The Death Marches –
The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide
By Daniel Blatman
Harvard University Press – £24.95
There was something so horribly relentless about the way the Nazi regime conducted the Final Solution, that in the cold light of current normality, it makes one shudder amid far too many waves of heartbreaking disbelief. It makes one cower amid the delicate understanding that life, for all its wonder and madness and complexity, does truly matter. It does after all say so, in poetry books and churches, in music and countless sanctified etchings of truth. Regardless of form. Regardless of clarification. Regardless of proof.
Which is not to say proof has ever changed anything – The Holocaust had no bearing on the perpetrators of ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia whatsoever – but it has been known to sometimes stand-up in court. That yet another former Serbian murderer has been sent to face trial in The Hague for instance, highlights this issue. Clearly, the trial won’t alleviate any of the elongated pain that the vile Ratko Mladic wrought upon a defenceless Bosnian populace during the nineties; but it might just count for a modicum of sensibility in relation to the judiciary and the global eyes of the law.
Suffice to say, all of the above is/was totally alien to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich – the all resounding and contemptible manifestation of which is disturbingly depicted within these pages – over and over and over again.
Astonishingly compiled by Daniel Blatman – who is not only a Professor of Jewish History, but also Head of the Avraham Harman Institute of Contemporary Jewry at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem – the exploration herein, is an undeniably harrowing read. The Death Marches – The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide is yet another reminder (as if one were needed) of the depths to which the callous, cruel and totally calculating human race can occasionally plummet.
It covers a terrain of relatively recent history (1944-45) that really does put said human race to shame. Unique in both character and range, these 432 pages attempt to answer a multitude of surely unanswerable questions, raised by the final murderous rampage on behalf of mankind’s most vicious, lethal and deplorable of regimes.
In the book’s Introduction, the author writes: ‘’The present book […], views the death marches not only as part of the history of the concentration camps or as the concluding chapter of the Final Solution, but mainly as the last period of Nazi genocidal activity. It takes as wide a view as possible of the period.’’
This is categorically true and without question, for one can literally refer to any page at random, and one will be faced with yet another batch of appalling deaths – murdered for no other reason other than being Jewish or Russian or Polish or whatever. As Blatman goes on to substantiate: ‘’Consequently, the treatment of the death marches is not confined to the marches of concentration camp inmates but it also examines several death marches of other prisoners. However, the central role of concentration camp inmates cannot be ignored because, in the final analysis, they accounted for the majority of the victims. Hence there is a need to understand the attitude of the Nazi terror machine toward the concentration camp prisoners in the last stages of the war, as well as the motives both of those who hindered the murderous activity and those who promoted it.’’
On the one hand, The Death Marches casts a really wide net; on the other, it is perhaps a little too linear, if not inexorable, for its own good. While reading the book, I found myself reaching for other books to read, other subjects to absorb. While this ought hardly be surprising given the subject matter, this profound publication could have done with a lot less mathematics (on the whole) and perhaps a little more tenderness.