In the final months of the Third Reich, as the Allied armies approached Germany, the regime began to evacuate the 715,000 prisoners held in concentration camps. Most of the inmates were being used as forced labour for the German war economy, although under conditions deliberately engineered to weaken and eventually kill them: the Nazis even had a specific term for this, Vernichtung durch Arbeit, "annihilation through work".
Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, under whose aegis the camp administration fell, hoped to use the prisoners for work away from the encroaching front, but the SS also feared that the approach of hostile forces might encourage uprisings and mass breakouts. The evacuations began a year before the end of the war, with the transportation of prisoners from Majdanek concentration camp in Poland, which was entered by the Red Army in the summer of 1944. As the Reich came closer to collapse, the evacuations gathered pace, continuing right up to the eve of the surrender in early May 1945.
By the time the war was over, between a third and a half of the 715,000 were dead. Many, left behind in the camps to assist with the clearing up and where possible destruction and concealment of the facilities, had been shot on completing their task. Others died after liberation, too weak, ill or emaciated to survive.
But at least 250,000 perished in the course of the evacuations, which were carried out hastily in unheated and unprovisioned cattle trucks, on lorries and horse-drawn wagons, or most commonly on foot. SS guards shot stragglers or beat them to death if they were unable to keep up with the others, while large numbers of prisoners died of starvation and hypothermia in the bitter winter conditions with which the great majority had to contend.
As the Reich descended into chaos, the guards sometimes had to halt the marches and double back, their way blocked by enemy troops; often lacking clear instructions, they frequently had little idea of where they were going. Some of the columns of prisoners stretched back for miles, competing for space on the clogged roads with fleeing Germans, retreating army supply convoys, and army and police units redeploying to new locations behind the front.
Even where they did arrive at their destination, they reached only further death and destruction. The camp at Bergen-Belsen, for instance, the conditions of which so shocked British troops and journalists when they discovered it, contained 44,000 inmates when it was liberated on 15 April 1945, where at the end of 1944 there had only been 15,000; without water, supplies or sanitation, and plagued by a virulent outbreak of typhus, the prisoners were dying like flies. Small wonder, then, that the evacuations became merely another way of killing prisoners rather than a programme of relocating them to help the Nazi war economy.
Until recently there has been surprisingly little research on these "death marches", despite their horrendous toll of human death and suffering. In the late 1990s, the controversial book by the young American political scientist Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, was the first to cover the marches in detail.
Goldhagen supplied graphic and moving accounts of a number of them, complete with maps illustrating in many cases their aimlessness and absence of clear direction, and linked this to an argument that portrayed them as the final stage in the Holocaust, the Nazi extermination of Europe's Jews.
But while there were many Jews on the marches, in a number of cases singled out for especially violent and murderous treatment by the SS guards or even on occasion by other prisoners, they were far from the only ethnic or religious group among the prisoners, and in many marches they formed a minority.
This impressive and comprehensive account of the death marches by the Israeli historian Daniel Blatman, drawing on a decade or more of research in more than 20 archives in eight countries, makes it clear that the marching prisoners were drawn from all the groups that were victims of Nazi terror and all those who had fought against Germany during the war, including not only large numbers of Russians, Poles and Ukrainians but also Americans, Norwegians, Britons and Arabs. The religious composition of the columns was just as heterogeneous, with Catholics and Protestants marching side by side with Jews, Muslims and Jehovah's Witnesses.
Blatman argues cogently that, despite their ethnic heterogeneity, the death marches constituted a final act of genocide by the Nazi regime because, with relatively rare exceptions, the guards made no distinctions of category among the prisoners. There was no plan to exterminate these prisoners; massacres and shootings were decided on at a local, even on an individual, basis. The SS guards killed them not out of genocidal rage but for what they conceived of as practical reasons.
Guiding their decisions was, however, a genocidal mentality that had taken hold of them over the previous months and years, and expressed itself in the camps themselves as well as in Nazism's previous history of murder. The prisoners were regarded collectively not just as racially inferior but also as a huge potential threat to the German civilian population and the order and stability of the Reich, or what was left of it by 1944.
As Blatman points out, tens of thousands of American and British prisoners of war were also evacuated from their camps, often marching along the same roads as the concentration camp evacuees, but they were not massacred or shot, and the vast majority of them survived. They were not in the end seen, as the concentration camp prisoners were, as a dangerous and racially inferior group of people who did not deserve to live.
In some of the most shocking and disturbing passages in this book, Blatman shows how this view of the prisoners was shared by many ordinary German civilians in the areas through which the death marches passed. A few tried to feed, help or even rescue prisoners. But many civilians actually took part in the massacres perpetrated by the guards or helped hunt down prisoners who had escaped from the marches, shooting them when they finally ran them to ground.
Some were fanaticised members of the Hitler Youth, others paramilitaries who thought it their duty to help maintain such order as there was. But many were ordinary civilians, driven by fear and panic as the enemy armies neared, and fired up by rumours of theft, rape and murder carried out by the prisoners, perhaps transferring to them the atrocity stories being pumped out by Josef Goebbels' propaganda machine about the invading Red Army - stories that although not far from the truth had no real application at all to the miserable, bedraggled columns of starving, disease-ridden prisoners stumbling through Germany's towns and villages in the early months of 1945.
One of the many impressive things about this book is the author's determination to offer a rational explanation of the motives that drove so many to participate in this final phase of Nazi genocide. It is one of many ways in which Blatman forces us to reconsider our views of the last phase of the war, the changing dynamics of the Nazi regime, the attitude towards it of ordinary Germans, and indeed the nature and causes of genocide itself.
This is a masterly work of lasting value whose importance far transcends that of the research, itself remarkable, that it presents. It is essential reading for anyone concerned with Nazism, the Holocaust, or genocide in general.
Daniel Blatman was born in Tel Aviv and studied history at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
With Eastern European roots, and Holocaust survivors among his family, Blatman decided to continue his education and to make Holocaust and genocide studies his field of research. He pursued a PhD in contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University and taught in institutions including Georgetown University in Washington DC, the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris and the Jagiellonian University in Kraków.
In 2005-06 he was the Charles H. Revson Foundation Fellow at the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum and in 2009 was elected head of the Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University.
The recipient of the Jakob Buchman Prize for the Memory of the Holocaust and the Pridan Prize for Studies in East European Jewish History, he was awarded a four-year grant from the Israel Science Foundation to conduct research on the death marches.
Blatman's wife, also an academic, is French, and they spend a significant part of the year in France.
The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide
By Daniel Blatman, translated by Chaya Galai
Belknap Press/Harvard University Press, 592pp, £24.95
Published January 2011