A massive 1944 summer offensive in eastern Belarus permitted Soviet forces for the first time to overrun a major Nazi concentration camp, Lublin/Majdanek. Due to the rapid Soviet advance, the SS had not had time to evacuate the camp. Soviet and western media widely publicized atrocities at Majdanek, using both footage from liberation and interviews with surviving prisoners. Soon after, SS chief Heinrich Himmler ordered that prisoners in all concentration camps be evacuated to the West. SS authorities did not want prisoners to survive to tell their stories to Allied liberators and also thought they needed prisoners for armaments production.
In the summer and early autumn months of 1944, most of the evacuations were carried out by train. As winter approached, however, and the Allies advanced, SS authorities increasingly evacuated camp prisoners on foot. By January 1945, the Third Reich stood on the verge of military defeat. As evacuations depended increasingly on forced marches and travel by open rail car, the number who died of exhaustion and exposure along the routes increased dramatically. This encouraged an understandable perception among the prisoners that the Germans intended them all to die on the march. The term death march was probably coined by concentration camp prisoners.
During these death marches, the SS guards brutally mistreated the prisoners. Following explicit orders, they shot hundreds of prisoners who collapsed or could not keep pace on the march, or who could no longer disembark from the trains or ships. Thousands of prisoners died of exposure, starvation, and exhaustion. Forced marches were especially common in late 1944 and 1945, as the SS evacuated prisoners to camps deeper within Germany. Major evacuation operations moved prisoners out of Auschwitz, Stutthof, and Gross-Rosen westward to Buchenwald, Flossenbürg, Dachau, and Sachsenhausen in winter 1944-1945; from Buchenwald and Flossenbürg to Dachau and Mauthausen in spring 1945; and from Sachsenhausen and Neuengamme northwards to the Baltic Sea in the last weeks of the war.
As Allied forces advanced into the heart of Germany they liberated hundreds of thousands of concentration camp prisoners. This included thousands of prisoners whom Allied and Soviet troops liberated while they marched on the forced evacuations. German armed forces surrendered unconditionally in the west on May 7 and in the east on May 9, 1945. To almost the last day of the war, German authorities marched prisoners to various locations in the Reich.