Why Bergen-Belsen’s 1945 liberation is ingrained in British memory


Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was the only camp to be liberated by British troops towards the end of World War Two.

After 70 years since the camps were liberated, Auschwitz remains the stand out and most well-known camp, however Bergen-Belsen remains significant to the British troops and civilians back home who saw its liberation on the newsreels at the time.

Bergen-Belsen was established in 1943. It didn’t have gas chambers, but the troops that liberated it were completely unprepared for the sights they had to see. There were almost 40,000 prisoners barely alive, with no food, water, electricity and no sanitary amenities.

Worse of all around 10,000 dead bodies were strewn, unburied around the camp.


Overflow camps had been built nearby, and they housed another 15,000 prisoners, but were in better conditions.

A British Army Film and Photographic Unit (AFPU) which accompanied the liberating troops documented the awful conditions.

The film and photographs were sent around the world so that people could see and learn about what had happened at Bergen-Belsen, The Conversation reports.

Richard Dimbleby famously conducted a BBC broadcast direct from the liberated camp and provided crucial evidence for how cruel and sadistic the Nazi regime had been, and which Allied forces had been fighting for six years.

British news media used the camp’s liberation as a way of justifying the war its troops had been fighting, and making the British people feel that all the sacrifice and lives given to the war effort had been worthwhile.

In a final ceremony to close the camp the British troops staged the burning of a wooden prisoner hut, covered with a Nazi flag and a large picture of Adolf Hitler. As the hut burned to the ground the Union Jack was raised at the camp’s main flag pole.

Belsen-esque presentation of internment in later wars such as in Yugoslavia in the 1990s has been used to justify the use of humanitarian and liberal intervention. During the Bosnia-Serbia conflict ethnic cleansing was front and foremost in reporting on the news in the west.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE