1945: The Belsen war criminals

On this date in 1945, British hangman Albert Pierrepoint executed eleven guards of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and two other Nazis in occupied Hameln.

Liberated only eight months before these hangings, Belsen provided the to-us-familiar store of Nazi atrocity stories. Forty-five sat in the dock at the Belsen trial under British military authority, including the notorious camp commandante Josef Kramer — better known as the Beast of Belsen — and the “Angel of Death” Irma Grese.

Those two, and nine others less distinctively nicknamed, faced the gallows. (They were hanged together with two other war criminal convicts not connected to the Belsen trial, Georg Otto Sandrock and Ludwig Schweinberger, for a total of 13.)

On December 13, 1945, Pierrepoint hanged Grese; then, Elisabeth Volkenrath; and then, Juana Bormann, each individually. Finally, the men were then dispatched in pairs.

(Other than Kramer, the most notable was Nazi doctor Fritz Klein, who gave this reading of medical ethics when queried while the camps were still operating: “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.”)

Of all this batch, Irma Grese, the “beautiful beast”, enjoys the liveliest afterlife.

If one finds her pretty, then she was a pretty young thing — only 16 when she hitched herself to the SS; turning 22 during her fatal postwar trial.

Stalking the camp with her whip, and (rather conveniently) cited with the ravenous sexual appetite a B-movie screenwriter would give such a character, part of her siren song is plainly the fetishistic magnetism of Nazi women.

But in the numerous discussion threads about Irma Grese, any number of her advocates will emerge.

Can we leave it at the fascination that female war criminals inspire? Certainly few 22-year-old Einsatzgruppen men have the mitigatory evidence of a coming-of-age in farming and retail so lovingly emphasized, the precise measure of complicity in genocide analyzed in such detail (pdf).

Grese, perhaps, strikes as impressionable, in the youthful sense of absorbing one’s place from the world one inhabits. Her hangman wrote that “[s]he seemed as bonny a girl as one could ever wish to meet.” As a camp guard, she wins promotions; to her interrogators, she accepts responsibility equal to Himmler’s; among those condemned at the Belsen trial, she alone is defiant.

In that guise — and whether or not it is rightly attributed to her — she presents back to her interlocutor those timeless questions of personal identity and moral responsibility: where does abnormal psychology leave off into perfectly conventional psychology that just happens to occupy an abnormal world?

On this day..

10 thoughts on “1945: The Belsen war criminals

  1. The Beast of Belsen—-Quite the broad eh??? Like bloody hell she was, she was a “Bitch” 1st. class and just as bad as her Nazi boy friends if not more so. She was a woman who just loved to kill “Jews” and anyone else that got in the way. She should have been the mistress of A Hitler the two of them would have made a great pair. Both as nutty as fruit cakes. lts too bad she wasn’t on the Monasee Dam when the dam busters blew it up and she could have flowed down the valley with the water that left the lake behind the dam, God that would have been some sight, seeing her trying to struggle for her life as she was being washed down stream. l managed to get posted to Germany in the small town of Soest in 19 57-59 with Recce Sqn. LdSH(
    RC) (an armoured Regt. and one of the finest) an my wife and l and the children went to the Monasee dam and you can see where the dam was repaired from been blowen up it was quite a large “V” shape right smack dab in the middle of the dam where the dam busters blew it up. l am quite suprised that the gunners at each end of the dam did’nt manage to shoot that plane down, hells bells they came in a few feet off the water just to make sure the bomb they dropped would do the job, and a job it did. lt takes a lot of nerve to fly that low to take out a dam, but fly low they did and they took it out, from what l understand the bomb wasnot shaped likie a normal bomb, it was more like a mine that was used to blow up ships, (a Big huge ball) but no mind it did the job. From what l understand the pilots of that aircraft practiced in England for a long time to perfect the drop. Great job fellows. well done>

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