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The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide, by Daniel Blatman. Translated from the Hebrew by Chaya Galai. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2011. 561 pp. $35.00.
As the end of World War II approached, large numbers of Nazi camp inmates, Jews and non-Jews alike, found themselves subjected to one last existential challenge. Uprooted, often at a moment’s notice, and forced to leave the familiar routine of the camps for the uncertainty of transportation to the heart of Germany, perhaps 250,000 of the emaciated, weakened prisoners succumbed to exhaustion or were murdered in brutal fashion by their German handlers. The death marches at the end of the war, Daniel Blatman contends, have traditionally been regarded by historians as an afterthought, an odd appendage to the stories of both the war itself and of the Holocaust. In this assertion, the relevant chapters in Daniel Goldhagen’s book notwithstanding, Blatman is surely correct, and in this work he aims to provide both detailed information and an explanatory framework. To Blatman, there was nothing odd about the death marches at all. They were, in fact, the logical last, sordid chapter of the Final Solution. In this assertion he is simultaneously too bold, and yet not bold enough. If one includes the earlier death marches of Soviet prisoners of war and the murderous schemes associated with the Nazi projects of ethnic and racial cleansing in the borderlands of east-central Europe, in which millions of people died from shooting, exhaustion, and starvation, then those at war’s end do not appear to be as unique as Blatman contends. On the other hand, the process of cumulative radicalization and socialization in violence, combined with the chaos at the end of a lost war that made broad segments of German society willing both to tolerate and participate in atrocities, needs stronger emphasis. The most distinctive feature of the death marches in 1945 was that they largely took place within the territory of the Reich: killings no longer took place in the “wild east” but on the doorstep and within eyesight of average Germans.
As Blatman emphasizes, the importance of slave labor to the Nazi war economy provided the rationale for the evacuations of the concentration camps, so the initial impetus was grounded in a certain logic. Since many key armaments industries were dependent on foreign workers, so the reasoning went, every effort must be made to evacuate those still fit for labor, even if it meant the absurdity, from the Nazi racial point of view, of bringing Jews and other alleged racial undesirables back into the Reich. Despite instructions from Himmler to camp commanders in June 1944 to prepare for emergency contingencies, and in seeming disregard of the realities of looming German defeat, few of these officials had made any plans at all for evacuations of their camps. Thus, when they began in late 1944 and early 1945, the evacuations were characterized by haphazard and hasty improvisations. Not surprisingly, post-war interrogations of camp commanders and leaders of the evacuations revealed confusing and contradictory instructions from the top levels of authority. Crucially, however, virtually all remembered one vital Himmler order: under no circumstances were the prisoners to fall into enemy hands.
Several key points emerge from Blatman’s detailed descriptions of these evacuations. Most important, perhaps, is the manner in which they quickly lost any semblance of a rational transfer of labor from one camp to another and instead literally became death marches. As Allied advances constricted the size of the Reich and continual air attacks disrupted the German transportation network, it became harder to send the prisoners to fewer places. A further murderous impetus resulted from the fact that most of the camps being evacuated lay in the east. The guards accompanying the marching columns, fearful of being captured by the Soviets, forced a brutal pace on the prisoners, with the result that those too frail to keep up were shot like animals, while the rest, now lacking any regular food rations, grew progressively weaker. As logjams inevitably developed, the guards increasingly saw the way out of their personal dilemma in simply shooting the prisoners and dissolving into civilian society. Nor did reaching a designated camp result in any relief for the evacuees, since most became horribly overcrowded. Confronted with nightmarish conditions, the outbreak of epidemic diseases, no hope that the situation would improve, and little guidance from the top, many camp commanders responded with murder, in some cases actually improvising gas chambers, thus mimicking the killing process used at the extermination centers.
In the second part of his book, Blatman looks specifically at the last month of the war, when the breakdown of the established order resulted in an outburst of appalling violence, most notably the massacre of a thousand prisoners at Gardelegen in mid-April 1945. These murderous spasms resulted, Blatman contends, from the broad nature of those responsible for the killings as well as the reasons for their actions. In investigating the incident at Gardelegen, he juxtaposes the rather reluctant participation of the SS camp guards and local military authorities with the much more numerous and enthusiastic involvement of local party leaders, police officials, Hitler Youth, and Volkssturm (people’s militia) members. To explain this seeming anomaly, Blatman notes the prevalence of security concerns raised by the sudden appearance in local areas of thousands of prisoners, as well as the German fear of revenge by the freed prisoners once the war was over. In addition, while not necessarily motivated by antisemitism, many average Germans had been conditioned by years of Nazi racial ideology to see the prisoners, Jews and non-Jews alike, as simply disposable. The reality, perhaps not emphasized strongly enough in his book, was that violence and brutality had become the norm long before the death marches.
In addition, mirroring a similar process in the east, local German officials interpreted vague communications from above in ways conditioned by Nazi ideology. The transition from war to peace is always dangerous, and in this case it was made more so by local officials who remained faithful to the Nazi system and willing to act in its defense. With the victims of the death marches defined as security and racial threats, the logic of the system pointed to murder. In the chaos at war’s end, the most radical acted and the remainder went along. While Blatman does note numerous instances of German civilians providing aid to Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners alike, most simply lapsed into dull resignation. For Nazi officials, whether at the top or bottom of the system, the default position was murder of the regime’s putative enemies. By tying the death marches to earlier Nazi genocidal actions, Blatman has provided a necessary corrective to the notion of them as a mere historical oddity at the end of a lost war, showing instead that they were irreparably tied to earlier policies of mass murder. He has also provided a vital contribution to an understanding of the dynamics at work at the end of wars, as well as the ways average citizens can become complicit in murder.
Stephen G. Fritz
East Tennessee State University