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July 29, 2011

Before the Nuremberg IMT, there was “The Belsen Trial”

Filed under: Germany, World War II — Tags: , , , — furtherglory @ 8:51 am

On Sept. 18, 1945, the Baltimore Sun printed a news article with the headline “4,000,000 deaths on Auschwitz List.” The sub headline was “Testimony to That Effect Promised at SS Trial.” (This was a reference to the upcoming Belsen Trial.)

Here is a summary of the Baltimore Sun news story from this web site:

Testimony that more than 4,000,000 persons died at the Auschwilz (sic) concentration camp was promised by the prosecution today at the opening of the military trial of Josef Kramer and 44 SS henchmen for conspiracy to commit mass murder.

Was testimony about the 4 million deaths at Auschwitz actually given at the Belsen Trial, which was the “military trial of Josef Kramer” held by the British in September 1945?  Not that I know of!  

More important is the question: How did the British get jurisdiction over Josef Kramer, the former Commandant of the Auschwitz II camp (Birkenau) and 44 of his “SS henchmen”?  Shouldn’t Josef Kramer have been tried by the International Military Tribunal which began two months later in Nuremberg?

Josef Kramer, former Commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau

At the Nuremberg IMT, the Soviet prosecutor charged the German “war criminals” with participating in a common plan to commit war crimes, including the deaths of 4 million people at Auschwitz.   Rudolf Hoess, another former Commandant of Auschwitz, was a witness at Nuremberg, but he was sent to Poland for a trial conducted by the Polish government.  Maybe Josef Kramer should have been tried in Poland.

The trial, that was referred to in the Baltimore Sun news article, was called “The Belsen Trial” because most of the “war criminals” in the dock had been charged with committing war crimes at the Bergen-Belsen camp, which the British had taken over after the camp was voluntarily turned over to them on April 15, 1945.

Kramer and his “henchmen” had been transferred from Auschwitz-Birkenau to Bergen-Belsen in December 1944 when the Belsen camp was converted from an exchange camp into a concentration camp.

Lüneburg courthouse where Belsen trial was held in 1945

The Belsen Trial, conducted by the British in Lüneburg, Germany, was the first of the numerous “war crimes” trials conducted by the Allies after World War II, and later by German courts. Kramer and his “henchmen” had been charged with war crimes by a British Military Court under a Royal Warrant of June 14, 1945.

Bergen-Belsen was the only camp in the British zone of occupation; the British did not have jurisdiction over any of the war criminals who worked in the other camps.

On the day that Bergen-Belsen was voluntarily turned over to the British, Josef Kramer and one of his “henchwomen” (Irma Grese) met the British soldiers at the gate into the camp and offered their help.

There was a typhus epidemic that was out of control in the camp and Kramer and his staff members had not been vaccinated, as were the British soldiers.  Kramer and Grese were willing to take their lives in their hands to save as many of the inmates as possible.  What were they thinking!  Both had previously worked at Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and they had the blood of 4 million people on their hands!  Why didn’t they get the hell out of there, while they had the chance?  They foolishly hung around and offered to help.  How stupid was that?  Didn’t they realize that they would be put on trial for their part in the mass murder of 4 million people?

At the Belsen Trial, Irma Grese was charged with selecting prisoners for the gas chamber at Auschwitz-Birkenau.  (And you thought that it was Josef Mengele who made the selections.) Poor Irma! She was not very well educated and she didn’t realize, when she foolishly stayed behind to help the British, that she would have to pay for her crimes.

Kramer was immediately arrested on April 15th and put in leg chains.  The photo below shows Kramer on his “perp walk.”

Josef Kramer was arrested after he voluntarily stayed at Belsen to help the British with the typhus epidemic

On April 17th, the British arrested 47 other staff members at Bergen-Belsen, including Irma Grese and 12 of the Kapos who were trusted prisoners appointed by the guards as camp supervisors. The next day, the staff members, who were now prisoners themselves, were forced to bury the dead bodies, that were lying around in the camp.  They were not allowed to use gloves for protection against contagious diseases.  They were not vaccinated against typhus; instead they were forced to sleep in lice-infested barracks where they were sure to get typhus. Eventually, the British burned down the barracks after transferring the prisoners to the SS quarters.

Irma Grese on the day of her arrest, April 17, 1945

Twenty of the 80 former Belsen guards died after the British took control, according to Eberhard Kolb, the Chairman of the Academic Advisory Council for the Extension and Redevelopment of the Memorial Bergen-Belsen. Kolb says that most of them died of typhus, but others died of ptomaine poisoning from eating food provided by the British. Kramer and Grese were both hanged after they were convicted in the Belsen Trial.

You can read more about the Belsen trial on my web site here.


  1. Good one. Can you tell me if a Sqn Ldr Brian Alphonsus Cosgrove was an official at this trial?

    Comment by oliver cosgrove, 7-41 Bristol Avenue Bicton, WA 6157 Australia — September 8, 2011 @ 12:48 am

    • Sorry, but I don’t know. I can’t find his name in any of the books that I have which mention the trial.

      Comment by furtherglory — September 8, 2011 @ 7:09 am

      • Thanks for looking it up, and sorry about delay in getting back to you

        Comment by Oliver — January 7, 2012 @ 11:58 am

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