1 of 22
Compared to the appalling number of men, women and children killed at the Nazi extermination camps—places like Sobibor, Chelmno, Treblinka and others where, cumulatively, millions perished—the death toll at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in northwest Germany was (a horrible thing to say!) relatively small. More than a million people were killed at Auschwitz-Birkenau alone; at Belsen, by most estimates, fewer than 100,000 died—from starvation and disease (typhus, for example), as well as outright slaughter.
But in the spring of 1945, photographs and eyewitness accounts from the liberation of camps like Bergen-Belsen afforded the disbelieving world outside of Europe its first glimpse into the abyss of Nazi depravity. All these years later, after countless reports, books, oral histories and documentary films have constructed a terrifyingly clear picture of the Third Reich’s vast machinery of murder, it’s difficult to grasp just how shocking these first revelations really were. The most horrific rumors about what was happening to the Jews and millions of other “undesirables—Catholics, pacifists, homosexuals, Slavs—in Nazi-occupied lands paled before the reality revealed by the liberation of the camps.
Here, seven decades after the April 1945 liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British troops, LIFE.com presents a series of photographs made at the camp by the great George Rodger (later a founding Magnum member). In an issue of LIFE published a few weeks later, in which several of the pictures in this gallery first appeared, the magazine told its readers of a “barbarism that reaches the low point of human degradation.”
In Rodger’s own typed picture captions, meanwhile, dated April 20, 1945, the photographer detailed what he had witnessed when he accompanied the British 11th Armoured Division (the fabled “Black Bull”) into the camp just days earlier. Somehow, the stark, almost telegraphic language of the notes carries more power—more immediacy—and are thus more terrifying than so many of the passionate, outraged articles and editorials that appeared in newspapers and on the radio in the weeks and months to come. Here are just a few examples:
Indelibly scarred by the savagery and suffering he confronted during World War II—in England during the Blitz; in war-torn Southeast Asia and Europe; and, especially, in Bergen-Belsen—George Rodger did not work as a war photographer again. He did, however, continue to travel and photograph around the world in the decades after the war—particularly in Africa, where he made some of his most celebrated pictures.
By the time of his death in 1995, at the age of 87, Rodger was acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s indispensable photojournalists, and one of its greatest witnesses.
Ben Cosgrove is the Editor of LIFE.com