Death march is another of the horrific terms that have sprung up in the context of genocide. It signifies the process by which a regime, usually a government or an occupying power, begins to summon members of a particular nation, group, or subgroup—on the basis of their ethnicity, religion, language, or culture—with a view to their elimination. The term death march signifies the physical action by which the gathered persons are then lined up and marched to certain mass death.
Perhaps the most "classical" example of the death march was the one that occurred as part of the Armenian genocide in Ottoman Turkey (part of the fading Ottoman Empire) in 1915. The events leading up to that death march were paradigmatic of the experience of genocide victims in other places.
The death march of the Armenian population of the Ottoman Empire took place against the backdrop of the hostilities of World War I. In the spring of 1915 Ottoman rulers ordered that all Armenians be expelled from their homes in areas outside of war zones. The Armenians—men, women, and children—were then lined up and made to walk in convoys of tens of thousands toward the Syrian desert. Although the expulsions resembled deportations, the treatment of the people making the march by Turkish "guards" made it clear that a more sinister agenda was driving the march: a planned elimination of the Armenian population through a process of starvation and exhaustion. The death march was a culmination of decades of Turkish discrimination against Armenians, which had long consisted of the barring of Armenians from serving in the Turkish army, executions of small groups of Armenians, and mass killings by special forces known as Teshkilâti Mahsusa—gangs of violent ex-convicts ordered by the Ottoman/Turkish government to commit murders of Armenians.
During the march many Armenians were killed indiscriminately by Ottoman forces, which left a trail of corpses along the route of the march. To break the will of the marchers, the killings were performed with swords, resulting in great bloodshed. Marchers who survived these attacks faced starvation, as no provisions for food were made; many elderly and infirm marchers died in this way during the march. The significantly reduced numbers of marchers who finally made it to the Syrian desert were put into concentration camps located between the towns of Jerablus and Deir ez-Zor, and then released into the scorching desert (with no food or water) to certain death.
The historical record suggests that the death march was methodically orchestrated, carried out in a systematized manner, clearly intended as genocide, and calculated to achieve this through a host of measures, including outright brutal killings, slow starvation and dehydration, death through trauma and exhaustion. It is estimated that this genocide was responsible for the deaths of up to half a million Armenians. While it is hard to estimate the exact number of those who perished in the march, the ways in which the expelled Armenians met their deaths make this episode of human history stand out, even among other death marches, as singularly brutal and horrifying.
The death march was one means used by the Ottoman government to wage an unofficial war against the Armenians, with the prime goals of eradicating them and furthering the creation of a pan-Turkish empire.
In many respects, the death march can be compared to the death row phenomenon. In both cases, the victims await elimination through a process dictated by the government in power. Both involve the slow march of time toward certain death. However, the death row phenomenon applies to individuals and usually occurs within the context of due legal process, whereas death marches consist of an entire mass of people marched between fully armed soldiers to the place of their final execution. The length of such death marches varies tremendously, but they are characterized by starvation, exhaustion, and brutality.
The Armenian genocide is not the only death march whose details are part of the historical record. The phenomenon was also repeated in World War II by the Nazi regime and Japan. In Germany Nazi forces, under siege from the advancing Allies in the winter of 1944 and 1945, began to frantically move Jewish populations that they had imprisoned in concentration camps outside the camps. Although many of the inmates were marched to nearby labor camps, others were made to walk long distances, to labor camps much further away, in bitter cold, with little or no food, water, or rest. Those who fell behind the main column were summarily shot by Nazi soldiers, while numerous others died of exhaustion, starvation, or exposure to the elements.
The largest death marches in World War II are recorded as having occurred that same final winter of the war, when the Red Army (armed forces of the Soviet Union) had begun its liberation of Poland. Sensing defeat, Nazi forces marched 60,000 prisoners out of the concentration camp at Auschwitz (a small town in Poland) toward another small town 35 miles away, where they were put on trains bound for other camps. As much as 25 percent of that group is calculated to have died en route. Many were killed during the march or immediately prior to the end of the march.
In another episode, in January 1945, SS officers ordered the further evacuation of prisoners from camps inside Germany in the face of the advancing Red Army. These marches were a continuation of the genocidal policies of the Nazi regime, but were also designed to keep the prisoners out of Allied hands, in fear of the evidence of Nazi atrocities that they would unquestionably find.
According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, "[T]he term death march was probably coined by concentration camp prisoners. It referred to forced marches of prisoners over long distances under heavy guard in extremely harsh winter conditions. . . . Thousands . . . died of exposure, starvation and exhaustion." It is clear, in the context of the death marches perpetrated by the Nazi regime, that they were intended to accomplish the destruction of a particular group; at the same time, the Nazis sought to disguise their agenda of destruction and to make it look as though the mass killings were fallout of the attacks on Germany by the Allied forces.
Another World War II death march, occurring in the Pacific Theater, was that perpetrated by Japanese forces against U.S. and Filipino servicemen captured during the course of battles in the Philippine Islands, at Bataan and Corregidor. Stripped of their possessions, the prisoners who surrendered to the Japanese Imperial Army were made to march for six days along the road from Bataan to San Fernando in Pampanga province with no food and water—and to certain death. This particular death march can be differentiated from the marches perpetrated against the Armenians and European Jews in that it targeted military prisoners rather than civilians, but the results were similar.
Although the Armenian genocide is often described as the first death march, the term has been used to refer to events that took place prior to 1915. In 1830 the U.S. Congress passed the Indian Removal Act, despite the objection of Senator Davy Crockett of Tennessee and attempts to challenge it through the courts. The U.S. government wanted to remove the Cherokee from the state of Georgia, in part because of the demand for land coming from the non-Native population of Georgia. U.S. government policy led to the Nunna dual Tsuny, or Trail of Tears, in which, in 1838, several thousand Cherokee were forced off their lands and marched into the wilderness. Although the net effect of this action was the deaths of significant numbers of Cherokee, it should be distinguished from the Armenian and European concentration camp prisoner death marches, which had clear intents of the elimination of races. In the case of the Cherokee nation, the action of the U.S. Congress was aimed more at securing the lands on which Cherokee lived. Of course, for the victims of this death march and surviving family members, such a technical difference provides little succor.
About North Georgia. "Trail of Tears." Available from http://ngeorgia.com/history/nghisttt.html.
Battling Bastards of Bataan. "Bataan, Corregidor, and the Death March: In Retrospect." Available from http://home.pacbell.net/fbaldie/In_Retrospect.html.
Hovannisian, R. G. (1992). The Armenian Genocide: History,Politics, Ethics. New York: St. Martin's Press.
Knox, D. (1981). Death March: The Survivors of Bataan. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Oganesian, N. O. (2002). The Armenian Genocide:Armenocide. Yerevan, Armenia: Institute of Oriental Studies.
Slater, J. (1966). Death March. London: Horowitz Publishers.