Bad Nenndorf

Bad Nenndorf is a German spa town some 15 km west of the northwest-German city of Hannover. After the end of the war, the town was part of the British Zone of Occupation. In violation of the Hague Convention of Land Warfare, the British occupiers hunted down civilians, especially the political leadership of the defeated country, which they prepared to prosecute during various show trials.

In preparation of this goal, at the beginning of August 1945, Bad Nenndorf’s spa district located around the spa’s mud bathhouse was declared a “civilian internment camp.” Some 1,200 inhabitants of this area had to vacate their homes. The area was fenced in with barbed wire. The mud bathhouse was given a new purpose: interrogation center and prison for Germans who were to be tried as war criminals. In the bathing cabins, the fittings were removed, and the tubs embedded in the floor were filled with cement. Holding cells with tiled walls were created.

National-Socialist functionaries, SS members, officers from all parts of the German armed forces, diplomats and major industrialists were quartered in the cells as prisoners to be “prepared” here for the coming war-crimes trials. Also imprisoned were Soviet soldiers and other individuals who had fled west across the border from the Soviet Zone of Occupation. Although formally speaking, Britain and the Soviet Union were still allies at that point in time, neither side trusted the other.

The guards of this makeshift prison were members of a British penal squad who hoped to regain their revoked ranks through dedicated service. Many of them were ruthless rogues.

We have two testimonies of former inmates who were incarcerated in that detention center: The first is from Oswald Pohl, former head of the SS’s Economic and Administrative Main Office (Wirtschafts- und Verwaltungs-Hauptamt, WVHA), which was in charge of the German wartime camps. The other is from a former official of the town of Bad Nenndorf, Heinrich Steinmeyer and his wife Marie. His report was published by the German weekly magazine Quick (9 March 1952, pp. 28-31; see also Heyne 2018).

Fortunately, we do not depend solely on their accounts to find out what happened inside that camp’s interrogation center. In 2005, the British government finally released documents about this and other British wartime and postwar interrogation centers. Here is what British investigative journalist Ian Cobain wrote about it after he had studied the released documents:

“Here [in Bad Nenndorf], an [British] organisation […] ran a secret prison following the British occupation of north-west Germany in 1945.

[This organization], a division of the War Office, operated interrogation centres around the world, including one known as the London Cage, located in one of London’s most exclusive neighbourhoods. Official documents discovered last month at the National Archives at Kew, southwest London, show that the London Cage was a secret torture centre where German prisoners who had been concealed from the Red Cross were beaten, deprived of sleep, and threatened with execution or with unnecessary surgery.

As horrific as conditions were at the London Cage, Bad Nenndorf was far worse. Last week, [British] Foreign Office files which have remained closed for almost 60 years were opened after a request by the Guardian under the Freedom of Information Act. These papers, and others declassified earlier, lay bare the appalling suffering of many of the 372 men and 44 women who passed through the centre during the 22 months it operated before its closure in July 1947.

They detail the investigation carried out by a Scotland Yard detective […]. Despite the precise and formal prose of the detective’s report to the military government, anger and revulsion leap from every page as he turns his spotlight on a place where prisoners were systematically beaten and exposed to extreme cold, where some were starved to death and, allegedly, tortured with instruments that his [British] fellow countrymen had recovered from a Gestapo prison in Hamburg. Even today, the Foreign Office is refusing to release photographs taken of some of the ‘living skeletons’ on their release.”

(For more details, see Cobain 2005a&b; Cobain 2013.)

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