T O P I C
STORY OF THE JEWISH PEOPLE
THE SS AND THE CAMP SYSTEM
In 1933-1934, SS chief Himmler secured SS control over a centralized concentration camp system.
Throughout Germany, various civilian authorities and police agencies had established concentration camps during 1933 to incarcerate political enemies of the Nazi government. Impressed with the Dachau concentration camp established by the SS in March 1933, Hitler authorized Himmler to centralize these camps under SS leadership. Himmler established (in the SS Main Office) an SS Inspectorate of Concentration Camps under the leadership of Dachau camp commandant and SS General Theodor Eicke.
After 1934, SS officers commanded all concentration camps in Germany and in German-occupied territory. Units known as SS Death's-Head Units (SS-Totenkopfverbände) guarded and administered the camps. Although the Security Police (Gestapo and Kripo) had exclusive authority to incarcerate, release, and “officially” order the execution of prisoners, the daily life of prisoners lay in the brutal and merciless hands of the camp commandants and these SS Death's-Head Units, which were not part of the police forces.
In 1937, there were only four concentration camps in Germany; by 1944, there were approximately 30 main camps and hundreds of subcamps located throughout the Greater German Reich and German-occupied Europe.
Before 1938, the vast majority of concentration camp prisoners were political opponents of the Nazi regime with minorities of Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, repeat criminal offenders and so-called asocials. Roma and Sinti were often classified as “criminals” and/or “asocials.”
Although in reality most Roma and Sinti in Germany were settled and somewhat integrated into German society, the SS and police saw them in terms of traditional negative stereotypes of Gypsies as petty criminals and persons who engaged in anti-social behavior. Likewise, with the drastic expansion of police enforcement of laws criminalizing real and perceived homosexual acts between consenting adults, homosexuals in the camps were frequently classified as “criminals” and “asocials.”
Despite their presence in numbers vastly out of proportion to their percentage in the German population, Jews remained a minority among the prisoners prior to 1938. In most cases, Gestapo or Kripo officials incarcerated Jews in the camps because they had been activists in the Social Democratic, Communist, or liberal democratic parties, had been visible opponents of the Nazi party or specific Nazi policies, or had been advocates of policies or members of organizations that the Nazis found to be “hostile to the state and the race.” Examples of such were membership in pro-democratic Masonic lodges, activism in organizations dedicated to pacifism or international peace and understanding, or advocacy for rights for national minorities or homosexuals.
With German expansion in 1938, the availability of prisoners for forced labor in the concentration camp system took on added significance. The SS was determined that the Thousand-Year Reich would be ruled by its self-selected, “racially pure” elite. To ensure this development, its leaders invested significant financial and human resources in planning for the construction of the German settlements in Poland and the Soviet Union in accordance with their visions of permanent German rule. As early as the mid-1930s, the SS leaders of the concentration camps and the chief of the SS Administration Main Office (SS-Verwaltungshauptamt), SS General Oswald Pohl, recognized the potential of concentration camp prisoners as forced laborers to produce construction materials, and eventually to do the manual labor to build and maintain these settlements.
At this time, the SS founded a number of companies, such as the German Earth and Stone Works (Deutsche Erd- und Steinwerke; DESt) and the German Equipment Works (Deutsche Ausrüstungswerke; DAW) to produce construction materials and equipment for the SS. The Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Flossenbürg (1938), and Mauthausen (1938) concentration camp sites were chosen precisely because of their proximity to soil suitable for making bricks, to a brickworks factory, or to stone quarries. In 1938, the Criminal Police initiated two massive roundups of so-called “work-shy” and asocial individuals, in part to increase the concentration camp population available for forced labor. Among the so-called work-shy and asocials whom the Kripo incarcerated were Roma and Sinti (Gypsies).
In the first three years of the war, the SS leaders expanded the concentration camp system not merely to detain the tens of thousands of new political prisoners of non-German nationality who chose to resist German occupation policies, but also to increase the pool of forced laborers available for the settlements that the SS planned to construct now that Poland and the western Soviet Union were in German hands. SS leaders reached decisions to construct new gigantic concentration camps at Auschwitz-Birkenau and Lublin-Majdanek (1941-1942) based on expectations of thousands of Soviet prisoners of war who would be available for forced labor (1941) and, later, on tens of thousands of Jewish forced laborers (January-March 1942).
After spring 1942, the overwhelming majority of prisoners in both Auschwitz and Majdanek (until November 1943) were Jews. In April 1942, Auschwitz Birkenau took on a double function as a killing center. Until November 1943, Lublin-Majdanek served primarily as a forced-labor camp for Jews within the framework of Operation “Reinhard. Majdanek also served the SS from time to time as a killing site, where the SS and police killed Jews under Operation “Reinhard.”
In winter 1942, it became clear that Germany would be engaged in a long war and that labor needs for German war production could not be met even by the deportation of millions of civilian forced laborers from occupied Poland and the occupied Soviet Union. After this time, the leadership of the SS administration and the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps deployed concentration camp labor, at a profit, in accordance with contracts signed by German military and civilian agencies and private firms producing armaments, related war materials (e.g. uniforms), and construction materials to repair or replace facilities destroyed by Allied bombing. To facilitate this process, Himmler incorporated the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, now led by SS General Richard Glücks, with the SS Economic-Administration Main Office (SS-Wirtschafts-Verwaltungshauptamt-WVHA) under Pohl in March 1942.
Henceforth, the concentration camps and their prisoners, the SS-owned companies, and the administrative offices of the SS were all together in one agency. Under the auspices of the WVHA, the number of subcamps multiplied into the hundreds and even thousands. Enterprises using concentration camp labor ranged from large state combines like the Hermann-Göring-Werke and large, private corporate conglomerates like the I.G. Farben chemical combine to small private firms like Oskar Schindler's German Enamelware Factory (Deutsche Emalwarenfabrik) in Krakow, Poland.
During World War II, SS camp authorities would kill around two million prisoners—Jews, political prisoners, Roma (Gypsies), so-called asocials, recidivist convicts, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses and others—in the concentration camp system.
LIST OF NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS
This article presents a partial list of the most prominent Nazi concentration camps and extermination camps set up across Europe before and during the course of World War II and the Holocaust. A more complete list drawn up in 1967 by the German Ministry of Justice names about 1,200 camps and subcamps in countries occupied by Germany, while the Jewish Virtual Library writes: "It is estimated that the Germans established 15,000 camps in the occupied countries." Some of the data presented in this table originates from the monograph titled The War Against the Jews by Lucy Dawidowicz among similar others.
In 1933–1939, before the onset of war, most prisoners consisted of German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, Roma, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, and persons accused of 'asocial' or socially 'deviant' behavior by the Germans. They were not utilized to sustain the German war effort.
Although the term 'concentration camp' is often used as a general term for all German camps during World War II, there were in fact several types of concentration camps in the German camp system. Holocaust scholars make a clear distinction between death camps and concentration camps which served a number of war related purposes including prison facilities, labor camps, prisoner of war camps, and transit camps among others.
Concentration camps served primarily as detention and slave labor exploitation centers. An estimated 15 to 20 million people were imprisoned in 42,500 camps and ghettos, and often pressed into slavery during the subsequent years, according to research by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum conducted more recently. The system of about 20,000 concentration camps in Germany and German-occupied Europe played a pivotal role in economically sustaining the German reign of terror. Most of them were destroyed by the Germans in an attempt to hide the evidence of war crimes and crimes against humanity; nevertheless tens of thousands of prisoners sent on death marches were liberated by the Allies afterward.
Extermination camps were designed and built exclusively to kill prisoners on a massive scale, often immediately upon arrival. The extermination camps of Operation Reinhard such as Bełżec, Sobibór and Treblinka served as "death factories" in which German SS and police murdered nearly 2,700,000 Jews by asphyxiation with poison gas, shooting, and extreme work under starvation conditions.
The concentration camps held large groups of prisoners without trial or judicial process. In modern historiography, the term refers to a place of systemic mistreatment, starvation, forced labour and murder.
Statistical and numerical data presented in the table below originates from a wide variety of publications and therefore does not constitute a representative sample of the total.
The table has the following column headings
Dates of Use
TYPES OF CAMP
The Nazi concentration camps have been divided by historians into several major categories based on purpose, administrative structure, and inmate population profile.The system of camps preceded the onset of World War II by several years and was developed gradually.
Although none of the categories are independent, many camps could be classified as a mixture of several of the above. All camps had some of the elements of an extermination camp, but systematic extermination of new arrivals by gas chambers only occurred in specialized camps. These were extermination camps, where all new-arrivals were simply killed – the "Aktion Reinhard" camps (Treblinka, Sobibór and Belzec), together with Chelmno. Two others (Auschwitz and Majdanek) were combined concentration and extermination camps. Others like Maly Trostenets were at times classified as "minor extermination camps".
(Editor’s Note: The reason people gave after the concentration camp system was discovered at the end of WW2 was ‘disbelief in believing that anything so terrible could happen. Anything they heard had been made up.’
See Jan Karski in Wikipedia)
CONCENTRATION CAMPS 1933 - 1938
During the Nazi regime, thousands of Germans were detained or confined. The conditions were usually harsh and there was no regard to the legal norms of arrest and imprisonment of a constitutional democracy.
Concentration camps (Konzentrationslager; abbreviated as KL or KZ) were an integral feature of the regime in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1945.
The term concentration camp refers to a camp in which people are detained or confined, usually under harsh conditions and without regard to legal norms of arrest and imprisonment that are acceptable in a constitutional democracy.
The First Concentration Camps in Germany
The first concentration camps in Germany were established soon after Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933. In the weeks after the Nazis came to power, The SA (Sturmabteilungen; commonly known as Storm Troopers), the SS (Schutzstaffel; Protection Squadrons—the elite guard of the Nazi party), the police, and local civilian authorities organized numerous detention camps to incarcerate real and perceived political opponents of Nazi policy.
German authorities established camps all over Germany on an ad hoc basis to handle the masses of people arrested as alleged subversives. The SS established larger camps in Oranienburg, north of Berlin; Esterwegen, near Hamburg; Dachau, northwest of Munich; and Lichtenburg, in Saxony. In Berlin itself, the Columbia Haus facility held prisoners under investigation by the Gestapo (the German secret state police) until 1936.
Centralization of the Concentration Camp System
The SS gained its independence from the SA in July 1934, in the wake of the Röhm purge. Hitler then authorized SS leader Heinrich Himmler to centralize the administration of the concentration camps and formalize them into a system. Himmler chose SS Lieutenant General Theodor Eicke for this task. Eicke had been the commandant of the SS concentration camp at Dachau since June 1933. Himmler appointed him Inspector of Concentration Camps, a new section of the SS subordinate to the SS Main Office.
After December 1934, the SS became the only agency authorized to establish and manage facilities that were formally called concentration camps. Local civilian authorities did continue to establish and manage forced-labor camps and detention camps throughout Germany. In 1937, only four concentration camps were left: Dachau, near Munich; Sachsenhausen near Berlin; Buchenwald near Weimar; and Lichtenburg near Merseburg in Saxony for female prisoners.
Purposes of the Camp System
Concentration camps are often inaccurately compared to a prison in modern society. But concentration camps, unlike prisons, were independent of any judicial review. Nazi concentration camps served three main purposes:
Concentration Camp Administration
Already as commandant of Dachau in 1933, Eicke developed an organization and procedures to administer and guard a concentration camp. He issued regulations for the duties of the perimeter guards and for treatment of the prisoners. The organization, structure, and practice developed at Dachau in 1933–34 became the model for the Nazi concentration camp system as it expanded. Among Eicke's early trainees at Dachau was Rudolf Höss, who later commanded the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Special “political units on alert” (Politische Bereitschaften) originally guarded the SS concentration camps. They were renamed “SS Guard Units” (SS-Wachverbände) in 1935 and “SS Death's-Head Units” (SS-Totenkopfverbände) in April 1936. One SS Death's-Head Unit was assigned to each concentration camp. After 1936, the camp administration, including the commandant, was also a part of the SS Death's-Head Unit.
Although all SS units wore the Death's-Head symbol (skull and crossbones) on their caps, only the SS Death's-Head Units were authorized to wear the Death's Head Symbol on their lapels. The “SS Death's-Head Division” of the Waffen SS was created in 1940. Its officers were recruited from concentration camp service. They also wore the Death's-Head symbol on their lapel.
The SS Death's-Head Unit at each camp was divided into two groups. The first was the camp staff, which covered:
The second group constituted the guard detachment (SS-Wachbataillion), which prior to 1939 was at battalion strength.
The model established by Eicke in the mid-1930s characterized the concentration camp system until the collapse of the Nazi regime in the spring of 1945. The daily routine at Dachau, the methods of punishment, and the duties of the SS staff and guards became the norm, with some variation, at all German concentration camps.
Authority to Imprison People in Concentration Camps
After 1938, authority to incarcerate persons in a concentration camp formally rested exclusively with the German Security Police (made up of the Gestapo and the Criminal Police).
The Security Police had held this exclusive authority de facto since 1936. The “legal” instrument of incarceration was either the “protective detention” (Schutzhaft) order or the “preventative detention” (Vorbeugungshaft) order. The Gestapo could issue a “protective detention” order for persons considered a political danger after 1933. The Criminal Police could issue a “preventative detention” order after December 1937 for persons considered to be habitual and professional criminals, or to be engaging in what the regime defined as “asocial” behavior. Neither order was subject to judicial review, or any review by any German agency outside of the German Security Police.
Expansion of the Camp System
Nazi Germany expanded by bloodless conquest between 1938 and 1939. The numbers of those labeled as political opponents and social deviants increased, requiring the establishment of new concentration camps.
By the time the Germans invaded Poland in September 1939, unleashing World War II, there were six concentration camps in the so-called Greater German Reich: Dachau (founded 1933), Sachsenhausen (1936), Buchenwald (1937), Flossenbürg in northeastern Bavaria near the 1937 Czech border (1938), Mauthausen, near Linz, Austria (1938), and Ravensbrück, the women's camp, established in Brandenburg Province, southeast of Berlin (1939), after the dissolution of Lichtenburg.
From as early as early as 1934, concentration camp commandants used prisoners as forced laborers for SS construction projects such as the construction or expansion of the camps themselves. By 1938, SS leaders envisioned using the supply of forced laborers incarcerated in the camps for a variety of SS-commissioned construction projects. To mobilize and finance such projects, Himmler revamped and expanded the administrative offices of the SS and created a new SS office for business operations. Both agencies were led by SS Major General Oswald Pohl, who would take over the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps in 1942.
Beginning a pattern that became typical after the war began, economic considerations had an increasing impact on the selection of sites for concentration camps after 1937. For instance, Mauthausen and Flossenbürg were located near large stone quarries. Likewise, concentration camp authorities increasingly diverted prisoners from meaningless, backbreaking labor to still backbreaking and dangerous labor in extractive industries, such as stone quarries and coal mines, and construction labor.
Concentration Camps after the Outbreak of World War II
After Nazi Germany unleashed World War II in September 1939, vast new territorial conquests and larger groups of potential prisoners led to the rapid expansion of the concentration camp system to the east. The war did not change the original function of the concentration camps as detention sites for the incarceration of political enemies. The climate of national emergency that the conflict granted to the Nazi leaders, however, permitted the SS to expand the functions of the camps.
The concentration camps increasingly became sites where the SS authorities could kill targeted groups of real or perceived enemies of Nazi Germany. They also came to serve as holding centers for a rapidly growing pool of forced laborers used for SS construction projects, SS-commissioned extractive industrial sites, and, by 1942, the production of armaments, weapons, and related goods for the German war effort.
World War II and the Holocaust
The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims - six million were murdered. Roma (Gypsies), physically and mentally disabled people and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.
Despite the need for forced labor, the SS authorities continued to deliberately undernourish and mistreat prisoners incarcerated in the concentration camps. Prisoners were used ruthlessly and without regard to safety at forced labor, resulting in high mortality rates.
CONCENTRATION CAMPS 1939 - 1942
Expansion of the Camp System
The years 1939–1942 saw a marked expansion in the concentration camp system. In 1938, SS authorities had begun to exploit the labor of concentration camp prisoners for economic profit. In September 1939, the war provided a convenient excuse to ban releases from the camps, thus providing the SS with a readily available labor force.
SS authorities established new camps in the vicinity of factories (for example, the brickworks at Neuengamme, 1940) or sites for the extraction of raw materials (such as the stone quarry at Mauthausen, 1938). The goods extracted or produced by prisoner labor were sold to the German Reich through SS-owned firms such as the German Earth and Stone Works.
Establishment of New Camps
As Germany conquered much of Europe in the years 1939–1941, the SS established a number of new concentration camps to incarcerate increased numbers of political prisoners, resistance groups, and groups deemed racially inferior, such as Jews and Roma (Gypsies). Among these new camps were:
Stutthof (1942; Stutthof had been a Gestapo Labor Education camp from 1939 to 1942.)
Majdanek (February 1943)
After the beginning of the war, the concentration camps also became sites for the mass murder of small targeted groups deemed dangerous for political or racial reasons by the Nazi authorities.
For example, several hundred Dutch Jews were rounded up in retaliation for a Dutch transit strike in protest of Nazi persecution of Jews in the Netherlands in the winter of 1941. They were sent to Mauthausen in February 1941 where within a few days, the SS staff had killed all of them. Thousands of "security suspects" released from German prisons in the autumn of 1942 were sent to concentration camps and literally worked to death under a program called "Annihilation through Work" (Vernichtung durch Arbeit). Finally, captured members of national resistance movements were sent to concentration camps to be murdered upon arrival.
During this period, the German authorities constructed gas chambers for use to kill people at several of the concentration camps. Gas chambers were constructed at Mauthausen, Sachsenhausen, Auschwitz I, and other camps. A gas chamber was constructed later at Dachau, but it was never used.
CONCENTRATION CAMPS 1942 - 1945
December 1941 saw both defeat of the German army in its attempt to take Moscow and the entry of the United States into World War II. It became clear to German authorities that Germany would have to fight a long war.
Facing growing labor shortages and the ongoing need to produce armaments, machinery, airplanes, and ships to replace German losses, the SS established more SS-owned firms. It also signed contracts with state and private firms to produce goods and provide labor for the German armaments and related industries. A famous example of cooperation between the SS and private industry was the I.G. Farben company's establishment of a synthetic rubber plant in 1942 at Auschwitz III (Monowitz).
SERVING THE GERMAN WAR EFFORT
The incarceration of increasing numbers of people in the concentration camps assured the quantity of the labor supply even as the brutality of life inside the camps depleted the number of available laborers. The SS used gas chambers and other means to "weed out" prisoners who were no longer able to work.
During 1942–1944, hundreds of subcamps were established for each concentration camp. Subcamps were located in or near factories or sites for the extraction of raw materials. For example,
Wiener Neudorf, a subcamp of Mauthausen established in 1943, was located near an airplane factory on the east side of Vienna, Austria
Sosnowitz was established in the vicinity of a coal mine as a subcamp of Auschwitz III/Monowitz
prisoners incarcerated at Dora-Mittelbau worked under brutal conditions in underground factories for the production of rockets.
Central SS authorities tried to persuade camp commandants to focus their efforts on keeping the prisoners alive to serve the German war effort. However, few of the commandants took these instructions seriously. None were concerned about changing the murderous culture of the camps.
EVACUATIONS AND MEDICAL EXPERIMENTS
During the last year of the war, as the Germans retreated into the Reich itself, the concentration camp population (Jewish and non-Jewish) suffered catastrophic losses due to starvation, exposure, disease, and mistreatment. In addition, the SS forcibly evacuated concentration camp prisoners as the front approached because the Nazis did not want the prisoners to be liberated. Under SS guard, prisoners had to march on foot during brutal winter weather without adequate food, shelter, or clothing. SS guards had orders to shoot those who could not keep up. Other prisoners were evacuated by open freight car in the dead of winter.
During this period, the concentration camps were also sites of hideous and perverted medical experiments conducted on prisoners against their will and often with lethal results. For example, in Dachau, German scientists experimented on prisoners to determine the length of time German air force personnel might survive under reduced air pressure or in frozen water. In Sachsenhausen, various experiments were conducted on prisoners to find vaccines for lethal contagious diseases. At Auschwitz III, the SS doctor Josef Mengele conducted experiments on twins to seek ways of increasing the German population by breeding families that would produce twins.
These experiments were criminal and murderous. They were also based for the most part on bogus science and racist fantasy.
In 1944–1945, the Allied armies liberated the concentration camps. Tragically, deaths in the camps continued for several weeks after liberation. Some prisoners had already become too weak to survive.
According to SS reports, there were more than 700,000 prisoners left in the camps in January 1945. It has been estimated that nearly half of the total number of concentration camp deaths between 1933 and 1945 occurred during the last year of the war.
CLASSIFICATION SYSTEM IN NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS
VICTIMS OF PERSECUTION
Among the first victims of persecution in Nazi Germany were political opponents—primarily Communists, Social Democrats, and trade unionists. Jehovah's Witnesses refused to serve in the German army or take an oath of obedience to Adolf Hitler and consequently were also targeted. The Nazis harassed German male homosexuals, whose sexual orientation was considered a hindrance to the expansion of the German population. "Habitual" homosexuals were incarcerated in prisons; many were later remanded to concentration camps following the completion of their sentences.
The Nazis persecuted those they considered to be racially inferior. Nazi racial ideology primarily vilified Jews, but also propagated hatred for Roma (Gypsies) and blacks. The Nazis viewed Jews as racial enemies and subjected them to arbitrary arrest, internment, and murder. Roma were also singled out on racial grounds for persecution. The Nazis viewed Poles and other Slavs as inferior, and slated them for subjugation, forced labor, and sometimes death. Jewish prisoners received the most brutal treatment in Nazi concentration camps.
From 1938, Jews in the camps were identified by a yellow star sewn onto their prison uniforms, a perversion of the Jewish Star of David symbol. After 1939 and with some variation from camp to camp, the categories of prisoners were easily identified by a marking system combining a colored inverted triangle with lettering. The badges sewn onto prisoner uniforms enabled SS guards to identify the alleged grounds for incarceration.
Criminals were marked with green inverted triangles, political prisoners with red, "asocials" (including Roma, nonconformists, vagrants, and other groups) with black or—in the case of Roma in some camps—brown triangles. Homosexuals were identified with pink triangles and Jehovah's Witnesses with purple ones. Non-German prisoners were identified by the first letter of the German name for their home country, which was sewn onto their badge. The two triangles forming the Jewish star badge would both be yellow unless the Jewish prisoner was included in one of the other prisoner categories. A Jewish political prisoner, for example, would be identified with a yellow triangle beneath a red triangle.
The Nazis required Jews to wear the yellow Star of David not only in the camps but throughout most of occupied Europe.
A massive Soviet 1944 summer offensive in eastern Belarus annihilated German Army Group Center and permitted Soviet forces to overrun the first of the major Nazi concentration camps, Lublin/Majdanek. Shortly after that offensive, SS chief (Reichsfuehrer SS) Heinrich Himmler ordered that prisoners in all concentration camps and subcamps be evacuated toward the interior of the Reich. Due to the rapid Soviet advance, the SS had not had time to complete the evacuation of Majdanek. Soviet and western media widely publicized SS atrocities at the camp, using both footage of the camp at liberation and interviews with some of the surviving prisoners. The evacuations of the concentration camps had three purposes:
(1) SS authorities did not want prisoners to fall into enemy hands alive to tell their stories to Allied and Soviet liberators
(2) the SS thought they needed prisoners to maintain production of armaments wherever possible
(3) some SS leaders, including Himmler, believed irrationally that they could use Jewish concentration camp prisoners as hostages to bargain for a separate peace in the west that would guarantee the survival of the Nazi regime.
In the summer and early autumn months of 1944, most of the evacuations were carried out by train or, in the case of German positions cut off in the Baltic States, by ship. As winter approached, however, and the Allies reached the German borders and assumed full control of German skies, SS authorities increasingly evacuated concentration camp prisoners from both east and west on foot.
By January 1945, the Third Reich stood on the verge of military defeat. Most of German East Prussia was already under Soviet occupation. Soviet forces besieged Warsaw, Poland, and Budapest, Hungary, as they prepared to push German forces back toward the interior of the Reich. After the failure of the surprise German Ardennes offensive in December 1944, Anglo-American forces in the west were ready to invade Germany.
The SS guards had strict orders to kill prisoners who could no longer walk or travel. As evacuations depended increasingly on forced marches and travel by open rail car or small craft in the Baltic Sea in the brutal winter of 1944-1945, the number who died of exhaustion and exposure along the routes increased dramatically. This encouraged an understandable perception among the prisoners that the Germans intended them all to die on the march. The term death march was probably coined by concentration camp prisoners.
During these death marches, the SS guards brutally mistreated the prisoners. Following their explicit orders, they shot hundreds of prisoners who collapsed or could not keep pace on the march, or who could no longer disembark from the trains or ships. Thousands of prisoners died of exposure, starvation, and exhaustion. Forced marches were especially common in late 1944 and 1945, as the SS evacuated prisoners to camps deeper within Germany. Major evacuation operations moved prisoners out of Auschwitz, Stutthof, and Gross-Rosen westward to Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen in winter 1944-1945; from Buchenwald and Flossenbürg to Dachau and Mauthausen in spring 1945; and from Sachsenhausen and Neuengamme northwards to the Baltic Sea in the last weeks of the war.
As Allied forces advanced into the heart of Germany they liberated hundreds of thousands of concentration camp prisoners. This included thousands of prisoners whom Allied and Soviet troops liberated while they marched on the forced evacuations. On April 25, 1945, Soviet forces met US forces at Torgau, on the Elbe River in central Germany. The German armed forces surrendered unconditionally in the west on May 7 and in the east on May 9, 1945. May 8, 1945, was proclaimed Victory in Europe Day (V-E Day).
To almost the last day of the war, German authorities marched prisoners to various locations in the Reich. As late as May 1, 1945, prisoners who had been evacuated from Neuengamme to the North Sea coastline were loaded onto ships; hundreds of them died when the British bombed the ships a few days later, thinking that they carried German military personnel.
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