The "Beast" In Bergen-Belsen: Josef Kramer And The Implementation Of The "Final Solution" To The "Jewish Question," 1943-1945
In the summer of 1944, Adolf Hitler’s “Thousand-Year Reich” was on the verge oftotal military collapse. In June, American, British, and Canadian armies landed on the Normandy coast of France and began pressing toward German-controlled Paris. In the east, extensively scattered and poorly supplied German troops were spread across a 1400- mile front and faced the Red Army whose fierce fighting ability had made it legendary. Confronted with an impossible military situation, German forces became engaged in defensive operations for the duration ofthe Second World War. Hitler’s offensive against the Jews ofEurope, however, was entering its fourth year and showed no signs of slowing down. Ironically, the more desperate the German military situation became* the more fanatical the Nazis approached the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question.” In May 1944, the first transports carrying Jews from Hungary arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau. By September, over 400,000 Hungarian Jews would be gassed and cremated, becoming the largest nationality claimed by the Nazis at Auschwitz. By the end of 1944, elements of the Red Army were in position to invade Germany-proper for the first time since World War I. With Auschwitz-Birkenau in striking distance of the Soviet Army, Hitler ordered the evacuation of all prisoners held in the east to the interior of Germany. Enforced with ruthless tenacity and efficiency, the migration of Jewish captives West enabled Hitler to continue his pursuit of Jewish eradication in Europe. Carried out mostly on foot with no winter clothes or supplies, the “death marches” began on 17 January 1945 and forced thousands to walk hundreds of miles toward transit camps and railway stations. Also retreating from the Soviet advance were S.S. officers who, despite facing the inevitability of a lost war, still embodied the stringent beliefs that constructed the Nazi ideology. In December 1944, one such S.S. officer left Auschwitz and boarded a train en route to the Northwest comer of Germany. With him came subordinates who had aided him throughout his 12-year career in the Nazi-concentration camp system. Representing the group that would ultimately continue Hitler’s brutal campaign of mass genocide, these men later felt vindicated of personal responsibility because they were simply following orders. Arriving at Concentration Camp Bergen-Belsen on 2 December 1945, Josef Kramer began implementing procedures that would later earn him the title, “The Beast of Belsen.” Using the skills that enabled him to kill thousands of individuals at Natzweiler and Auschwitz-Birkenau, Josef Kramer transformed Bergen-Belsen into the new epicenter of death, one that would claim over 40,000 lives in a four-month period of murder.