Soon after coming to power, Adolf Hitler established his first concentration camp in Germany in 1933. He did so, to retain his rivals locked up without trial. A short while later, additional camps were set up, primarily in isolated locations and or forests. These camps were commanded by the SS (Shützstaffel). Concentration camps were quickly being utilized to confine Jews and other victims of the Nazi race policies. When Hitler’s ‘final solution’ — strategic method to eliminate all the Jews in Europe — was set in progress in 1941, gas chambers were built at multiple death-camps, of which Auschwitz was the most notorious.
Bergen-Belsen, a relatively small prisoner of war camp, was established in 1940. It was operated on the site of a former army camp for wounded prisoners of war, known as ‘Stalag 311’ in Northern Germany, which was partially cleared to make space for the new camp. The camp resides near the villages of Bergen and Belsen about 10 miles (16 kilometres) northwest of Celle, Germany. Established as an Internment Camp (Aufenthaltslager) for European Jews who were to be exchanged for German citizens held by the Allies. 500 prisoners from the Buchenwald and Natzweiler-Struthof camps were taken to Bergen-Belsen to work on the construction of the camp, they were not candidates for the exchange and belonged to the Baukommando (Construction Department). The camp became known as Bergen-Belsen in 1943, when it was officially designated a concentration camp. Originally the camp was used as a transit hub to transport prisoners, but was later on transformed to a concentration camp. Since its inception, Bergen-Belsen came under the control of the SS-WVHA, which was a group in charge of the administration of concentration camps. Throughout the course of the first 18 months of the camps existence, 5 satellite camps known as; the Prison Camp (Haftlingslager), the Special Camp (Sonderlager), the Neutral Camp (Neutralenlager), the Star Camp (Sternenlager), and the Hungarian Camp (Ungarnlager) were set up.
From 1940 to 1943, Bergen-Belsen functioned exclusively as a Prisoner of War camp. Prior to its institution, a Prisoner of War camp launched operation near Fallingbostel, known as ‘Stalag XI B’. This eventually became a component of the Bergen-Belsen camp compound, which housed up to 95,000 individuals during the duration of the Second World War.
In 1941, subsequent to preparations for the Nazi seizure of the Soviet Union, an additional camp known as ‘Stalag XI C’ was built as an expansion. ‘Stalag XI C’ was planned to support 20,000 Soviet Prisoners of War and existed until 1943, at which time excess prisoners were transferred to ‘Stalag XI B”. By early April 1942, roughly 41,000 individuals had perished from the severe conditions in the camps; diseases, starvation and harsh treatment were extensive.
Prisoners arrived from Belgium and France, with thousands advancing from the Soviet Union later on in the Second World War. Each prisoner was obligated to perform mandatory labour and were treated very crudely. In 1944, the camps introduced Polish and Italian prisoners of war, consequent to the Warsaw uprising.
Following the declaration of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1943, the code of conduct within the barracks was altered to incorporate an assortment of sub camps triggered by the SS Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt (Economic Administration Main Office). Originally, the Prisoner’s Camp and the Resident’s Camp were created on the intention of holding political prisoners, Jewish people, criminals, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals, as well as Prisoners of War. People were relocated into Bergen-Belsen from cities throughout Europe.
The Prisoner Camp encircled the Tent Camp, the Recuperation Camp, the Small Women’s Camp, and the Large Women’s Camp. The Prisoner’s camp was constructed by the SS in April 1943 to lodge around 500 individuals who had been moved from numerous concentration camps around Europe including; Buchenwald, Niederhagen, and Natzweiler-Struthof. It was the earliest camp which configured the Bergen-Belsen, and had some of the most ruinous surroundings, with extremely poor hygienic conditions. The location became recognized as the ‘Recuperation camp’ during the times when it housed individuals who were unable to work and were severely injured or ill. One thousand people reached the camp, having been considered incapable of performing labour from Mittelbau-Dora Concentration Camp. Following the tough survival challenge and inhumane environment at Mittelbau-Dora, these 1000 individuals were in an awful position, upon arrival at Bergen-Belsen. Of the 1000 individuals only 57 from the group were able to survive Bergen-Belsen to liberation in 1945.
In August 1944, a Tent Camp was founded after the camps started to become overpopulated. These Tent camps were intended for female prisoners who were injured and or ill. Majority of the women in the camps were of Jewish religion, and were later on transported to the infamous Auschwitz. Eventually, the Tent camp was demolished due to detrimental weather and was substituted with the Small and Large Women’s Camps.
As the Soviet Army progressed in the direction of the camp from the East, the Nazis started to relocate prisoners by moving them West to obstruct their liberation. The flood of people transferred from Auschwitz and other concentration camps in 1945, caused immense overcrowding and further worsened conditions for women in the Women’s camp. Several females were eradicated by the state of the camps, primarily starvations and other diseases such as typhus. Included in the girls and women who did not survive Bergen-Belsen were Anne Frank and her sister Margot.