In the latest of our blogs to mark the anniversary of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, the Trust’s Education Officer Martin Winstone explores the challenges the camp’s history creates for our understanding of the perpetrators of the Holocaust.
The impact of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in April 1945 on British awareness and understanding of the Holocaust cannot be overstated. Although the British government and public had known about the mass murder of Europe’s Jews since 1942, when they had received detailed reports of the extermination camps from the Polish underground, knowledge was not the same as comprehension – most people could not imagine or believe the reality of the news they were receiving. By contrast, the visceral horror of the scenes witnessed by British troops on 15th April, and subsequently transmitted to the wider public through the media, could not be ignored. More than any event, therefore, the liberation framed how the Holocaust was perceived and discussed in Britain for generations.
However, the impact of this was ambiguous since the centrality of Belsen to British narratives gave rise to some significant misunderstandings of key aspects of the history of the Holocaust which took decades to dispel. The most obvious of these was the widespread misconception that the Holocaust was carried out in concentration camps in Germany such as Belsen; in reality, such sites had a marginal role until the last months of the war when tens of thousands of surviving Jewish prisoners were evacuated from Auschwitz-Birkenau and labour camps in the East, creating the horrific conditions with which the liberators were confronted. By contrast, the majority of the extermination camps and mass shooting sites of eastern Europe, in which the overwhelming majority of the victims of the Holocaust were murdered, remained – and in some cases remain – largely unknown.
Perhaps the most insidious misunderstanding, however, relates to the identity and motivation of the perpetrators. The liberation of Bergen-Belsen was seen – perfectly understandably – as a vindication of the British war effort. In this context, the camp came to be viewed as a symbol of the inherent barbarism of Nazism, giving rise to a focus on the most sadistic and stereotypically ‘evil’ of the perpetrators. In particular, popular interest, heightened by the Belsen Trial of September 1945 which was the first major public attempt to bring perpetrators to justice, focussed on two individuals: Belsen’s last commandant, Josef Kramer, and the warden of the camp’s women’s section, Irma Grese.
That both Kramer and Grese were guilty of acts of appalling brutality is beyond dispute, both at Belsen and in their previous postings at Auschwitz-Birkenau. However, facts soon merged with hearsay and speculation to generate salacious myths, especially with regard to Grese, who – like many women who have committed horrendous crimes throughout history – proved an irresistible source of semi-pornographic fascination to sensationalist journalists and amateur psychologists.
Why is this problematic? Firstly, because the focus on ‘monsters’ such as Kramer and Grese risks giving rise to the comforting delusion that the Holocaust was the work of a handful of fanatics or psychopaths. In reality, the perpetration of genocide on a continental scale required the active involvement of hundreds of thousands of people, far from all of whom were German. For example, when the British arrived, most of the people guarding Bergen-Belsen were not members of the SS – most of whom had fled – but ordinary Hungarian soldiers. This was representative of a pattern repeated across Europe, with the perpetrators encompassing regular policemen, government officials of many nationalities, local volunteers, and, in some cases, ordinary citizens who chose to denounce or even murder their neighbours.
However, it is also important to recognise that the ‘monster’ designation is itself unhelpful even where it might seem to have some justification. The Kramer and Grese of the popular imagination – and the Himmler, the Mengele (who was inevitably, without much evidence, alleged to had an affair with Grese at Auschwitz), and so on – are one-dimensional caricatures rather than accurate representations of real human beings. For the most part, these were people who in reality acted as they did for a variety of reasons, rather than an innate predilection for evil. Kramer, for example, was a family man and career SS officer who saw the concentration camp system as a route to professional advancement. Grese, only 22 when she was executed, volunteered to be a camp guard at least in part to escape the mundanity of small-town life and to find a career, having failed in her attempts to enrol as a nurse.
This is not, of course, in any way to diminish the crimes of Kramer and Grese; if anything, it magnifies them. If we understand that the even the vilest perpetrators of the Holocaust were typically driven by a complex web of motives – not just ideological fanaticism or, in some cases, psychological damage, but also eminently human considerations such as ambition, group pressure, self-enrichment and even, obscene as it might sound, a sense of adventure – then we can begin to make sense of how the catastrophe was possible.
Much of our work in Holocaust education focusses on the concept of humanising; that is, seeing those involved as individual human beings not too dissimilar to ourselves. This is self-evidently important when studying victims, ensuring that the men, women and children who were murdered are not consigned to the oblivion of incomprehensible statistics. However, it is also essential, but perhaps much more challenging and unsettling, to recognise that the perpetrators were also mostly people like us. Only by properly understanding what led them to make the moral choices that turned them into mass murderers can we ever hope to properly comprehend the Holocaust.
Photo: Irma Grese and Josef Kramer awaiting trial, August 1945; Imperial War Museum (www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/205194196)