Bergen-Belsen “was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz”. This is how playwright Alan Bennett remembers the images of the liberation of Bergen-Belsen which he saw in 1945 as an 11-year old boy in the newsreels shown at the Playhouse cinema on Guildford High Street.
The images of Bergen-Belsen have assumed a special place in British official memory. The camp and its liberation feature prominently in the national Holocaust memorial ceremonies and in television programmes on the Holocaust – and again in two recently released films: the restored and completed 1945 documentary German Concentration Camps Factual Survey and André Singer’s Night Will Fall.
How is it that 70 years after the liberation of the camps – when Auschwitz has long become the symbol of the Nazi terror and genocide, and when the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, January 27, has been declared International Holocaust Remembrance Day – Bergen-Belsen, a concentration camp which was only set up in the spring of 1943 and which did not have any gas chambers for mass extermination, continues to play such an significant role in the British memory landscape?
Bergen-Belsen was the first main concentration camp which fell into British hands. The troops were completely unprepared for what they uncovered on April 15 1945. Initially they were absolutely overwhelmed by the enormity of the task suddenly facing them: 38,000 prisoners in the main concentration camp, many – if not most – barely alive, no water supply, no electricity and no functioning lavatories or sanitary facilities.
In addition, there were more than 10,000 unburied corpses in the huts and around the camp. Another 15,000 prisoners, all male, in somewhat better physical condition than those in the main camp, were incarcerated in the “overflow” camp in near-by Wehrmacht barracks.
There were no pictures of waving and jubilant prisoners, as audiences back in Britain might have expected. Instead, a team of the British Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) was instructed to document the dreadful conditions by photographs and film footage. They produced a large collection of what constitutes some of the most amazing, moving and at the same time distressing images of World War II. These images have become deeply ingrained in collective consciousness – and nowhere more so than in the UK.
The images were disseminated widely. Together with Richard Dimbleby’s famous BBC broadcast from the liberated concentration camp they provided evidence of the gruesome nature of the Nazi regime Britain had fought against for almost six years. Bergen-Belsen was presented to the British public as the archetypal Nazi horror camp, universalised and de-individualised: “an unforgettable, definitive statement about human atrocity” (David Dimbleby about his father’s broadcast).
But even though many, if not most, of those involved in the rescue and relief effort were aware of the fact that Jews made up the largest number of the victims, the evolving official British narrative sidestepped this issue. The liberation of Bergen-Belsen became separated from what the people held in this camp had had to endure, and why they had been incarcerated in the first place.
Instead, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen was transformed into a British triumph over “evil”. The event was used to confirm to the wider British public that the British Army had fought a morally and ethically justified war, that all the personal and collective sacrifices made to win the war had now been vindicated. Bergen-Belsen gave sense and meaning to the British military campaign against Nazi Germany and the Allied demand for an unconditional surrender. The liberation of the camp became Britain’s finest hour.
Within little more than a month, this Anglicised narrative was staged, very effectively, at a ceremony held on May 21 1945 at the liberated concentration camp. A wooden prisoner hut decorated with the German War Flag and a huge portrait of Adolf Hitler was torched by a flamethrower – symbolising the end of the “Hell of Belsen”. When the hut went up in flames, the Union Jack was raised for the first time in Bergen-Belsen.
In British memory, “Belsen” has become an imagined site, largely disconnected from the real place Bergen-Belsen. It is a site which represents both monstrous atrocities perpetrated against innocent victims and the selfless dedication of the British Army to overcome this “evil”. “Belsen” expresses how Britain would like to see herself, at home and in the wider world. The geographical location of this imagined site “Belsen” is not set: it can be anywhere.
The importance of this imagined site “Belsen” in the public discourse has shifted a number of times since the end of World War II. There were periods when “Belsen” was almost marginalised, but at other times it was very much present again. This was so in the 1990s during the wars in former Yugoslavia and the discussions about a “liberal interventionist” approach to foreign policy which sought to justify military intervention in cases of a humanitarian crisis or gross violation of human rights.
A compelling example is the news coverage of the Serbian policy of ethnic cleansing during the first months of the Bosnia conflict. On August 7 1992 the front page of the Daily Mirror was dominated by the headline: “The Picture That Shames The World – BELSEN 92”. The photo showed emaciated men behind a barbed-wire fence in Trnopolje camp in northern Bosnia – and, in case any reader did not make the connection with “Belsen 1945”, the article set out explicitly:
The haunting picture of these skeletal captives evokes the ghosts of the Nazis’ Belsen concentration camp during the Second World War.
A number of controversial military interventions in the past decade have discredited this interventionist doctrine – and the image of “Belsen” has somewhat faded away. But there’s no doubt that this imagined site still exists in the British memory landscape, ready to be brought to the fore when it becomes useful. The anniversaries of the liberation of the “real” Bergen-Belsen concentration camp serve to re-affirm the origins of this imagined site and its parameters.