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Discussion of new research results on death marches

The International Tracing Service (ITS) in Bad Arolsen discussed new research results and perspectives on the subject of death marches from the National Socialist concentration camps at a two day international conference. The conference “On the traces of the Death Marches – Crimes, Investigations and Remembrance" with 60 participants from 8 countries focussed on the documents from the ITS archives on the reconstruction of the death marches and the identification of the dead that were compiled between 1946 and 1951. Since October 2010, researchers had been systematically examining these for the first time in a joint workshop. "The material in our archives can supplement previous research and, at the same time, cast a new light on how the Allies dealt with these crimes", said Dr Susanne Urban, Head of Research at ITS.

The ITS collection on the subject of the death marches covers approximately twelve metres. It includes information from communities, information on evacuation transports, police investigation reports, maps and original documents from the last days of the concentration camps. "The investigations conducted by the ITS and its predecessors into the death marches, which were later described as ‘attempted identification of unknown dead’ were an attempt to consider the phenomenon as a whole - with aspects of tracing and clarifying fates and from a historical perspective", explained Urban. The documents make new findings possible with regard to the number of prisoners, individual fates, the routes, the involvement of the population and the handling of the subject in post-war Germany.

Daniel Blatman, professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and author of the book "The Death Marches 1944/45 - The Final Phase of Nazi Genocide" said that, in his knowledge, this is the first academic conference that has dealt with the death marches as the main issue. "The project launched by ITS is extremely important for rounding off our knowledge and understanding this phase of the genocide. As the documents in the Bad Arolsen archives emerged directly after the end of the war, they are invaluable for research."

According to the findings of the researchers, out of more than 700,000 concentration camp prisoners at the start of 1945, approximately 200,000 died. Anyone who collapsed because of hunger, cold and exhaustion was deliberately murdered. "This massacre took place publically and not far away in Eastern Europe", stated Blatman. "The murderers were not just members of the SS, police and army. Now, civilians were also taking part who saw the concentration camp prisoners as living proof of the defeat and killed them mercilessly."

It is possible to track the routes of the death marches using the material in the ITS archives, commented Josephine Ulbricht of the University of Cologne. "They were everywhere, in almost every small community." In the workshop, the historian examined a death march from the concentration camp Flossenbuerg more closely. "Thanks to the records of the Allies and their efforts to identify them, the dead were given a face."

With the issue of the death marches, the ITS is building upon the spheres of action of the ITS in the first years after the war and would like to recommend itself as a research institution at the same time. "The death marches are still quite a new field in research", explained Urban. "During the conference, the subject was considered from various perspectives. It is precisely this that constitutes science. We will continue to deal with this aspect of Nazi history and hope that more researchers take up the subject." The ITS will present the results of the researchers in its first yearbook, which is to come out in June 2012.