University of Minnesota
Center for Holocaust & Genocide Studies


Holocaust Studies / The final chapter

Holocaust Studies / The final chapter

In a major new study, Daniel Blatman argues that on the Nazi death marches constituted a completely new stage in the history of the German genocide - in which murderous chaos had the upper hand.

By By Boaz Neumann

The Death Marches
The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide, by Daniel Blatman Yad Vashem Publications (in Hebrew ), 666 pages, NIS 98. Forthcoming in English in January 2011 (translation by Chaya Galai ) from the Belknap Press of Harvard University, 524 pages, $35

It's hard to come up with a new historical thesis about the Holocaust or Nazism, fields of study that are already jam-packed with researchers. But groundbreaking studies do appear every now and then, studies that offer a different interpretation of familiar historical events and can change the way we understand history. Daniel Blatman's "The Death Marches" is such a work.

The book examines the death marches, the chilling final throes of the Nazi genocide. Blatman, a professor of history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes the hell imposed on those who appeared to have already experienced the worst of all fates, but were forced - exhausted, starving, broken, sick, dying - to move west on unpaved roads toward a ruined Germany, threatened from the west by the Allies and from the east by the avenging Red Army.

Blatman argues, justifiably so, that it is impossible to document all the death marches, which began in the summer of 1944 and went on until the collapse of the Third Reich. Nonetheless, in all the cases he examines, he succeeds in supplying very thorough descriptions of their twisting paths, the identities of the murderers and victims, and the circumstances of each.

Blatman is not satisfied, however, with simple descriptions of the marches, but also explains the dynamics behind them. Auschwitz, for example, was evacuated; at Gross-Rosen, in Lower Silesia, the march was a kind of murderous escape; at Stutthof, near Gdansk, Poland, the order was only partially carried out. None of these campaigns was methodical, as chaos reigned. When the prisoners arrived on German soil, they were considered even more dispensable than they were before. There was nowhere to house them and their economic value was nil. And so in February 1945, gas chambers were erected in Dachau, until then a concentration camp, but now turned into a death camp for all intents and purposes. At other camps, inmates were killed directly and indirectly, by means of starvation and epidemics. In this way, near the end of the Third Reich, Bergen-Belsen, in Lower Saxony, evolved from being the second most important transfer point into a major death camp. These facts furnish further proof of the modular capability of the Nazi camps, which could easily change their purpose from detention to punishment and, finally, to extermination.

More than genocide by more primitive means

Daniel Blatman's book is monumental, not only because of its breadth but also because of the enormous variety of sources it relies on, collected by the author from more than 20 archives in six European countries and the United States. It is a masterpiece of historical work, its power stemming not only from its scope but also from the radical insights it offers on its subject.

Blatman is not the first to have studied the death marches, but his predecessors viewed them as only marginally important to the Nazi genocide. They were examined as the final chapter in the history of the death camps, or understood as an anarchic or wild stage in the murder of camp inmates, in the context of the collapse of the Third Reich and its inability to continue to methodically carry out murder in the camps. In other words, the death marches were grasped as nothing but a continuation of the Nazi-German genocide against the Jews by more primitive means, giving rise to partial and anecdotal descriptions of them.

From the point of view of numbers, too, it is impossible to compare camp victims to march victims. About 250,000 people all told died in the death marches (about 35 percent of participants ). It is worth noting that the death marches did not only entail walking: Trains, trucks and horse-drawn wagons were also used.
Blatman argues that the death marches had greater significance than merely marking the downfall or the final chapter in the history of the extermination process, and that they deserve more than anecdotal attention.

From this point of view, it becomes clear that the marches were not in fact the last stage of the Final Solution to the so-called Jewish Problem, first and foremost because the victims were not only Jews, who were in some cases the minority. The death marches widened the circle of victims, which now included those of different nationalities, non-Jewish forced laborers and other people with a variety of world outlooks and political opinions. Marchers included not only inmates, but also people who had not been incarcerated but whom the Germans intended to eliminate.

Blatman argues that the death marches opened a new chapter of the Nazi genocide. This is an undeniably radical claim. In light of Blatman's findings, it is impossible to define or characterize the death marches according to previously accepted parameters. The varied identities of the victims show that the marches did not constitute ethnic cleansing, racial extermination or political revenge. The marches were also not part of the history of the orderly "banality" of the camps; rather, their chaotic essence stood in contradiction to the systematic functionality of the camps.

As soon as the inmates left the camps, it became unclear who was in charge and what their orders were. Even the murderers themselves were unclear whether the aim of the death marches was the extermination of all the marchers or some of them, or whether it wasn't intended to kill them off at all.

'Possible scenario A'

In this chaotic situation, decisions were made in light of the local interests and conditions of each march. On June 17, 1944, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, gave a general order entitled "Security in concentration camps in possible scenario A," instructions that were to determine actions in the camps and the treatment of inmates in the fateful months to follow. But this order too was vague, because of the vagueness of "scenario A," in which the letter "A" was understood to be the first initial of a word. Did it refer to an attack (Angriff ), an uprising (Aufstand ) by inmates, an alarm (Alarm ) or a more general state of emergency (Ausnahmezustand )?

At the end of 1944, according to Blatman, a new victim appeared in the latest phase of the Nazi-German genocide - not the mentally or physically handicapped, and not homosexuals, Poles, Soviet prisoners, gypsies or Jews, but a figure who belonged to the imagined collective of the demonic threat. The prisoners who marched were marked as such because the Germans had become used to seeing (that is, not seeing) them behind barbed-wire fences, and suddenly it was no longer possible to keep them inside. Murder at this stage was not committed out of ethnic, racial, political or other motivations but was nihilistic, localized and aimless, according to Baltman.