In our latest blog, author Thomas Harding tells the story of his great-uncle Hanns Alexander who worked on the Belsen Trial in 1945.
On 12 May 1945, my great-uncle, Hanns Alexander, arrived at the Belsen concentration camp. Born in Berlin in 1917, Hanns had fled Germany following the rise of the Nazis, ending up in England. He was now in British uniform, as part of the army’s ‘1 War Crimes Investigation Team’.
Driving through the camp gates, Hanns had no idea what to expect. He was shocked by what he found: thousands of dead bodies on the ground, those alive were walking half-starved and in terrible condition. Hanns spent the first few days helping clearing up the camp, burying the bodies in mass graves and saying Jewish prayers. He was then told to help with the interrogation of the SS guards and officers who had been arrested when the British had liberated the camps just three weeks before.
In a small room located at the Celle prison, fifteen miles south from Belsen, Hanns acted as interpreter during the interrogations. Many of those being held in Celle had worked in Auschwitz, including the camp commandants, Josef Kramer and Franz Hössler, the high-ranking female guards, Irme Grese and Elizabeth Volkenrath, as well as the doctor, Fritz Klein. As such, Hanns was one of the first to hear first hand from the perpetrators about what had taken place in Auschwitz: the transports, the selections, the medical experiments, and the gas chambers.
Over the course of the next few weeks, Hanns and the other members of 1 War Crimes Investigation Team, prepared for the trial that had been set for the end of the summer. They gathered affidavits from the men and women who had survived the camps’ horrors. They interviewed prisoners who had helped the guards, the so-called Kapos. And they returned to the SS officers, pressing them to admit their role in the atrocities. It was at this point that Josef Kramer admitted to Hanns and his British colleague, that ‘The first time I saw a gas chamber proper was at Auschwitz. It was attached to the crematorium. The complete building containing the crematorium and gas chamber was situated in Camp No. 2 (Birkenau), of which I was in command.’
Finally, on 17 September 1945, the trial started in a large court-room in the German city of Lüneburg. Officially known as ‘The Belsen Trial of Josef Kramer and 44 Others’, this was the world’s first major war crimes trial. The better-known Nuremberg Trials would not start till November later that year. For the next few weeks, the international press was transfixed. Witness, defence and counsel statements were all reported in astonishing detail, with almost all the major papers giving front-page coverage to the proceedings.
On 17 November 1945, the Belsen Trial came to a close. Of the forty-five defendants, thirty were found guilty of war crimes. Nineteen were sent to prison. For the remaining eleven, including the five that Hanns had interrogated – Kramer, Klein, Hössler, Volkenrath and Grese – the judge pronounced, ‘The sentence of this court is that you suffer death by being hanged.’
With the conclusion of the trial, my great-uncle went to his commanding officer and asked for permission to leave the camp. The next day he set off on his quest to hunt down the war criminals who had not yet been captured.
Thomas Harding is author of ‘Hanns and Rudolf: The German Jew and the Hunt for the Kommandant of Auschwitz’, published by Penguin Random House. Follow him on Twitter @thomasharding