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Clip description

SS Guards from the Belsen concentration camp are put on trial before a British military court, with sentences ultimately ranging from hanging to release. The narrator wonders why the British Army did not pursue more of the guards who escaped.

Curator’s notes

Excellent use of stock footage from the trial, with chilling close-ups of the accused guards. The narration is very well directed, hitting just the right note of calm, restrained indignation as it tells the story.

Teacher’s notes

provided by The Le@rning FederationEducation Services Australia

This clip shows the Belsen war crimes trial of SS guards from the Belsen concentration camp, held in 1945 in Lüneburg, Germany, before a British military court. The clip uses black-and-white archival newsreel footage that includes commentary and shows military court officials and accused SS guards arriving at the courthouse and inside the courtroom. It shows the two most high-ranking defendants, Commandant Kramer and Dr Fritz Klein, as well as the notorious Irma Grese. Over the original commentary, the documentary narration notes the failure of British forces to pursue SS guards who had fled Belsen, and points out that the British, French and US public were unhappy with the outcome of the trial.

Educational value points

  • The Belsen trial, which was known officially as the 'Trial of Josef Kramer and 44 others’, took place in Lüneburg between September and November in 1945. Forty-five former SS ('Schutzstaffel’, meaning 'protection squad’) men, women and kapos (prisoner functionaries) from the Belsen (also known as Bergen-Belsen) and Auschwitz concentration camps faced charges for war crimes and crimes against humanity committed in these two camps, through their participation in the torture and mass murder of camp inmates.
  • In 1943 a joint announcement had been made by the Allied leaders Theodore Roosevelt (USA), Winston Churchill (UK) and Joseph Stalin (USSR), that they would bring the Nazi perpetrators to justice as soon as the War was over. The Belsen trial was one of several trials for war crimes and crimes against humanity that the Allied occupation forces conducted against former officials and functionaries of Nazi Germany. The most famous of these trials were the Nuremberg trials.
  • Josef Kramer, commandant of Belsen is shown in the clip. Kramer joined the SS in 1932 and served at various camps, including Auschwitz, before being transferred to Belsen in 1944. During the trial Kramer was accused of beating and torturing prisoners, and machine-gunning other prisoners at burial pits. Evidence was given that he selected victims for the gas chamber at Auschwitz. He is said to have shown no remorse as he led British troops on a tour of the camp, showing them piles of corpses, mass graves and overcrowded huts filled with prisoners in every stage of emaciation and disease.
  • The clip includes footage of Dr Fritz Klein. Like Kramer, Klein had worked at Birkenau, one of the three camps that comprised the Auschwitz death camps in Poland, where he had selected prisoners for the gas chamber. When asked how he reconciled his actions with his ethical obligations as a physician, Klein is quoted as having stated: 'My Hippocratic oath tells me to cut a gangrenous appendix out of the human body. The Jews are the gangrenous appendix of mankind. That’s why I cut them out’ (
  • Irma Grese, a camp supervisor at both Belsen and Auschwitz, is shown during the trial. According to the testimonies of survivors given at the trial, Grese frequently and sadistically beat prisoners with a whip, in some instances to death. Survivors said that she shot prisoners in cold blood, with some claiming that she was responsible for up to 30 murders a day. At Auschwitz she forced women to line up for selection for the gas chamber. In this period, the idea that a woman was capable of committing such atrocities gave Grese even greater notoriety.
  • The British, US and French public were outraged at what they regarded as the lenient sentences given to the defendants at the Belsen trial. While 11 of the accused were hanged, including Kramer, Klein and Grese, the remainder either served short sentences or were acquitted. The outside world had first learned of the atrocities in the concentration camps through the extensive media coverage of Belsen’s liberation in 1945, and subsequently wanted to see the perpetrators brought to justice.
  • The clip points out that the British military did not pursue the guards who fled Belsen. Only a small proportion of SS personnel and guards working at Belsen were made prisoners of war. Most of those brought to trial under British military jurisdiction were SS personnel and guards from concentration camps in Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Mittelbau-Dora, who had withdrawn to Belsen as the Allies advanced into Germany. No comprehensive legal proceedings were ever initiated against former SS members of the Belsen camp by either West German or East German courts.
  • The British Army allowed the media to cover the liberation of Belsen and the subsequent trials extensively for propaganda purposes and the clip shows newsreel footage shot at the Belsen trials. Some historians argue that the images and reports coming out of the Belsen camp were used to justify to the British public the subsequent bombing of German cities, the economic blockade of Germany and the demand that Germany surrender unconditionally. Newsreels were shown in cinemas prior to the main feature film, and were the only source of audiovisual news for the public prior to the advent of television.

This clip starts approximately 39 minutes into the documentary.

Outside a brick building signposted as a courtroom, soldiers stand guard as a crowd gathers outside. Men and women civilians are searched by security guards before entering the court. High ranking officers are seen entering the building through a gateway signposted 'Court officials’.
Narrator of footage The first film of the Belsen trial. This is being held before a British Military Court in Luneburg.
Narrator In Autumn 1945, SS guards from Belsen and their accomplices were put on trial. Public opinion in England, France and the United States, enraged by reports of the Belsen atrocities, later blames the jury for verdicts that were too lenient.

A lorry backs up to the courtroom gates and officers stand guard as the prisoners file out.
Narrator of footage The prisoners arrive. Altogether, 45 men and women. Last to get out of the truckload is Kramer, the former Commandant of Belsen.
Narrator 11 of the accused were hanged, 19 jailed, 14 acquitted. But the British had only tried those SS guards whom they had found in the camp. Others, those who had most to answer for, had fled in time. Amongst them, all Commando leaders, the worst tormentors. It remains beyond comprehension why the military authorities failed to search for those still at large, even though they had complete lists of names.

Inside the courtroom the prisoners are placed in rows of seating behind the court officials. They are wearing bibs with numbers printed on them. There are close ups of the three named prisoners sitting in the docks.
Narrator of footage We see them entering the court on the first day. One of the most prominent among the women prisoners is Irma Grese, number 9. Most prominent of all, of course, are Dr Klein, number 2, who is sitting next to the ex-Commandant Kramer.