Dirk Bogarde and Belsen
Updated: Apr 4, 2022
Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was liberated on April 15, 1945, by the British 11th Armoured Division. Inside the fences, the soldiers discovered some 60,000 prisoners, most of them starving and seriously ill with typhus and dysentery, along with thousands of unburied bodies. The British Army immediately began to organise the relief effort, burying the dead and attempting to contain the spread of disease. They restored the water supply and arranged the distribution of food, bringing in extra military and civilian medical personnel, but almost 14,000 prisoners died soon after liberation.
As Bogarde wrote in The Daily Telegraph in 1988, someone in the unit to which he was attached as an intelligence officer – he spent much of his time analysing and interpreting reconnaissance photographs – said the Germans had abandoned a large concentration camp "and we ought to 'swan off ' and have a look." He hoped to find a pair of service-issue boots, which were better made in Germany, and had little suspicion of what lay ahead.
"I had known for some time that the camps existed – we saw them on our aerial photographs often enough – but it didn’t really occur to me that through the greening larches and under a clear, hard, blue sky, the last traces of the snow melting in the woods, I would be entering a hell which I should never forget and about which, for many years, I would be unable to speak."
Bogarde told Harty it was like looking into Dante’s Inferno and spoke of the "mountains of dead people", recalling: "I can't really describe it very well, I don't really want to. I went through some of the huts and there were tiers and tiers of rotting people, but some of them were alive underneath the rot and were lifting their heads and trying… trying to do the victory thing. That was the worst."
He admitted in the same televised interview that what he saw there had changed him forever: "After the war I always knew that nothing, nothing, could ever be as bad… nothing could frighten me anymore. I mean, no man could frighten me anymore, no director... Nothing could be as bad as the war or the things I saw in the war."
He later wrote in one of his autobiographies: "At 24, the age I was then, deep shock stays registered forever.
An internal tattooing which is removable only by surgery, it cannot be conveniently sponged away by time."
There has been debate surrounding his wartime experiences, as some of the accounts in four of his volumes of autobiography and in private correspondence appear contradictory.
Critic John Carey claimed in The Times analysis of Bogarde’s “wildly camp, funny and despondent, tactful and defamatory, petulant and generous” letters that "It is virtually impossible that he (Bogarde) saw Belsen or any other camp. Things he overheard or read seem to have entered his imagination and been mistaken for lived experience."
In his best-selling authorised biography of Bogarde, published after his death, John Coldstream notes that Bogarde would have been extremely busy at that time with his job interpreting photographs taken by 39 Reconnaissance Wing of the Royal Canadian Air Force: “A considerable task it was, too, even at that late stage in the war: the total number of pictures processed in April 1945 by No 5 Mobile Field Photographic Section – one of two such teams operating with the Canadians – was a staggering 348,306.”
Robin Dashwood, reviewing Coldstream’s book in the Times Educational Supplement, suggested that “the Rank matinee idol turned European art cinema darling turned best-selling author literally invented his own life, telling different people different facts about himself and often retreating behind the shield of fiction.”
Coldstream writes on the extensive website set up by Bogarde's estate, dirkbogarde.co.uk, that "some of my interviewees said that received imagery was so vivid that soldiers serving in the vicinity became convinced that they had seen events for themselves. If Bogarde was experiencing what is now termed ‘false memory syndrome’, he had ample justification."
However, since the biography's publication in 2004, no one serving with Bogarde has come forward to either confirm or refute his account to Coldstream. Evidence places 39 Wing about an hour away from the camp at the time of its liberation, and there were floods of visitors in the initial days afterwards, so it’s extremely likely that he was there.
In Bogarde's own words -
"I think it was on the 13th of April—I'm not quite sure what the date was" (it was the 15th) "—in '44" ( the camp was liberated on the 15th April 1945, and it was the 20th April 1945 when Bogarde made his visit) "when we opened up Belsen Camp, which was the first concentration camp any of us had seen, we didn't even know what they were, we'd heard vague rumours that they were. I mean nothing could be worse than that. The gates were opened and then I realised that I was looking at Dante's Inferno, I mean ... I ... I still haven't seen anything as dreadful. And never will. And a girl came up who spoke English, because she recognised one of the badges, and she ... her breasts were like, sort of, empty purses, she had no top on, and a pair of man's pyjamas, you know, the prison pyjamas, and no hair. But I knew she was girl because of her breasts, which were empty. She was I suppose, oh I don't know, twenty four, twenty five, and we talked, and she was, you know, so excited and thrilled, and all around us there were mountains of dead people, I mean mountains of them, and they were slushy, and they were slimy, so when you walked through them ... or walked—you tried not to, but it was like .... well you just walked through them, and she ... there was a very nice British MP, and he said 'Don't have any more, come away, come away sir, if you don't mind, because they've all got typhoid and you'll get it, you shouldn't be here swanning around' and she saw in the back of the jeep, the unexpired portion of the daily ration, wrapped in a piece of the Daily Mirror, and she said could she have it, and he" [the Military Police] "said 'Don't give her food, because they eat it immediately and they die, within ten minutes', but she didn't want the food, she wanted the piece of Daily Mirror—she hadn't seen newsprint for about eight years or five years, whatever it was she had been in the camp for. ... she was Estonian. ... that's all she wanted. She gave me a big kiss, which was very moving. The corporal" [Military Police] "was out of his mind and I was just dragged off. I never saw her again, of course she died. I mean, I gather they all did. But, I can't really describe it very well, I don't really want to. I went through some of the huts and there were tiers and tiers of rotting people, but some of them who were alive underneath the rot, and were lifting their heads and trying .... trying to do the victory thing. That was the worst."
"After the war, I always knew that nothing, nothing, could ever be as bad ... but nothing could frighten me any more, I mean, no man could frighten me any more, no director ... nothing could be as bad as the war, or the things I saw in the war."
The horror and revulsion at the cruelty and inhumanity that he witnessed still left him with a deep-seated hostility towards Germany; in the late 1980s, he wrote that he would disembark from a lift rather than ride with a German of his generation. Nevertheless, three of his more memorable film roles were as Germans, one of them as a former SS officer in The Night Porter (1974).
Bogarde was most vocal towards the end of his life on voluntary euthanasia, of which he became a staunch proponent after witnessing the protracted death of his lifelong partner and manager Anthony Forwood in 1988. He gave an interview to John Hofsess, London executive director of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society:
"My views were formulated as a 24-year-old officer in Normandy ... On one occasion, the jeep ahead hit a mine ... Next thing I knew, there was this chap in the long grass beside me. A bloody bundle, shrapnel-ripped, legless, one arm only. The one arm reached out to me, white eyeballs wide, unseeing, in the bloody mask that had been a face. A gurgling voice said, "Help. Kill me." With shaking hands I reached for my small pouch to load my revolver ... I had to look for my bullets—by which time somebody else had already taken care of him. I heard the shot. I still remember that gurgling sound. A voice pleading for death ....
During the war, I saw more wounded men being "taken care of" than I saw being rescued. Because sometimes you were too far from a dressing station, sometimes you couldn't get them out. And they were pumping blood or whatever; they were in such a wreck, the only thing to do was to shoot them. And they were, so don't think they weren't. That hardens you: You get used to the fact that it can happen, and that it is the only sensible thing to do."