Bergen-Belsen (or Belsen) was a Nazi concentration camp in Lower Saxony in northwestern Germany, southwest of the town of Bergen near Celle.
Originally established as the prisoner of war camp Stalag XI-C, in 1943 it became a concentration camp on the orders of Heinrich Himmler, where Jewish hostages were held with the intention of exchanging them for German prisoners of war held overseas.
Later still the name was applied to the displaced persons camp established nearby, but it is most commonly associated with the concentration camp it became as conditions deteriorated between 1943-1945. During this time an estimated 50,000 Russian prisoners of war and a further 50,000 inmates died there, up to 35,000 of them dying of typhus in the first few months of 1945.
The camp was liberated on April 15, 1945 by the British 11th Armoured Division. 60,000 prisoners were found inside, most of them seriously ill, and another 13,000 corpses lay around the camp unburied. The scenes that greeted British troops were described by the BBC's Richard Dimbleby, who accompanied them:
“ ...Here over an acre of ground lay dead and dying people. You could not see which was which... The living lay with their heads against the corpses and around them moved the awful, ghostly procession of emaciated, aimless people, with nothing to do and with no hope of life, unable to move out of your way, unable to look at the terrible sights around them ...
Babies had been born here, tiny wizened things that could not live ... A mother, driven mad, screamed at a British sentry to give her milk for her child, and thrust the tiny mite into his arms, then ran off, crying terribly. He opened the bundle and found the baby had been dead for days.
"This day at Belsen was the most horrible of my life.”
For public opinion in Western countries in the immediate post-1945 period, the name "Belsen" became emblematic of Nazi horrors in general. The even greater horrors of Auschwitz, a camp which was liberated by the Soviets and of which Western soldiers and journalists had no direct experience, became widely known only later.