Many historians and students of World War II are fully aware that the Nuremberg Trials (IMT) are painted as a shining example of the four victorious Allies working together in ‘perfect harmony’.
Numerous books, movies, and television series have been produced over the years regarding this trial and indeed blogs on this very site have added to this impressive catalogue.
But less is known in relation to the Belsen Trials. These are synonymously associated with the United Kingdom, given that Belsen was liberated by British forces (whereas the US Army liberated Dachau, and the Red Army, Auschwitz).
This blog will attempt to demonstrate the lack of preparation, knowledge and at times interest into the investigation and subsequent proceedings of the atrocities committed at Bergen – Belsen, which became known as ‘The Trial of Josef Kramer and Forty-Four Others’ – simply because Josef Kramer was the Commandant and thus the first name on the indictment.
In the afternoon of Sunday 15 April 1945, the 63rd Anti-Tank Regiment of the British Army entered Belsen, unopposed, with prior agreement from the German Commandant, Josef Kramer. Kramer had urged a truce due to the excessive number of inmates with typhus. It has been recorded that the Special Air Services had entered prior to the ‘official’ liberation to remove one of their own soldiers. Incredulously, the men entering the camp had little or no knowledge of the ghastly sight they would encounter.
Although British soldiers may have been ignorant to the scale or variety of atrocities in the camps, other Allied governments had already confronted the camps in the east. For example, Majdanek was liberated the previous spring by the Red Army, along with Auschwitz on 27 January 1945. Buchenwald was liberated on 11 April after a sub-camp of Buchenwald, Ohrdruf – Nord, was liberated by United States forces on 4 April 1945. Belsen, at the latter stages of the war, had become a dumping ground for inmates from other camps.
These inmates were forced to walk from camps located in the east upon liberation to camps in Germany not yet liberated. These processions became known as ‘death marches’ and, therefore, the sight of thousands of men, women and children walking the roads must have been visible from the sky. The RAF and US Air Force had total air supremacy and would have been unhindered in flying low to examine such human convoys to eliminate the possibility of troop movements. Further, residents in the Belsen area could not have failed to notice these death marches and the camp would have probably been a focal talking point in the nearby bars and cafes as local people worked in the camp in a variety of roles
Owing to the publicity surrounding the liberation of Belsen, the British government had little choice but to investigate the atrocities discovered. Most of the SS guards, including Kramer and the now-infamous female guard, Irma Grese, were in custody. Eventually on 24 April – nine days after the liberation – a memorandum was issued from the War Office requesting a team of eleven personnel and three vehicles to conduct an investigation. A major, from the newly formed department responsible for war crimes investigations (AG3), was sent to Brussels and Paris on a scoping exercise from 26 April to 1 May 1945. Incredibly, for an unknown reason he did not venture into Germany but would have gained a great deal of knowledge from the Belsen investigation. It had already started with military policemen obtaining basic statements under trying circumstances.
Eventually, on 19 May 1945, Lt. Col. Leo Genn, the senior investigating officer, arrived at Belsen – over a month after the liberation. Genn, a peace time thespian and barrister, had an indeterminate approach to the investigation and created a culture some have considered inappropriate, given the severity and importance of the enquiry.
Genn’s papers, archived at the Imperial War Museums, reveal that the war crimes investigation team at Bergen-Belsen gave the impression to outsiders that the officers of the unit were, to a degree, a ‘Boys’ Own club’. Evidence has been unearthed that the unit referred to themselves as the ‘Crime Club’, hosted dinners and other social functions. Dinner menus were even produced with a ‘club’ motif on the front and a play by Genn was also written. Genn also found sufficient time to pen rhymes about many of his colleagues which could be described as sarcastic, pedantic and arguably childish. There is little doubt of Genn’s ability and intellect. However, as he found time to arrange for thespian colleagues, Sybil Thorndike and Laurence Olivier, to perform George Bernard Shaw’s Arms and the Man, this perhaps indicates he needed to refocus his time and efforts on the forthcoming trial, rather than as an opportunity to perform on the stage.
Genn, after the Belsen enquiry was completed in August 1945, was posted to assist in another war crimes investigation conducted by the SAS. The officer leading this enquiry was disappointed and unimpressed with Genn and his team and they ‘parted’ on mutual grounds after a month. Genn then was demobbed and returned to his first love – acting.
To demonstrate the limitation of the preparation for war crimes investigations, it would assist if the parameters of the British investigation were laid out. Eventually, a Royal Warrant 81 of 18 June 1945 was published over two months after the liberation of Belsen, it took nearly a year to prepare and authorised the creation of British Military Courts. The Royal Warrant narrowed the United Kingdom prosecution policy to that of Allied victims, following a War Cabinet decision made on 3 May 1945. The clear intention, as commented upon by many historians, was solely prosecution of crimes committed against British and Allied nationals.
The difficulty was that the only British inmate in Belsen was Harold le Druillenec, a Jersey (Channel Islands) resident who was imprisoned for harbouring an escaped Russian slave worker, and le Druillenec survived. However, a Derbyshire merchant sailor, Keith Meyer, had been an inmate who was murdered by the Nazis in March 1945 so he, conveniently, became the ‘British victim’. Therefore, Le Druillenec and Meyer satisfied the ingredients of the indictment, and their names were included along with specific individuals from other Allied nations. No Jewish victims were named in any of the indictments. Le Druillenec, upon being identified as a British subject, was instantly removed from the camp and within days taken to England where he received better treatment than the inmates, mostly Jewish, who remained.
The British team’s lack of preparation was also reflected by the high turnover of staff. The original officer leading the enquiry, Major Geoffrey Smallwood, arrived on 27 April 1945 to take temporary charge. Smallwood was soon replaced by Lt. Col Savil Champion on 14 May, who was demobbed on 28 July 1945, thus leaving Genn to run the enquiry. Clearly, there were very limited sources available, and corners were cut. For instance, witnesses were shown individual photographs of suspects and asked what knowledge they had of them – this was totally contrary to the rules of evidence for criminal cases in England and Wales which was the legal system and format the forthcoming tribunals would follow.
A handful of statements, of a rudimentary nature, had already been taken by Military Policemen upon their arrival at Belsen shortly after the liberation, but these were considered by Champion of limited value. The Corps of Military Police (which became the Royal Military Police in November 1946) were, at the outbreak of war, employed as security guards and traffic cops. Their professionalism and knowledge only increased after input from the Metropolitan Police.
Regardless of the quality of investigation, the primary and proper aim of the Belsen liberation was to save lives. This was undertaken with excellent medical treatment from Brigadier Glyn Hughes, and many others, including numerous medical students from London Hospitals.
The trial commenced at Lüneburg, northern Germany, on 17 September 1945. It persecuted forty-four defendants (twenty were women while one was unfit to stand trial), and was concluded within just two months, ending on 17 November 1945. To put this in context, twenty-four defendants stood trial at the International Military Trial (IMT) at Nuremberg, which lasted nearly an entire year. The enormous difference in time scales would, arguably, be due to the IMT being international, and very much a tester for future world-wide proceedings. Those prosecuted led the various Nazi departments which created the war whereas the Belsen trial was purely a British affair to prosecute those who committed atrocities at Belsen-Bergen, and in many if the defendant’s cases, Auschwitz.
Outcomes also varied. Eleven defendants were sentenced to death and executed on 13 December 1945. There were fourteen acquittals compared to just two at the IMT, and barely a handful at the several trials conducted in the American zone. For instance, at the first Dachau Trial conducted on 15 November to 15 December 1945, all forty defendants were convicted.
The poor conviction rate, and trial circumstances, were commented upon at the conclusion of the trial by the Secretary of State for War who remarked to Prime Minister Attlee that there were too many defendants, it too long, too many defending officers. The government’s intention was quick, cheap, justice with limited resources. Regardless, these proceedings are synonymous with the British Army due to their liberation of Belsen as Auschwitz and Dachau are with other Allies.
Under the circumstances, and bearing in mind the dreadful conditions at Belsen, it was miraculous that any form of proceedings ever took place. It is regrettable that better planning and preparation was not undertaken which, arguably, went towards the high acquittal rate. However, the priority, quite rightly, was preservation of life and the action taken to do this was exceptional and therefore legal investigations took a lesser place. It must be borne in mind that prosecution of offenders, in a civilised and lawful manner, was one of the principal reasons why Germany did not re-emerge to cause another World War as sadly was the case at the conclusion of World War I. The Allies, at the Yalta Conference (4-11 February, 1945), decided that the punishment of war criminals was a primary aim as was Denazification – to rid Germany and Austria of Nazi ideology and culture. Clearly the Allies intention was to change Germany, and Austria, so radically that Nazism, or something similar did not re-emerge. In the region of 360 British run trials took place with 151 executions and 42,000 persons were imprisoned in relation to Denazification. The Soviet Union, by the end of the decade, became the new enemy’ when it was quickly realised that Germany was now a strategically placed ally and not a foe. This, effectively, ended the United Kingdom War Crimes investigations until the 1990’s.
A lasting legacy of war crimes trials was the emergence of the International Criminal Court (ICC) based in the Netherlands which plays a major role in trying offenders for war crimes and similar offences.
Dr Robert Sherwood – April 2023
Dr Robert Sherwood is a retired Metropolitan Police Detective Inspector with an honours degree in law. In 2012 returned to University, Royal Holloway London, obtained a Masters degree in Holocaust Studies and followed this by being awarded a Ph.; his thesis entitled, A Comprehensive study into the United Kingdom War Crimes Investigation Teams in relation to World War Two. Along with an award-winning investigative journalist and academic, his first book, Safe Haven: The United Kingdom’s Investigation of Nazi Collaborators and the Role of Law and Justice is due for publication by Oxford University Press this autumn. Bob already has a chapter published in The Jews, the Holocaust and the Public, The Legacies of David Cesarani, published by Palgrave Macmillan.He has lectured about his research to conferences in both the United States and United Kingdom and looking to expand this. He is a volunteer with the Imperial War Museum in London. He is married with two children and five grandchildren.