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Germany commemorates Bergen-Belsen liberation

President Joachim Gauck has paid tribute to the hundreds of thousands of prisoners held at the Bergen-Belsen POW-turned-concentration camp, which was liberated by British Allied forces 70 years ago.

"We must look to the past to put an end to injustice," said Gauck, speaking at the site of the Nazi internment camp where over 70,000 people were murdered between 1941 and 1945.

In his key-note address at the 70th anniversary of the camp's liberation, the president implored those present to do justice to what he called modern Germany's moral duty: "We commit ourselves to the obligation of never denying these crimes, or relativizing them, and of preserving the memories of the victims."

Present for the ceremony were around 90 survivors of the Bergen-Belsen camp, which was liberated by British forces who happened upon it in April, 1945.

"The British soldiers were the ambassadors of a democratic culture that wasn't bent on avenging the crimes of its enemy, and this helped Germany restore its obligation anew to justice and the dignity of the human being," Gauck said, before professing his "deep need" to thank Great Britain for liberating Bergen-Belsen.

DW's Kate Brady was also in Bergen Belsen, attending the commemoration ceremony.

Warning against right-wing extremism

The president of the World Jewish Congress, Ronald Lauder, echoed Gauck's warning with regard to a current resurgence of xenophobia in Europe by calling for action against anti-Semitism. In Paris, London, and Copenhagen, Lauder deplored that Jews couldn't wear a kippah without being afraid of violence.

Addressing the Bergen-Belsen survivors, Lauder expressed his gratitude for their perseverance: "We are so proud of you! You were confronted with the most horrific cruelty imaginable, and still you left here with your dignity intact."

The state premier of Lower Saxony, the federal state where Bergen-Belsen is located, also drew parallels to modern German society in his address on Sunday: "There is statute of limitations on murder, much less genocide," said Stephan Weil.

Germany, most of all, said Weil, must do its utmost to combat racism, xenophobia and extremism. "When refugees have to fear arson attacks, when Jews in Germany feel unsafe, when people are ostracized because of their religious faith, that's when we can no longer accept the status quo and go on with our daily lives."

Deutschland KZ zweiter Weltkrieg Befreiung von Konzentrationslager Bergen-Belsen

The British found mass graves at Bergen-Belsen when they arrived in April 1945

From POW to concentration camp

In early 1943, two years after being erected, parts of Bergen-Belsen were turned into a concentration camp. The SS initially called it an "internment camp" for Jews, who were to be used as prisoner swaps for Germans detained abroad.

From March 1944 onwards, sick and wounded prisoners from other countries were also interned at Bergen-Belsen, which led to the camp being quickly filled to capacity. By the final year of the war, there was almost no food or water. Typhus and dysentery had quickly spread throughout the camp, costing tens of thousands their lives.

The British reached the camp on April 15, 1945. By mid-June, another 14,000 - now liberated - prisoners had perished in makeshift hospitals set up by the Allies. The British evacuated Bergen-Belsen and burned the entire camp to the ground to stem the spread of the epidemic.

Nothing remains of the camp barracks today. According to the state of Lower Saxony, which runs a foundation tasked with preserving the site, some 52,000 prisoners were murdered in the concentration camp, in addition to 20,000 other prisoners of war.

glb/jil (epd, dpa)

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