ed in the final sup­ple­ment of my Bib­li­og­ra­phy on Holo­caust Lit­er­a­ture).The amount of mate­r­i­al exclu­sive­ly focused on the camps, lim­it­ed only­to Eng­lish, totals more than 500 items. If these fig­ures are added toma­te­ri­als in lan­guages oth­er than Eng­lish — espe­cial­ly Pol­ish andGer­man — the grand total could be well over 20,000 items. It is note­wor­thythat 30 years ago, his­to­ri­an M.R.D Foot claimed the total was over7,000 for the Auschwitz camp alone. 

This bib­li­o­graph­ic intro­duc­tion is pro­vid­ed as a way tojudge some of the more recent and his­tor­i­cal­ly sig­nif­i­cant lit­er­a­ture onthe Nazi Con­cen­tra­tion Camps, a ter­ror sys­tem that includ­ed well over3,000 dif­fer­ent camps. It must be under­stood that each camp was unique,even though all shared some com­mon char­ac­ter­is­tics. Even the least­sat­is­fac­to­ry book on the sub­ject may have a unique insight on speci­fic­camps or on the con­cen­tra­tion camp sys­tem as a whole. 

With­in the large pool of lit­er­a­ture on the Holo­caust, I rate Paul Mar­tin Neurath’s The Soci­ety of Ter­roras a must-read. Neu­rath, an Aus­tri­an Jew­ish Social Demo­c­rat, spent mostof the peri­od between the Anschluss of Ger­many and Aus­tria (March, 1938and 1941) behind the barbed wire fences of Dachau and Buchen­wald. Both­sites were pure con­cen­tra­tion camps — in oth­er words, camps in which­po­lit­i­cal pris­on­ers were held and worked to death. The text, com­posed­from mem­o­ry while in exile in Swe­den in 1941, formed the basis forNeurath’s dis­ser­ta­tion in Soci­ol­o­gy at Colum­bia Uni­ver­si­ty. He went onto a dis­tin­guished teach­ing career, which con­tin­ued until his death onSep­tem­ber 32001

The book com­pares well with oth­er ear­ly texts on the camps, notably with Christo­pher Burney’s The Dun­geon Democ­ra­cy,which describes Buchen­wald from the per­spec­tive of an interned Briton. Both books deal exten­sive­ly with the social strat­i­fi­ca­tion amongst thep­ris­on­ers, such as the supe­ri­or­i­ty” of a crim­i­nal (socalled Green, fromthe col­or of the tri­an­gle that the Nazis assigned inmates based ontheir crime) over a Com­mu­nist (Red), the supe­ri­or­i­ty of a Com­mu­nis­tover an Aso­cial (Black) or a Jehova’s Wit­ness (Vio­let), and tehsu­pe­ri­or­i­ty of both of those over a Jew (Yel­low), Gyp­sy (Brown), orHo­mo­sex­u­al (Pink). Both books explain the use of ter­ror and vio­lence bythe SS as a means of demor­al­iz­ing and dehu­man­iz­ing. Neurath’s book ismore clin­i­cal and thus, per­haps, more reli­able from a his­tor­i­cal pointof view, but both books agree on most points of analysis. 

Despite the aca­d­e­m­ic back­ground of Neurath’s book, it isrel­a­tive­ly easy read­ing, assum­ing one has a strong con­sti­tu­tion. Thetext is free of jar­gon and uses none of the expect­ed psy­cho­log­i­cal orso­ci­o­log­i­cal ter­mi­nol­o­gy. A care­ful read­er will clear­ly come away with abet­ter under­stand­ing of both the inter­nal and exter­nal struc­ture of the­camps and how they func­tioned with­in the con­text of the Naz­i­to­tal­i­tar­i­an state. 

Sybille Steinbacher’s Auschwitz: A His­to­ry is a moreterse and spare historian’s account of the Auschwitz concentration/​slave labor/​murder camp. Again a num­ber of sim­i­lar books already exist,but this one fills a niche: it is a short primer on the his­to­ry ofAuschwitz in all its man­i­fes­ta­tions writ­ten (orig­i­nal­ly for a Ger­manau­di­ence) to debunk the lies of Holo­caust deniers such as Robert­Fau­ris­son and David Irv­ing. Even with such a lim­it­ed pur­pose, the book­man­ages to enlight­en. The author dis­cuss­es the devel­op­ment of Auschwitzas a Ger­man civil­ian set­tle­ment, main­ly inhab­it­ed by camp over­seers andtech­ni­cians, in the attached fac­to­ries of the I. G. Far­ben Ver­lag, whichreached a pop­u­la­tion of 6,000 by 1943

There are two minor draw­backs. First, for a vol­ume writ­ten­to set the record straight, there are no source ref­er­ences and only alim­it­ed (52 items) bib­li­og­ra­phy. There is no cita­tion of pri­ma­rysources, at least none whose prove­nance can be specif­i­cal­ly tracked­down, and no crit­i­cal sense of which sources are more use­ful and whichare less use­ful. Sec­ond, as the book was orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in German,the flow of the Eng­lish used isn’t as smooth as that of oth­er books. Ihad to reread a num­ber of pas­sages before com­plete­ly under­stand­ing their­full mean­ing and ram­i­fi­ca­tions. I still rec­om­mend the book, espe­cial­ly­to read­ers look­ing for a short overview. How­ev­er, if you are look­ing forde­tail and care­ful doc­u­men­ta­tion, then look elsewhere. 

A sub­stan­tial­ly dif­fer­ent look at the con­cen­tra­tion camps is pro­vid­ed by Ben Shephard’s After Day­break.In recount­ing the lib­er­a­tion of Bergen Belsen by the Roy­al Army onApril 12, 1945, he attempts to demys­ti­fy those first weeks of freedom.Shephard’s point of depar­ture is the fact that 14,000 of the almost60,000 inmates freed when the camp was cap­tured by the British died­with­in two weeks of lib­er­a­tion. That is an astound­ing 24% of the inmates­lib­er­at­ed. Most his­tor­i­cal accounts focus on post-lib­er­a­tion deaths asthe dire result of Nazi per­se­cu­tion, main­ly mal­nu­tri­tion, that derived­from the Nazi pol­i­cy of ver­nich­tung durch arbeit” (exter­mi­na­tion­through labor). While Shep­hard does not deny the sig­nif­i­cance of this­fac­tor, he also notes the cru­cial errors made by Allied forces­im­me­di­ate­ly after the liberation. 

Using a panoply of pub­lished and her­erto­fore untapped oral­sources — main­ly reports by lib­er­at­ing sol­diers and med­ical per­son­nel­sta­tioned in Belsen in those first few weeks — Shep­hard is able tore­con­struct vir­tu­al­ly every deci­sion, both good and bad, made by theAl­lied forces con­trol­ling the camp. The sad but true real­i­ty is thatAl­lied pol­i­cy of keep­ing Ger­man war crimes a vir­tu­al secret left­mil­i­tary per­son­nel with nei­ther suf­fi­cient under­stand­ing nor suf­fi­cien­tre­sources to deal with the mass med­ical prob­lems that were bound tooc­cur upon lib­er­a­tion. It might also be not­ed that loss­es at Belsen­com­pare favor­ably with loss­es at oth­er camps: approx­i­mate­ly 40% (each)of the lib­er­at­ed inmates at Buchen­wald and Dachau, which were lib­er­at­ed­by the U.S. Army at the same time, died. This was not a mat­ter of theBri­tish being uncar­ing or inept, but, as not­ed, the direct con­se­quence­of the poli­cies espoused by the senior Allied mil­i­tary and polit­i­cal­lead­er­ship. Indeed, on bal­ance, the British come off quite well inShephard’s account of the lib­er­a­tion. Per­haps not as well as theAm­er­i­cans, but cer­tain­ly bet­ter then the French or the Rus­sians. Some ofthe neg­a­tiv­i­ty in regard to the British may derive from post-lib­er­a­tionpoli­cies, when the sta­tus of the for­mer Jew­ish con­cen­tra­tion camp­in­mates, referred to as Dis­placed Per­sons, became enmeshed with theis­sue of Palestine/​Eretz Israel.

It is inter­est­ing to see how authors view the camps 60 yearsafter the end of the Holo­caust. All three of the books reviewed here­bring fresh new per­spec­tives to the sub­ject mat­ter and thus allow us toassess the con­tin­u­ing impor­tance of Holo­caust stud­ies, in the West­ern­World. The ques­tion remains, how­ev­er, whether or not this con­tin­uing­in­ter­est in the Holo­caust can be trans­formed into action again­st­con­tin­u­ing acts of geno­cide and mass hatred.

Addi­tion­al Titles Fea­tured in Review 

Abra­ham J. Edel­heit is an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor of his­to­ry at Kings­bor­ough Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege (CUNY) and the author, co-author, or edi­tor of eleven books on the Holo­caust, Zion­ism, Jew­ish and Euro­pean his­to­ry, and Mil­i­tary affairs. His most recent pub­li­ca­tion appeared in Armor mag­a­zine, the offi­cial jour­nal of the US Army Armor and Cav­al­ry Command.

Discussion Questions