On January 18, 1945, only nine days before Soviet troops liberated Auschwitz, SS troops began the final evacuation of prisoners from Auschwitz. This forced evacuation included marching approximately 60,000 prisoners form the Auschwitz camp complex to either Gliwice (located 30 miles northwest) or Wodzislaw (located 35 miles west). Along the way, the Auschwitz prisoners were joined by prisoners from subcamps of Auschwitz, such as Bismarckhuette, Althammer, Jawischowitz, and Tschechowitz. During these marches, prisoners had no access to food or water and were inadequately clothed for the extremely harsh winter weather. Those prisoners who could no longer walk or keep up with the pace of the march were shot by SS guards and left for dead. It is estimated that as many as 15,000 prisoners died from starvation, exhaustion, exposure, and execution during the evacuation from Auschwitz and its subcamps.
Forced marches such as these came to be known as “death marches,” a term that was most likely coined by the prisoners because of the unbearable conditions and death toll. Once the prisoners from Auschwitz and its subcamps arrived at Gliwice and Wodzislaw, they were loaded onto freight trains and sent to concentration camps in Germany, such as Flossenburg, Gross-Rosen, Dachau, and Buchenwald. Travel to these camps took several days, and without food or water, many prisoners died en route.
Death marches were conducted primarily toward the end of World War II as Soviet troops advanced further into Reich territory from the east and US troops closed in on Germany from the west. Death marches occurred from a number of concentration camps in all areas of the Reich, and each death march was uniquely horrific. Surviving a death march was extremely difficult and few prisoners were able to withstand the horrid conditions. Though citizens of the towns and villages through which the prisoners marched saw the death marches as they occurred, very few offered the prisoners help.
There were several reasons why SS authorities evacuated the concentration camps and sent the prisoners on death marches. SS authorities did not have sufficient time to evacuate and dismantle Majdanek, the first major concentration camp to be liberated, before Soviet troops entered the camp on July 24, 1944. As news of the atrocities committed at Majdanek spread, and as German military defeat became increasingly imminent, Nazi officials ordered the evacuation of all concentration camps in an attempt to hide the inhumane conditions and the atrocities committed at these other camps. Death marches also served as a way to dodge Allied troops and to allow the Third Reich to preserve its prisoners, especially those who could make armaments for the German military. This is why not all prisoners were executed during the liquidation of the camps. By forcing prisoners to remain in German-controlled areas, the Third Reich could continue to survive, even if Germany was being defeated on both fronts. Lastly, some SS leaders erroneously believed that they could use Jewish prisoners as political bargaining chips with Allied powers in an effort to save the Nazi party.
Death marches exemplify how closely the Holocaust and the war were intertwined. The “Final Solution” was an integral part of Germany’s war efforts, and the evacuation of the concentration camps signaled the looming defeat of Nazi Germany, both militarily and ideologically. The death marches were a final form of a torture for Jewish and non-Jewish prisoners and a last effort to keep the Third Reich alive.
When discussing the death marches with your students, consider the reasons why SS officials ordered these marches. What purpose did they serve? Why did they commence in 1944? Why were the prisoners marched toward destinations in Germany? What do the death marches indicate about the progress of the war? How did citizens of the towns and villages through which the prisoners marched react to the marches?