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.

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

Dachau prisoners Courtesy of Yad Vashem
Courtesy of Yad Vashem

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.

For further reading:

A conversation with Dan Michman
Holocaust / No job for innocents
Evil in the mirror

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.

Of course, the death marches cannot and should not be seen as completely distinct from the earlier chapters of the Nazi-German genocide. Nonetheless, it was a new phase. According to Blatman, it was a special case of genocidal massacre, based on what he calls a local extermination community composed of SS men, police, local party members, members of the Hitler Youth and local citizens. One of the characteristics of this genocide was its complete decentralization. Blatman finds that in all the years the Germans carried out genocide, such broad authority had never been left in the hands of so many individuals who were allowed to decide for themselves whether or not to carry out murder.

The marches were a very nihilistic and random stage of the genocide, to the point that they were conducted without any explicit guidelines from superior forces, and sometimes even in violation of such orders. Those responsible for the genocide, led by Himmler, did not forbid murder on the marches, but also did not demand it.

Sovereign power

Blatman’s conclusions are significant and radical not only in relation to the history of the Holocaust and the Third Reich, but also to the history of 20th-century genocide and totalitarian regimes in general. First of all, Blatman has identified and examined a test case in the repertoire of modern genocidal horrors. Rewriting the last chapter of the Nazi genocide makes it possible to engage anew with the entire process from its beginnings − with the role of ideology and intention, and with issues such as the Nazi-German motivation for murder, the significance of bureaucracy, the level of popular cooperation in the project of extermination and the potential breadth of genocide. Blatman’s book deals, in effect, with the configuration of totalitarian regimes, their mechanisms and, mainly, with the way they collapse.

Many of the most recent generation of Holocaust and genocide scholars, following on the writings of Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben and inspired by the jurist Carl Schmitt ‏(a Nazi, it must be said‏), seek to write the history of modern regimes, especially the Nazi one, using the concept of state of emergency. Their starting assumption is Schmitt’s idea that the sovereign power determines the exceptions. In other words, the strength of the sovereign ruler is not in creating, maintaining and enforcing the law, but rather in suspending it, in states of emergency. So it was, of course, in the case of the Nazi suspension of laws in the state of emergency declared in 1933. Scholars have described the concentration camps as the architectonic expression of a permanent state of emergency, a fenced expanse that exists outside the law ‏(as opposed to prisons‏), and to which people who have not broken any laws or been tried under the law have been sent. The camp is not a place for convicts, but for those detained in so-called “defense,” in “preventive detention.”

In light of Daniel Blatman’s research, it appears that the camps were not a final phase in the history of a state of emergency. After all, in the end, the camps are characterized by their own logic and their own rules, as distorted as they may be. According to this logic, the Slavs should be forced to work in order to exploit their labor power and Jews should be killed because they were born. The attempt to determine which was worse − the camp or the death march − is purely academic, of course. And yet, it seems that death marches represent the full realization of the state of emergency − the murder of human beings simply because they are perceived as dangerous. In other words, if anything was possible in the camps, anything was permitted on the death marches.

Dr. Boaz Neumann is a scholar of German history at Tel Aviv University. His book, “Re’at Haolam Hanazit: Merhav, Guf, Safa” ‏(Nazi Weltanschauung - Space, Body, Language‏) was published in 2002 by the University of Haifa/Sifriat Maariv. A German edition is forthcoming this year from Wallstein Verlag.