The Death Marches, January to May 1945: Who Was Responsible for What
Beginning in spring 1944, with the advance of the Red Army into Poland, German leaders became increasingly concerned that concentration and labor camps and their prisoner populations might fall into Allied hands. Plans began to be implemented to evacuate these camps and disperse the prisoners among camps inside the Third Reich, so as to prevent live prisoners from falling into Allied hands. A brutal evacuation - the death marches - took place primarily during January – March 1945. The decision to evacuate the prisoners was taken at the highest echelons of the SS and the Inspectorate of Concentration Camps, while field authority was delegated to local officials. The efficient coordination and supervision of the westward evacuation of hundreds of thousands of prisoners, many of them Jews, proved to be very difficult in the face of the rapidly worsening military situation on the eastern front. The express goal of the evacuation – preventing the fall of live prisoners into Allied hands – effectively left the field commanders and death march guards with the discretion to mass murder prisoners, especially Jews. The situation worsened considerably when camps in Germany and Austria had to be evacuated. Whereas Himmler issued clear orders regarding the evacuation, the solution to problems that arose in the field was left to the discretion of those in the field. And their solution was usually murder.