Toward the end of the war, as Allied forces approached German concentration camps, orders were issued to evacuate all inmates capable of walking. Lublin (Majdanek) and Auschwitz were among the first camps to be subjected to this order. In anticipation of future events, many inmates had already been transferred to other camps earlier.
However, during the final months of the war, Germany’s infrastructure had mostly collapsed under the relentless carpet-bombing campaign of the Anglo-American bomber fleets. Rail transportation was sketchy and unreliable, with frequent stops and reroutings due to disrupted and damaged rail lines. Rolling stock was damaged or inadequate, leading to open freight cars also getting used for hauling inmates in wintertime through the frigid cold. Fuel for vehicles was almost non-existent.
Hence, large groups of inmates were forced to walk long distances, for lack of any other means of transportation. Vehicle convoys on roads as well as trains were frequently strafed by Allied airplanes. A train with evacuated inmates in open cars running from Buchenwald to Dachau suffered that very fate. It arrived at Dachau with many inmates dead, both due to Allied bullets and general exhaustion and exposure to the cold. (See the entry on Dachau.)
Many inmates who survived the death marches reported on violent excesses of the German guards. As Germany collapsed, fronts retreated, and all German troops faced getting captured and potentially killed; their nerves were increasingly frayed. Under such circumstances, acts of violence were increasingly likely. However, considering the generally unabated tendency to exaggerate stories of German wartime atrocities, it stands to reason that these stories, too, should be taken with a grain of salt.
It also needs to be kept it mind that Germany in general was in a state of mass death at that time. As Soviet troops entered German territory in East Prussia, they unleashed an unheard-of wave of violence. This in turn triggered massive German evacuations of the entire local populace of more than a million people. All these German civilians went on a “death march” far greater in quantity and loss of lives than the death marches unfolding from the various German camps. Panicked by actual and rumored Soviet atrocities, millions more Germans fled west from other eastern German territories. Many thousands of them found temporary shelter in Dresden, for instance, where many of them died in the Allied fire-bombing campaign of 13-15 February 1945.
Stories of Soviet atrocities spread throughout Germany from the outbreak of the German-Soviet war, and were also known to most camp inmates. Hence, when given the choice to either wait for the arrival of the Red Army or evacuate west with the Germans, many inmates chose to leave with the Germans. Considering the violent purges which the Red Army inflicted on the populations they conquered, these inmates had good reasons for their fear. (See Rudolf 2023, pp. 479-481 for details.) However, had they known the chaotic and catastrophic circumstances of the evacuations awaiting them, many might have reconsidered their choice. Furthermore, the German authorities should have known the logistical impossibility and complete uselessness of these evacuations, and should never have ordered them. But many of them were in utter denial of Germany’s impending collapse and defeat, and of realistic and humane options left to them.
In 1945, Germany in general was a rapidly growing, gigantic pile of corpses, figuratively speaking. Inmates in prisons and camps always fare worst under such circumstances, and in particular with a government hell-bent on fighting to the last man.