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Ben Shephard, After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005, £17.99, viii-260 pages, ISBN 0224073559)—Antoine Capet, Université de Rouen



British people do not have to be told why After Daybreak: The Liberation of Belsen, 1945 is "British History": since the soldiers of the 1st Special Air Service (SAS) first entered the camp of Bergen-Belsen (or "Belsen", as it is commonly known in Britain) near Celle, in northern Germany, on 15 April 1945, their journalists, their radio announcers, their photographers, their painters, [1] their cartoonists, [2] their film-makers, their television producersand finally their historians have been busy documenting what they saw and trying to provide meaningful interpretations of these "indescribable" scenes. Very little attention was at first given to the fact that most detaineesand therefore most victimswere Jewish. Some 60,000 were found alive; 46,000 finally survived; [3] and a few gave graphic or written testimonies of what they had sufferedindeed some continue today to participate in what is now known as Holocaust Education, giving lectures at events like for instance the Conference organised at the Imperial War Museum, London, on 15 April 2005 to commemorate the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of Belsen. [4] All this explains why, until comparatively recently, "Belsen" was perceived primarily as "British History." [5]


Ben Shephard, who participated in that Conference, [6] was born in 1948and therefore did not see or hear the reports, films and exhibitions which were so widely offered to the British public in 1945. [7] But he is sensitive to the accusation, not so much that the British have made "Belsen" their thing, as that the British military and civilian relief teams present at Belsen in the weeks which followed the formal liberation were guilty of "mismanagement born of indifference" [200]. To answer that accusation, his book tries to examine the evidence, to reconstruct the situation, to recapture the mental processes, to assess the general context, to ascertain the immediately possible as opposed to the retrospectively desirable. The author is of course aware of the added difficulty that this is a subject with an understandably high emotional dimension for which even carefully-balanced scholarly arguments do not always carry convictionbut on balance he decided that it was worthwhile to try to arrive at a rational evaluation of the action of the British in April-May 1945.


One difficulty, for Ben Shephard as for all writers on the subject, is to determine how much prior knowledgeor supposed knowledgeto assume on the part of his readers. Two aspects are of course essential to any understanding of the situation on 15 April 1945: the Nazis' "final solution of the Jewish problem" including Belsen's place in the general scheme, and "what the Allies knew," as the phrase goes. Shephard briefly, but adequately, describes how Bergen-Belsen, originally a prisoner-of-war camp, became in May 1943 a "detention camp" where "exchange Jews" were to be kept until they could be used to obtain the release of German residents in Palestine. [8] By December 1944, the camp had become a "dumping ground" for the internees evacuated from the extermination camps in the Eastthe notorious "death marches." Belsen was not a death camp as such, in the sense that no planned gassing ever took place there [9] the mounting death toll came from disease and starvation, as the new arrivals were simply left to die a "natural" death through medical neglect, brutal treatment and deprivation of food. Ben Shephard documents all this with poignant survivors" testimonies.


That "the Allies knew" is in no doubt as far as the general organisation of the "final solution" is concerned, and Shephard gives an excellent passage from Anthony Eden's speech in the House of Commons on 17 December 1942 which leaves no doubt about that knowledge. That British Intelligence had a fairly good idea of what was going on in Belsen in April 1945 is also in no doubtbut then the primary preoccupation was the liberation of British prisoners of war, which was the responsibility of vanguard units like the 1st SAS. When the SAS found only one "conventional" British prisoner of war in Belsen, it immediately left with him, and the ordinary Army units which succeeded the SAS had not been told what to expect. As Shephard puts it, "And so the British came to Belsenwithout a plan." [32]


Then follows a reconstruction of events, with the gradual discovery of the gruesome realitythe living skeletons, the piles of decomposing corpses, the smellas the British penetrated deeper into the camp, accompanied by the commandant, SS Hauptsturmführer Josef Kramer, "the Beast of Belsen", who never deviated from his defence that he had done his best in the circumstances. Here, the author founds his account on British military records and personal memories from British officers. For his description of what he calls the "first big mistake" [42] of the Britishthe unthinking distribution of rich food to starved people, which led to 2,000 deathshe mainly relies on memories from survivors.


Retrospectively, the decision taken by General Dempsey, commander of British Second Army, who came to visit the liberated camp, to exploit the situation for propaganda purposes was also possibly a mistake, in that it led to a fixation of British public opinion on Belsen, to the detriment of the quantitativelyif not qualitativelyworse atrocities in the Eastern Territories. Other authors have convincingly argued that the British media focus on Belsen in 1945 has considerably retarded the realisation of the full horror of the Holocaust generally in Britain, [10] but Shephard prefers to insist on what is now a familiar critique of the British attitude: "Belsen justified everythingthe bombing of German cities, the economic blockade, unconditional surrender" [44].


Before he discusses the invasion of the camp by the journalists, Ben Shephard gives an idea of the scenes and problems which they were to have to report, using the most authoritative sources, i.e. the official record by Brigadier Hugh Llewellyn Glyn-Hughes, who headed the Second Army's medical services, now at the National Archives, and his deposition at the trial of Kramer and his associates in the autumn, with his attempt at describing the indescribable in the huts full of dying women [45-46], and his assessment of the grim medical situation: a dire shortage of medical supplies, personnel and facilities, and its horrid consequence, "triage" in military parlance, i.e. deciding who should be considered beyond hope and left to die to allow medical care to be concentrated on those with a fair chance of survival. [52] For the other most pressing problemburying the dead found in the campShephard relies on memoirs of participants and visitors, but also alludes to the film with the famous bulldozer scene. [11] Apart from the British drivers "who could not stand the work for long" because "the machines tended to split the bodies open and made the smell even worse" [55], the rest of the burying teams were provided by former SS guards, captive Hungarian soldiers and later German prisoners of war. For days, no solution seemed to be in sight, "because people continued to die faster than they could be buried", over 1,000 people dying on 22 April, against 500 on 15 April, a week earlier [56]. The backlog of corpses was only finally buried on 28 April, when it at last became possible to bury people as soon as they died.


Then a hospital was opened in neighbouring barracks vacated by German troops, and a "human laundry" was organised in former stables, where 14,000 survivors were washed, dusted with DDT to ward off lice, which carried typhus, and wrapped in clean blankets before being sent to the hospital. On 21 April the first Red Cross nurses arrivedmost were female and it was felt that the scenes of piled-up emaciated women dying in their excrements in the huts would be too much for them, so they were directed to the hospital and never saw the camp proper. "Was it a mistake?," Ben Shephard asksarguing that anyway these Red Cross nurses found more than enough to do in the hospital. Moreover, he suggests, considering the gender and class structure of British society at the timeespecially British military society, with its training for Imperial responsibilitiesthis was only to be expected:


It was one of the peculiarities of the British class and education system that the very worst jobs were often given, not as in other countries, to punishment troops or political prisoners, but to young males from the privileged elite, who alone were thought to have the sense of social responsibility, awareness of social position and strength of character to do them. […] In the medical students' accounts of first entering "their" hut at Belsen, there are echoes of a motif commonly heard in narratives of colonialism, the moment when the young public school boy finds himself exercising authority as District Commissioner, the only white man for miles around, protected by his aura and the colour of his skin [195].


Still, Shephard argues, there was a failure of overall co-ordination somewhere: more could have been done, more quickly, more humanely. He cites Patrick Gordon Walker, the future Labour minister, who came on 20 April, and lamented the slowness of the decision-making process, and Leslie Hardman, a Jewish chaplain, who, on top of concurring with Gordon Walker, deplored that more respect was not shown to the dead and more consideration to the living. But Shephard refuses to re-write history:


The contrast between Hardman's rapport with some prisoners and the inertia of the army has led some historians to argue that had Jewish doctors been present at Belsen from the start all would have been different. Maybe; but Hardman himself had difficulty in changing things overnight. [73]


In fact, Hardman soon broke down under the physical and psychological strain and his superior, Rabbi Isaac Levy, had to persuade him to leave the camp in spite of his denial that he no longer had the strength to stay. It was as well for his mental rest that he had left, since the arrival of British Movietone News led to the kind of mise-en-scène which would have driven him to despairShephard speaks of "English amateurism" and "university dramatics" for the filmed visit of the neighbouring German burgomasters on 24 April. Today, of course, there is also increased criticism of the callousness of the film crews and insensitivity of the producers. [12]


In contrast, Shephard, like everyone else, only has praise for the medical students who volunteered to go to Belsen (they did the worst medical jobclearing the huts), and he quotes abundantly from their memoirs, and from the highly positive reports sent by the military authorities and printed in the British Medical Journal and the Lancet. Shephard accepts that perhaps too much was made of their work and that "the students were overpraised and the women nurses [and Red Cross volunteers] undervalued," but, he argues, "by uncomplainingly going into the huts, they had helped to restore the honour of British medicine." [132]


The great setback for the whole of the medical staff, who were in sufficient numbers by mid-May, was that some survivors who had seemed saved began to get ill again, generally with post-typhus complications, and they were generally still too weak to stand up to the strain of an operationonce again Shephard draws on personal accounts to document this phenomenon. Likewise, he uses numerous testimonies of  medical staff and survivors to illustrate his description of the final burning of the huts on 21 May.


From then on, the narrative becomes one of hopefewer and fewer survivors finally dying, more internees recovering their self-respect (apparently the unexpected arrival of a consignment of lipstick had a tremendous morale-boosting effect, even for hospitalised patients), and the old games of international politics being revived. The camp was now designated as a "Displaced Persons" camp in United Nations vocabularyand a tug-of-war was initiated between the British authorities, which were reluctant to grant visas to Palestine for fear of offending the Arab world, and the Zionists, who had a strong presence in the camp and a charismatic leader, trying to obtain emigration permits. Ironically, it is now the son of this leader, born in Belsen in 1948, who edited the book in which the British are accused of "mismanagement born of indifference". [13]


In his last chapter, entitled "Judgements" (not to be confused with the judgement of the criminals, entitled "The Belsen Trial," which he very competently narrates), Shephard tries to sum up the elements which he has discussed for the rational evaluation which he set out to make, starting with the obvious, but always worth repeating: "It is important first to restate a central pointthat the primary reponsibility for every death at Belsen lay with the Germans" [190]. To acknowledged British "failures": unpreparedness, slowness of reaction, insufficient injection of resources, poor co-ordination in organising the medical relief, inappropriate diet for survivors, Ben Shephard adds some for which they only had themselves to blame: "Then and later, internees were reluctant to accept that one of the main causes of death at Belsen was the hoarding of food by prisoners themselves; or that internee doctors were ineffective" [197]. Drawing from the modern experience of people who have worked on famine relief with Save the Children Fund in Africa, and from that of therapists involved with post-trauma stress relief in New York after 11 September 2001, Shephard concludes that all in all the British did not do that badly in 1945 considering the circumstances, and that by 1946 they seemed to have found the key to helping the survivors by recruiting relief workers no longer drawn from British public schools but among Yiddish speakers from Eastern Europe established in Palestine. Cultural empathy, it seems, is the best medicinebut of course in April 1945 everything had to be improvised by the military on the spot, and no help of that kind was immediately available.


But finally Ben Shephard does not feel able to give a rational evaluation of the action of the British in April-May 1945. He ends on a note of humility which is familiar to all historians today: "We must accept that Belsen will always transcend rational historical enquiry; that there will always be multiple truths about such an event." This prudent approach recommends After Daybreak for all University Libraries, the more so as it comprises a state-of-the-art Bibliography (at least of publications in English) which includes a comprehensive list of unpublished documents, with their location and references, and a compedium of sound and video interviews now at the Imperial War Museum, which will be found extremely valuable by research students. The prose is limpid, totally free of jargon and the proof-checking is faultess. That the book is not the final word on the subject, Ben Shephard would probably be the first to acceptbut future research will necessarily have to take this important work into account.



[1] Though the general public now has very few opportunities to see them outside occasional exhibitions, notably at the Imperial War Museum. Thus Doris Zinkeisen"s harrowing painting of "Belsen, 1945" was hung on the occasion of the Women and War exhibition of October 2003-April 2004, while Eric Taylor"s portrait of a woman "Liberated from Belsen Concentration Camp" [1945] was shown during the Europe regained exhibition of 2005.

[2] Incredibly, cartoons on the extermination of the Jews appeared in the British press in 1944-1945, notably by Giles in the Sunday Express. See Tory, Peter. Giles at War. London: Headline, 1994.

[3] In Appendix One: The Death Rate at Belsen, Shephard has tabulated the available statistics.

[4] "Belsen 1945 : A commemorative seminar to mark the sixtieth anniversary of the liberation of
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp." Organised jointly by the Imperial War Museum and Royal Holloway College, London. The Proceedings, edited by David Cesarani & Suzanne Bardgett, will be published in 2006 by Vallentine Mitchell.

[5] This was already criticised in the Proceedings of the Conference to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary held at the Wiener Library in 1995. Reilly, Jo ; Cesarani, David ; Kushner, Tony & Richmond, Colin [Editors]. Belsen in History and Memory. London : Frank Cass, 1997 [notably in the Introduction, pp. 1-13].

[6] His theme was "Saving the survivors: The British medical relief effort at Belsen."

[7] For a comprehensive discussion, see Caven, Hannah. "Horror in our time: Images of the concentration camps in the British media, 1945". Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 21-3 [2001]: 205-253.

[8] The authority on the history of Bergen-Belsen before liberation by the British is Kolb, Eberhard. Bergen Belsen: Geschichte des "Aufenthaltslager" 1943-1945. Hannover: Verlag für Literatur und Zeitgeschehen, 1962 [Bergen-Belsen : Vom "Aufenthaltslager" zum Konzentrationslager, 1943-1945. Göttingen : Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, [5th enlarged edition]1996. Bergen-Belsen : From "Detention Camp" to Concentration Camp, 1943 to 1945. Göttingen : Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1985 [Second edition, 1988]] [With photographs from the Imperial War Museum].

[9] Apparently, the confusion with Bełżec [in Poland] prevailed even among academics until the 1990s. See Reilly, Joanne. Belsen: British Responses to the Liberation of a Concentration Camp. London : Routledge, 1998 : 2-3.

[10] See for instance Kushner, Tony. "The memory of Belsen". In Reilly, Jo ; Cesarani, David ; Kushner, Tony & Richmond, Colin [Editors]. Belsen in History and Memory. London : Frank Cass, 1997 : 181-205.

[11] Toby Haggith, of the Department of Film, Imperial War Museum gave a paper on the subject at the April 2005 Conference, and it will be published in the Proceedings.

[12] Notably by Tony Kushner and Jo Reilly.

[13] Rosensaft, Menachem Z. [Editor]. Life reborn : Jewish Displaced Persons, 1945-1951. Conference proceedings, Washington, D.C. January 14-17, 2000. Edited with an introduction by Menachem Z. Rosensaft ; preface by Irving Greenberg; Romana Strochlitz Primus, conference chairperson; Rositta Ehrlich Kenigsberg, chairperson, Second Generation Advisory Group. In association with the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee. Washington: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2001.

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