Belsen trial

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Place of the Belsen Trial: old MTV gymnasium, Lindenstraße 30, Lüneburg

The Belsen trial was one of several trials which the Allied occupation forces conducted against former officials and functionaries of Nazi Germany after the end of World War II. The Belsen Trial took place in Lüneburg, Lower Saxony, Germany in 1945 and the defendants were men and women of the SS as well as prisoner functionaries who had worked at various concentration camps, notably Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen. The trial generated considerable interest around the world, as the public heard for the first time from some of those responsible for the mass murder in the eastern extermination camps. Some later trials are also referred to as Belsen Trials.

First trial[edit]

Josef Kramer, photographed in leg irons at Belsen before being removed to the POW cage at Celle, 17 April 1945.

Officially called the "Trial of Josef Kramer and 44 others",[1] the trial began in a Lüneburg gymnasium on 17 September 1945.[2] The defendants were 45 former SS men, women and kapos (prisoner functionaries) from the Bergen-Belsen and Auschwitz concentration camps. Josef Kramer had been camp commandant at Bergen-Belsen and before that at Auschwitz. Of the other defendants, 12 were kapos, 16 female SS members and 16 male SS members. Although the SS was an all-male organisation, women were able to enlist as members of the SS-Gefolge, a form of civilian employee. One prisoner functionary, Ladisław Gura, who was also an SS member under arrest, was found to be too ill to stand trial after the trial had started. Three others had been excluded from the list of indicted for the same reason before the trial began.[3] Three SS members had been shot trying to escape after the British took over the camp and one had committed suicide. Out of a total of 77 camp personnel arrested by the British in April, another 17 had died of typhus by 1 June 1945.[4]

Next to Kramer, the most high-profile defendants were Dr. Fritz Klein, who had been camp doctor at Belsen, and Franz Hössler, deputy camp commandant. Elisabeth Volkenrath had been Oberaufseherin (head warden or supervising wardress) at Auschwitz, before she came to Belsen. Many of the defendants had arrived in Bergen-Belsen only after February 1945, some as late as two days before liberation.[5] However, most had been active in similar functions in other concentration camps before that. The trial took place before a British military tribunal. The judges were Major-General H.M.P. Berney-Ficklin (presiding), Brigadier A. de L. Casonove, Colonel G.J. Richards, Lt.-Colonel R.B. Moriush and Lt.-Colonel R. McLay. C.L. Stirling was Judge Advocate. Colonel T.M. Backhouse, Major H.G. Murton-Neale, Capt. S.M. Stewart and Lt.-Col. L.J. Genn were Counsel for the Prosecution. Counsel for the Defence were also members of the British Army — in the case of the five Polish defendants a Polish officer, Lt. Jedrezejowicz.[6][3]

As this was a military court, it was legally based on the Regulations for the Trial of War Criminals made under Royal Warrant of 14 June 1945.[7] All the charges related to international law, which applied at the time the crimes were committed, so this was not a case of retroactive justice.[5] Due to the nature of the court, the only charges that could be brought were war crimes and crimes against citizens of the Allied countries. "Crimes against humanity" and "crimes against peace", which featured in the later trials at Nuremberg, were not among the charges at Lüneburg.[2]


The official charges were grouped into crimes committed at Auschwitz and Belsen and were as follows:




All of the defendants pleaded not guilty.[10]

Overview of the trial[edit]

The trial lasted 54 days in court. It began on 17 September with the indictment and the opening speech for the prosecution. Brigadier Glyn Hughes was the first witness for the prosecution on 18-19 September. On 20 September, the British Army screened a film they had made of the conditions at Belsen immediately after liberation. On 21 September, the court visited Bergen-Belsen. Evidence for the defence began on 8 October with the opening speech for the defendant Kramer who also testified. Closing speeches were made from 7-12 November, followed by the closing arguments by the prosecution on 13 November. Sentencing took place four days later, on 17 November 1945.[11]

Interior shot of the court room ten days before the start of the trial

Since the trial was conducted in English, translations into German and Polish were necessary. This was one of the factors that prolonged the trial, which had initially been expected to last for two to four weeks. In retrospect, the prosecution has been criticised as hasty and ill-prepared. None of the SS guards who had fled the camp after the ceasefire on 13 April had been searched for. Instead of eye witness testimony in some cases only affidavits were available at the trial. Some witnesses contradicted themselves on cross-examination, others failed to identify the defendants as the perpetrators of the crimes in question. One former inmate, Oskar Schmitz, was erroneously charged as an SS man and had no chance to clarify things before the trial began.[12][13]

The defence claimed that the arrest of the defendants had been illegal as it contravened the promise of free withdrawal contained in the ceasefire agreement. However, the wording on this point was only clear for members of the Wehrmacht at Belsen. Moreover, according to the prosecution, the burning of the camp files by the SS and the firing of shots on 15 April had voided the agreement.[14] In fact, the relevant section of the ceasefire agreement read: "SS guard personnel [...] will be treated as PW. SS Adj personnel will [...] remain at their posts and carry on with their duties (cooking, supplies, etc) and will hand over records. When their services can be dispensed with, their disposal is left by the Wehrmacht to the British authorities."[15]

On 17 November, the court sentenced 11 of the defendants to death by hanging.[2] Another 18 were found guilty and sentenced to prison sentences of one to 15 years.[2] One defendant, Erich Zoddel, was sentenced to life in prison,[16] but he had been sentenced to death in a separate military trial in August 1945 for murdering a female prisoner after liberation and was executed.[17] None of the sentenced were found guilty only of the "conspiracy" of working within the concentration camp system, but all of them were rather sentenced for individually committed crimes.[18] 14 defendants were acquitted[2] (the final defendant was too sick to stand trial). Due to clemency pleas and appeals, many prison sentences were eventually shortened considerably. By mid-1955 all those sentenced to prison had been released.[2]

Individual defendants and sentences[edit]

List of SS-defendants

Fritz Klein surrounded by bodies. The British Army liberating Bergen-Belsen forced German camp personnel to bury the corpses of prisoners.

(A=guilty of crimes at Auschwitz, B = guilty of crimes at Bergen-Belsen)[19][16]

Name Sentence
Josef Kramer (A, B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Fritz Klein (A, B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Peter Weingärtner (A, B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Franz Hössler (A) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Karl Franzioh (B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Ansgar Pichen (B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Franz Stofel (or Stärfl) (B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Wilhelm Dörr (B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Irma Grese (A, B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Elisabeth Volkenrath (A, B) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Johanna Bormann (A) Death, executed on 13 December 1945
Otto Kulessa (B) 15 years, released 7 May 1955
Heinrich Schreirer (A) 15 years, released 3 September 1950
Hertha Ehlert (B) 15 years, released 7 May 1953
Ilse Förster (B) 10 years, released 21 December 1951
Hertha Bothe (B) 10 years, released 21 December 1951
Irene Haschke (B) 10 years, released 21 December 1951
Gertrud Sauer (B) 10 years, released 21 December 1951
Anna Hempel (B) 10 years, released 21 April 1951
Gertrud Feist (B) 5 years, released 11 August 1949
Frieda Walter (B) 3 years, released 16 November 1948
Hilde Lisiewicz (B) 1 year, released 16 November 1946
Georg Krafft acquitted
Josef Klippel acquitted
Fritz Mathes acquitted
Karl Egersdörfer acquitted
Walter Otto acquitted
Erich Barsch acquitted
Ida Förster acquitted
Klara Opitz acquitted
Charlotte Klein acquitted
Hildegard Hähnel acquitted

Not able to stand trial due to illness: Nikolaus Jänner, Paul Steinmetz, Walter Melcher, Ladisław Gura (who was both an SS member and a prison functionary).

List of prisoner functionary defendants

Erich Zoddel in Allied custody after the liberation of Bergen-Belsen

(A=guilty of crimes at Auschwitz, B = guilty of crimes at Bergen-Belsen)[19][16]

Name Sentence
Erich Zoddel (B) prison for life, but convicted at another military trial in August 1945 and executed[20]
Wladisław Ostrowski (B) 15 years, released 1955
Helena Kopper (B) 15 years, released 1952
Hilde Lohbauer(A,B) 10 years, released 1950
Antoni Aurdzig (B) 10 years, released 1952
Johanne Roth (B) 10 years, released 1950
Stanislawa Staroska (A) 10 years, released 1950
Medislaw Burgraf (B) 5 years, released 1949
Ilse Lothe acquitted (charged with B)
Oskar Schmitz acquitted (charged with B)
Ignatz Schlomowicz acquitted (charged with B)
Anton Polanski acquitted (charged with B)
Ladisław Gura unable to stand trial (accused of B)

Public reaction[edit]

The Belsen Trial attracted substantial national and international media interest. Significantly more than 100 representatives of the news media reported at length on the trial's progress.[2] Through them, the world learned not just about the thousands of deaths by hunger and disease at Belsen — communicated especially forcefully by the film and photo evidence produced by the British Army. Possibly even more importantly, the Belsen Trial also was the first time that the organised mass murder at Auschwitz Birkenau received a public airing, with some of those responsible describing the selection process, the use of the gas chambers and the crematoria. In Great Britain, the trial was mostly viewed positively, as a triumph of the rule of law, given the fairness and meticulousness with which it had been conducted.However, in some other countries, notably the Soviet Union and France, the verdicts were criticised as too mild. Many survivors felt that way as well.[2]


All the executions were carried out on 13 December 1945[21] by hanging at the prison in Hameln.[22][better source needed]The executioner was Albert Pierrepoint, aided by an assistant.

Second trial[edit]

A second Belsen trial was conducted at Lüneburg from 13-18 June 1946 by a British military tribunal. On trial was Kazimierz Cegielski, a Polish national and former prisoner at Bergen-Belsen who, according to his testimony, had arrived in March 1944. Known as "der Große (Big) Kazimierz" (to differentiate him from another kapo with that name), he was charged with cruelty and murder.[23][better source needed]

Kapos were prisoner functionaries selected by the SS to supervise their fellow prisoners. Selected for their willingness to be brutal, they were initially selected from the ranks of criminal prisoners. Later on, political prisoners chosen and later on, prisoners from other groups.[24]

Cegielski was accused of beating – sometimes killing – sick and weak prisoners with large wooden sticks or poles. While at Bergen-Belsen, he had an affair with another prisoner, Henny DeHaas, a Jewish woman from Amsterdam. After the war, in 1946, he was arrested in Amsterdam, ostensibly looking for DeHaas so he could marry her. He was convicted on 18 June 1946 and sentenced to death by hanging. The day before his execution, he stated that his real name was Kasimir-Alexander Rydzewski. He was executed at Hameln Prison at 9:20 a.m. on 11 October 1946.[25]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Trial Transcript - cover". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Knoch, Habbo (ed) (2010). Bergen-Belsen: Historical Site and Memorial. Stiftung niedersächsische Gedenkstätten. p. 37. ISBN 978-3-9811617-9-3. 
  3. ^ a b "Trial Transcript - pages 2-3". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  4. ^ Taake, Claudia (1998). SS-Frauen vor Gericht. Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Univ. Oldenburg. pp. 112–. ISBN 3-8142-0640-1. 
  5. ^ a b Wenck, Alexandra-Eileen (1997). Verbrechen als ‚Pflichterfüllung’? Die Strafverfolgung nationalsozialistischer Gewaltverbrechen am Beispiel des Konzentrationslagers Bergen-Belsen, in: Die frühen Nachkriegsprozesse. KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme (ed.), Bremen. p. 40. ISBN 3-86108-322-1. 
  6. ^ "Trial Transcript - page 1". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  7. ^ "Trial Transcript - page 647". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  8. ^ "Trial Transcript - page 4". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  9. ^ "Trial Transcript - page 5". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  10. ^ Taake, Claudia (1998). SS-Frauen vor Gericht. Bibliotheks- und Informationssystem der Univ. Oldenburg. p. 54. ISBN 3-8142-0640-1. 
  11. ^ "Trial Transcript - Contents". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  12. ^ Kolb, Eberhard (1996). Bergen-Belsen. Vom ‚Aufenthaltslager’ zum Konzentrationslager 1943 – 1945. Göttingen. pp. 58–. 
  13. ^ Wenck, Alexandra-Eileen (1997). Verbrechen als ‚Pflichterfüllung’? Die Strafverfolgung nationalsozialistischer Gewaltverbrechen am Beispiel des Konzentrationslagers Bergen-Belsen, in: Die frühen Nachkriegsprozesse. KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme (ed.), Bremen. pp. 42–. ISBN 3-86108-322-1. 
  14. ^ Kolb, Eberhard (1996). Bergen-Belsen. Vom ‚Aufenthaltslager’ zum Konzentrationslager 1943 – 1945. Göttingen. pp. 54–. 
  15. ^ Knoch, Habbo (ed) (2010). Bergen-Belsen: Wehrmacht POW Camp 1940-1945, Concentration Camp 1943-1945, Displaced Persons Camp 1945-1950. Catalogue of the permanent exhibition. Wallstein. p. 257. ISBN 978-3-8353-0794-0. 
  16. ^ a b c "Trial Transcript - Sentencing". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  17. ^ "Erich Zoddel". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  18. ^ Wenck, Alexandra-Eileen (1997). Verbrechen als ‚Pflichterfüllung’? Die Strafverfolgung nationalsozialistischer Gewaltverbrechen am Beispiel des Konzentrationslagers Bergen-Belsen, in: Die frühen Nachkriegsprozesse. KZ-Gedenkstätte Neuengamme (ed.), Bremen. p. 41. ISBN 3-86108-322-1. 
  19. ^ a b "List of Sentences". Retrieved 29 December 2012. 
  20. ^ "First Belsen Trial Kapo Erich Zoddel". Stalag XIC (311) and KZ Bergen-Belsen, A History From 1935. Retrieved 17 December 2011. 
  21. ^ "Bergen-Belsen Trial" Jewish Virtual Library, official website. Retrieved May 10, 2010
  22. ^ "The Belsen War Crimes Trial"; retrieved 10 May 2010.
  23. ^ "Second Belsen Trial Kapo Kasimir/Kazimierz Alexander Cegielski / Rydzewski" British Bergen-Belsen memorial website; retrieved 10 May 2010.
  24. ^ "Audio guide 05: Prisoner functionaries" Mauthausen Memorial official website; accessed 22 December 2014.
  25. ^ "Second Belsen Trial" Jewish Virtual Library, official website; retrieved 10 May 2010.