The Nazi Concentration Camps


The end of the camp system was marked by chaos and death. As Allied troops closed in, the SS scrambled to empty camps. It abandoned many sites in 1944, moving prisoners away from the front line by foot, train or ship. Then, in January and February 1945, the SS forced over 150,000 inmates out of Auschwitz, Gross-Rosen and Stutthof; when Soviet soldiers liberated the Auschwitz complex on 27 January, they found less than 8,000 survivors. Tens of thousands of prisoners perished on evacuation treks from Auschwitz and elsewhere, in open railcars and on marches.

Even when SS leaders knew that the war was lost, the camp evacuations continued on Himmler’s orders. As far as possible, no prisoners were supposed to fall into Allied hands. Many camps were partially or fully emptied in spring 1945. During the final death marches, thousands of prisoners (Jews and non-Jews) lost their lives through exhaustion and to SS bullets. Their bodies lined roads and paths across Germany.

The only hope for prisoners still inside the camps was that Allied troops would reach them in time. As more prisoners arrived from abandoned camps, living conditions in the remaining ones became worse than ever. Many prisoners in vastly overcrowded camps like Bergen-Belsen died from hunger and disease. Others died during a final wave of SS massacres. The SS murdered weak and sick prisoners, who were seen as a burden. It also executed prominent political prisoners, in line with Hitler’s wishes.

It has been estimated that the Allies liberated 250,000 prisoners in concentration camps in April and May 1945; perhaps 30 per cent of them were Jews. There were scenes of joy and jubilation as the prisoners tasted their first moments of freedom.