The Death Marches: The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide

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Overview

From January 1945, in the last months of the Third Reich, about 250,000 inmates of concentration camps perished on death marches and in countless incidents of mass slaughter. They were murdered with merciless brutality by their SS guards, by army and police units, and often by gangs of civilians as they passed through German and Austrian towns and villages. Even in the bloody annals of the Nazi regime, this final death blow was unique in character and scope.

In this first comprehensive attempt to answer the questions raised by this final murderous rampage, the author draws on the testimonies of victims, perpetrators, and bystanders. Hunting through archives throughout the world, Daniel Blatman sets out to explain—to the extent that is possible—the effort invested by mankind’s most lethal regime in liquidating the remnants of the enemies of the “Aryan race” before it abandoned the stage of history. What were the characteristics of this last Nazi genocide? How was it linked to the earlier stages, the slaughter of millions in concentration camps? How did the prevailing chaos help to create the conditions that made the final murderous rampage possible?

In its exploration of a topic nearly neglected in the current history of the Shoah, this book offers unusual insight into the workings, and the unraveling, of the Nazi regime. It combines micro-historical accounts of representative massacres with an overall analysis of the collapse of the Third Reich, helping us to understand a seemingly inexplicable chapter in history.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Blatman's searing account of the last days of the Holocaust focuses on the forced marches designed to keep prisoners of the Nazi regime from liberation by the Allies. The narrative traces the history of the concentration camps from Dachau in 1933 to the evacuation of such camps as Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, and Mauthausen in 1945. Desperate to hide their crimes and to liquidate the remaining Jews, Gypsies, and political prisoners as well as large numbers of Slavs , Nazi bureaucrats and ordinary German soldiers and citizens became murderers. Particularly disturbing is the description of the massacre at Gardelegen on April 13, 1945, where hundreds of prisoners were shot or burned alive by a mixed force of Volkssturm militiamen, Luftwaffe recruits, army soldiers, and members of the S.S. The local official responsible for the atrocity, Gerhard Thiele, was a minor Nazi Party functionary who eluded justice after the war. In this litany of horror, Blatman, a professor of Jewish history at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, describes the evil that bland bureaucrats can generate. 12 b&w illus.; 5 maps. (Jan.)
Haaretz

Blatman's is a pathbreaking book on an issue that in effect has not been the subject of any serious research in any language. The writer examines the death marches, on foot and in open railway cars, in the harsh winter of the final year of World War II, based on huge quantities of documentary material in a large number of languages. Blatman's conclusions are controversial, because he claims that this entire German initiative was in itself genocide, separate from and preceded by the Holocaust. The marches' victims included not only Jews, although we can reasonably assume that they were the majority, though not a large majority. The book contributes a great deal to our understanding of the marches, the war, and everything related to the Holocaust.
— Yehuda Bauer

Wall Street Journal

[An] admirable new book...Blatman convincingly demonstrates that the spirit of genocide that Germans had brought with them to Eastern Europe had returned, by the end of the war, to the German heartland itself...Blatman chronicles, authoritatively, an important chapter in the history of Nazi Germany. But because the death marches and associated massacres do not fit our presumptions about genocide, his important book opens again the crucial question of the 20th century: why we kill.
— Timothy Snyder

Times Higher Education

[An] impressive and comprehensive account of the death marches...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.
— Richard J. Evans

The Australian

As Nazi control contracted in the last months of World War II, the determination of German soldiers and civil servants to slaughter inmates of the concentration camps did not diminish. This meticulously researched study details the way they kept killing after the war was obviously lost. As Allied, especially Soviet, soldiers advanced into Germany, ideologically motivated murderers were joined by people who believed the starving columns of prisoners stumbling through their communities were a threat that justified wholesale slaughter. This is a significant contribution to the scholarship of genocide, demonstrating how brutes killed to the end and how they were joined by men with no record of racist violence when the Nazi cause was obviously lost.
— Stephen Matchett

Jewish Book World

[This is] the first comprehensive analysis of this final but no less deadly Nazi assault against Jews and other persecuted and incarcerated groups. Drawing on vast archival materials from across Europe and the testimonies of those who led, those who witnessed, and those who suffered under the marches, Blatman seeks to understand why the Nazis perpetrated these deadly evacuations of prisoners in the waning days of the war, and how they fit into the broader genocidal objectives of the era. Far from seeing the evacuations as merely a tragic footnote in the chaotic last days of the Nazi regime, Blatman argues that the marches constituted their own distinct phase of genocide. In so doing he raises the provocative questions about Nazi ideology, the concentration camp system from which the marches emerged, and the varied means and mechanisms of genocide.

Times Literary Supplement

Though some historians have treated the "death marches" as the last chapter of the Final Solution, Blatman himself subtitles his book "The final phase of Nazi genocide." One main thrust of this important book is to situate the "death marches" more broadly as the last chapter of the Nazi concentration camp system. One of Blatman's most important contributions is to make historical sense out of an increasingly chaotic situation, to provide structure and order to his narrative of a multifaceted and fragmented phenomenon...Blatman's book allows us to clarify the relationship between the fate of the Jews and the death marches more sharply than before...The Holocaust (understood as the Jewish experience of persecution from 1933 to 1945), the Final Solution (understood as the conscious Nazi attempt to murder every last Jew in their grasp), and the death marches certainly overlapped in terms of Jewish victims' and Nazi perpetrators, but it is the great merit of Daniel Blatman's book—in both its massive empirical base and analytical framework—that these necessary distinctions for historical clarity can now be made.
— Christopher R. Browning

Choice

An important contribution to understanding the Nazi regime and the Holocaust.
— H. P. Langerbein

History Today

Blatman's book is to be welcomed, not least as the subject of the death marches has rarely featured in the long historiography of the Third Reich. He sets out not only to explain and contextualise, but also to correct a few misconceptions...The Death Marches is an excellent history. Blatman has researched assiduously, using trial records and survivor testimonies. He presents his research in a very accessible way. He is scrupulously even-handed, giving due credit to those Polish, Czech and German civilians who gave succour to the unfortunates, as well as highlighting the actions of those who did not. In particular Blatman deserves praise for providing a highly nuanced interpretation of events: one that avoids the assumption that the death marches simply constituted the final stage of the Holocaust. The gruesome chapter that he outlines was clearly in large part the result of the mentality and the practices that had brought about the genocide against the Jews. Yet by 1945 the murders surrounding the death marches formed part of a much wider phenomenon—no less brutal and scarcely less exterminatory—but one in which Jews were no longer the primary victims.
— Roger Moorhouse

Wall Street Journal
[An] admirable new book...Blatman convincingly demonstrates that the spirit of genocide that Germans had brought with them to Eastern Europe had returned, by the end of the war, to the German heartland itself...Blatman chronicles, authoritatively, an important chapter in the history of Nazi Germany. But because the death marches and associated massacres do not fit our presumptions about genocide, his important book opens again the crucial question of the 20th century: why we kill.
— Timothy Snyder
Times Higher Education
[An] impressive and comprehensive account of the death marches...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.
— Richard J. Evans
Times Literary Supplement
Though some historians have treated the "death marches" as the last chapter of the Final Solution, Blatman himself subtitles his book "The final phase of Nazi genocide." One main thrust of this important book is to situate the "death marches" more broadly as the last chapter of the Nazi concentration camp system. One of Blatman's most important contributions is to make historical sense out of an increasingly chaotic situation, to provide structure and order to his narrative of a multifaceted and fragmented phenomenon...Blatman's book allows us to clarify the relationship between the fate of the Jews and the death marches more sharply than before...The Holocaust (understood as the Jewish experience of persecution from 1933 to 1945), the Final Solution (understood as the conscious Nazi attempt to murder every last Jew in their grasp), and the death marches certainly overlapped in terms of Jewish victims' and Nazi perpetrators, but it is the great merit of Daniel Blatman's book--in both its massive empirical base and analytical framework--that these necessary distinctions for historical clarity can now be made.
— Christopher R. Browning
The Australian
As Nazi control contracted in the last months of World War II, the determination of German soldiers and civil servants to slaughter inmates of the concentration camps did not diminish. This meticulously researched study details the way they kept killing after the war was obviously lost. As Allied, especially Soviet, soldiers advanced into Germany, ideologically motivated murderers were joined by people who believed the starving columns of prisoners stumbling through their communities were a threat that justified wholesale slaughter. This is a significant contribution to the scholarship of genocide, demonstrating how brutes killed to the end and how they were joined by men with no record of racist violence when the Nazi cause was obviously lost.
— Stephen Matchett
Jewish Book World
[This is] the first comprehensive analysis of this final but no less deadly Nazi assault against Jews and other persecuted and incarcerated groups. Drawing on vast archival materials from across Europe and the testimonies of those who led, those who witnessed, and those who suffered under the marches, Blatman seeks to understand why the Nazis perpetrated these deadly evacuations of prisoners in the waning days of the war, and how they fit into the broader genocidal objectives of the era. Far from seeing the evacuations as merely a tragic footnote in the chaotic last days of the Nazi regime, Blatman argues that the marches constituted their own distinct phase of genocide. In so doing he raises the provocative questions about Nazi ideology, the concentration camp system from which the marches emerged, and the varied means and mechanisms of genocide.
Haaretz
Blatman's is a pathbreaking book on an issue that in effect has not been the subject of any serious research in any language. The writer examines the death marches, on foot and in open railway cars, in the harsh winter of the final year of World War II, based on huge quantities of documentary material in a large number of languages. Blatman's conclusions are controversial, because he claims that this entire German initiative was in itself genocide, separate from and preceded by the Holocaust. The marches' victims included not only Jews, although we can reasonably assume that they were the majority, though not a large majority. The book contributes a great deal to our understanding of the marches, the war, and everything related to the Holocaust.
— Yehuda Bauer
Library Journal
During the last months of World War II, hundreds of thousands of concentration and extermination camp inmates were forced to march from Eastern Europe to Germany in what Blatman (Jewish history, Hebrew Univ. of Jerusalem) argues was the last stage of Nazi genocidal activity. The author demonstrates that conflicting lines of authority, ambiguous orders, and administrative chaos shaped the decisions to evacuate prisoners from the camps as the Soviet army advanced. Interestingly, there were few explicit orders to murder prisoners; when it happened, it was often done either by local Nazis or was done on local initiative. While professional killers ran the death camps and focused on Jews, the death marches marked the point where many non-Jews were killed by a cross section of German society including the Volkssturm (German national militia), soldiers, and civilians. VERDICT Blatman's assertion, not shared by all historians, that the death marches must be seen as the logical result of Nazi policies helps place the story of concentration camps more firmly into the history of the Holocaust. This is not for beginners, but it's an important read for specialists and students of modern genocide.—Frederic Krome, Univ. of Cincinnati Clermont Coll.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674050495
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 1/3/2011
  • Edition description: Translatio
  • Pages: 592
  • Product dimensions: 6.98 (w) x 11.32 (h) x 1.42 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Blatman is Professor of Jewish History and Head of the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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