The Death March­es: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide

Daniel Blat­man; Chaya Galai, trans.
  • Review
By – September 1, 2011
In his com­mand­ing new work, Daniel Blat­man, pro­fes­sor of Jew­ish his­to­ry and head of the Avra­ham Hart­man Insti­tute of Con­tem­po­rary Jew­ry at the Hebrew Uni­ver­si­ty of Jerusalem, describes in vivid detail the mur­der­ous evac­u­a­tions west­ward, ordered by SS Chief Hein­rich Himm­ler, of more than a quar­ter of a mil­lion Ger­man con­cen­tra­tion camp inmates and slave labor­ers. The march­es began in Jan­u­ary 1945 and con­tin­ued until ear­ly May, when the Ger­man High Com­mand sur­ren­dered to the British, Amer­i­can, and Russ­ian forces uncon­di­tion­al­ly. The pris­on­ers includ­ed not just Hun­gar­i­an and Pol­ish Jews but also Sovi­et POW’s, French, Pol­ish, and Dutch resis­tance fight­ers and anti-Nazi Ger­mans, among oth­ers.

The work views the death march­es not only as part of the his­to­ry of the con­cen­tra­tion camps or as the con­clud­ing chap­ters of the Final Solu­tion, but main­ly as the last peri­od of Nazi geno­ci­dal activ­i­ty.

Blat­man has orga­nized his mate­r­i­al into two parts. The first is devot­ed to polit­i­cal and sys­tem­at­ic his­to­ry of the peri­od of the death march­es.” This part exam­ines how the con­cen­tra­tion camp sys­tem, deten­tion facil­i­ties, and labor camps reached the evac­u­a­tion stage and how the evac­u­a­tions turned into lethal death march­es.”

The sec­ond part stud­ies the death march­es as social his­to­ry as viewed from below. Here, Blat­man destroys the myth that grew up in Ger­many after the war that the death march­es were the work of the SS. On the con­trary, uti­liz­ing data from twen­ty archives in six coun­tries Blat­man iden­ti­fies the addi­tion­al mur­der­ers: mid­dle age Volkssturm (mili­tia) men, Hitler Youth (HJ), some as young as age fif­teen, reg­u­lar air force and army per­son­nel, farm­ers and shop clerks, all eager to defend their fam­i­lies, homes, and home­land (heimat) from what they envi­sioned as dan­ger­ous ele­ments eager to seek revenge.

The dis­tin­guished Cana­di­an his­to­ri­an Michael Mar­rus is at his best when he describes this book as a strik­ing­ly orig­i­nal work that breaks impor­tant new ground on the mur­der­ous evacuations…of a quar­ter of a mil­lion prisoners.”

Carl J. Rheins was the exec­u­tive direc­tor emer­i­tus of the YIVO Insti­tute for Jew­ish Research. He received his Ph.D. in Mod­ern Euro­pean His­to­ry from the State Uni­ver­si­ty of New York at Stony Brook and taught cours­es on the Holo­caust at sev­er­al major universities.

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