Moishe Postone claims in his essay Anti‑Semitism and National Socialism (emphasis mine):

No functionalist explanation of the Holocaust and no scapegoat theory of anti‑Semitism can even begin to explain why, in the last years of the war, when the German forces were being crushed by the Red Army, a significant proportion of vehicles was deflected from logistical support and used to transport Jews to the gas chambers.

I've seen this claim elsewhere too as it points to a crucial element in some analysises of antisemitism. I have doubts, as I seem to recall that for example prisoners where forced on Death Marches because trains where not available. I don't intend to attack Mr Postones scholarship in general, for all I know this was state of historical knowledge back when the essay was written.

Is the claim that "significant proportion of vehicles was deflected from logistical support and used to transport Jews to the gas chambers" true?

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1 Answer 1


Exterminating the Jews was a priority for the Germans. The Nazi regime publicly announced that in the event of a coming great war, the result would be the extermination of the Jews in Europe. (Hitler's speech 30. Jan 1939.) Different factions of the administrations were especially concerned to see this through.

Concerning the

doubts, as I seem to recall that for example prisoners where forced on Death Marches because trains where not available.

The Death marches were used together with train transports from the East; both modes of transport to ensure that no-one survived to be liberated by Soviet forces. From August 1944 until mid January 1945 the camps were almost 'orderly' 'evacuated', but only because the Red Army was so quickly advancing. In April 1945, still, the inmates of Neuengamme were forced on a death march. Meanwhile, in the spring of 1944 Auschwitz received new train tracks, directly ending at the ramp for selections to the gas chambers. The 438.000 of 795.000 Hungarian Jews were only transported by train to Auschwitz from May to July 1944.

Now it gets complicated.

Q Did the Nazi regime always or often prioritize transport trains to the death camps over military transport?

No. Not always. Not often. But this does not contradict Postone. The official priority for the trains in the time tables was low, if they were designated as "evacuation" (=deportation to death camps) compared to military trains. But the Germans were sometimes creative and declared cattle trains full of Jews on the way to the gas chambers as exactly that: "militarily necessary!" Evidence for this relatively rare occasions is also rare but existing.

For the most part, the Germans wasted quite some transport capacity by feeding the death camps with victims. The actual transport time tables were not always laid out with absolute priority for these death trains. The evidence for such a statement is just lacking. In fact, the 'official' policy as demanded by Reichsbahn and Wehrmacht was the opposite. But for some cases exactly that evidence is there. Therefore we can only assume an "always", and maybe wrong with that. But we can see and say that a couple of times that this is exactly what happened.

While generally such deportations had an "always"/"automatically" low priority compared to trains designated "military"; sometimes such trains were designated "military".

The current mainstream view is indeed that the Reichsbahn liked more to transport Jews to their death than soldiers to the front. But what does that mean exactly and is it true?

The Sonderzüge, contrary to myth, were given low priority for movement. The special trains were put into unoccupied slots intended for through freight trains or were run as freight extras. The result was that they were allowed onto the main line only after all other traffic had passed Wehrmacht trains, military supply trains, trains carrying armaments, and coal trains all moved before the Sonderzüge. This explains the long stops in sidings and yards recorded in the anecdotal evidence from survivors and guards. Moreover, the trains were assigned old, worn-out locomotives and old cars, explaining their slow speed when moving and frequent stops for repairs.

Footnotes for the above:
(1) "Anklageschrift Ganzenmüller," 8 Js 430/67, p169, ZSL VI (420) 107 AR-Z 80/61, Sahtter, "Benefit über die Evakuierung von Juden nach Riga," Vertraulich, Düsseldorf, 26 December 1941, IfZ, Eichmann-Prozess, Document 1.38, quoted in Hilberg, Sonderzüge, pp131–38 and discussed in H G Adler, Der verwaltete Mensch" (Tübingen: Mohr, 1974), pp 461–65, Harm-Hinnerk Brandt, "Nationalsoziahsmus und Bürokratie" in Ulrich Langner, ed, Zug der Zeit – Zeit der Züge – Deutsche Eisenbahnen 1835–1985, vol 2 (Berlin: Siedler, 1985), p695.
(2) Christopher Browning, "Ordinary Men. Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland" (New York: HarperCollins, 1992), p 35, Lichtenstein, "Mit der Reichsbahn in den Tod", pp 34, 56, Hilberg, Sonderzüge, pp 130–36 The original of the account reprinted in Hilberg and discussed in Lichtenstein, p 56, can be found in IfZ, Eichmann-ProzeB, Document 138.
(3) "Anklageschrift Ganzenmüller," 8 Js 430/67, pp 146–47, 1.50–51, ZSL VI (420) 107 AR-Z 80/61, Telegrammbrief, Jacobi, GBL Ost to RBD'en, Gedob, GVD Warschau, GVD Minsk, "Sdz fur Umsiedler in der Zeit vom 21. 1. bis 28. 2. 1943," PW 113 Bfsv, Berlin, 16 January 1943, BA R 5/3618, ff 114–119. Also available at USHMMA RG S3 002M, 378/1/784. This document is also reproduced in Hilberg, Sonderzüge, pp 207–12 as Anlage 45 Bruno Klemm, "Protokoll über die in Berlin am 26. und 28. September 1942 abgehaltene Konferenz, betreffend die Evakuierung der Juden des Generalgouvernements und die Verschiebung der Juden Rumäniens in das Generalgouvernement," ZSL II 206 AR-Z 15/1963, ff 5-6, copied from United Restitution Organization, "Dokumente über Methoden der Judenverfolgung im Ausland", 75–76, Staatsanwalt Uchmann, "Vernehmung Walther Stier," 4 Js 564/64, Frankfurt/Main, 11 July 1967, pp 4–6, ZSL II 206 AR-Z 15/1963, Bd 4, ff 383–85. On Novak see Kurt Pätzold and Enka Schwarz, "Auschwitz war für mich nur ein Bahnhof" (Berlin Metropol, 1994).

And further:

Although the movement of three million Jews to their deaths was a comparatively small and often low-priority operation from the Reichsbahn's perspective, it remained a very important traffic. The annihilation of the Jews was one of the two major objectives of die Nazi regime along with the conquest of more "living space ". Consequently, the SS paid very close attention to the service delivered by the railway and did not hesitate to complain when it saw the need.
This alone would have brought the Jewish transports to the attention of the Reichsbahn's highest leaders. While there is no direct evidence that Dorpmüller knew of his railway's use for mass murder, several considerations make it difficult to believe that he was ignorant of it. His personal assistant, Gerhard Sommer, testified in 1967 that Dorpmüller had once been invited to visit a concentration camp but had refused, saying "it could be painful to meet some Jewish friends there. Yet in late 1944, Dorpmüller visited Auschwitz. After arriving with a special train at 8.00 AM , representatives of I.G. Farben drove him to Dwory where he inspected die chemical plant and associated railway facilities

  • From: Alfred C. Mierzejewski: "A Public Enterprise in the Service of Mass Murder: The Deutsche Reichsbahn and the Holocaust", Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 15, Issue 1, 1 March 2001, Pages 33–46, DOI

The above is not that much in contrast to what Postone writes! The devil seems to hide in the details.

The above details how the Reichsbahn and its employees collaborated in the Holocaust and how low compared to other obligations asked of them they treated the Sonderzüge. True. But this is the organisationally internal perspective.

The very fact remains: in the face of a military enemy on the other side of the frontline – with, after Stalingrad, numerical and material superiority on all fronts – that a single train was designated for this purpose (and using tracks, wearing them down, using up coal etc) is a mark of overall organisational priority. The Germans did assign a priority for transport to kill trains that seems incomprehensible from a strategic perspective.

They may not have changed so much time tables to ship the inmates first, but every one of those trains becoming rarer with time used for that purpose did use up resources that could have been used elsewhere. That pretty much sounds like "prioritise".

We have evidence for internal confusion over this. Hinrich Lohse wrote for instructions:

"Should this be done regardless of age, gender and economic interests (e.g. of the Wehrmacht for skilled workers in armaments factories)? It goes without saying that the purification of the East from Jews is an urgent task, but its solution must be reconciled with the necessities of the war economy. Neither from the orders on the Jewish question in the 'brown folder' nor from other decrees have I so far been able to extract such an instruction".

To which his superiors answered already on 18 December 1941, that economic concerns

should in principle not be taken into account in the settlement of the problem

Gedenk- und Bildungsstätte Haus der Wannsee-Konferenz (Eds): "Die Wannsee-Konferenz und der Völkermord an den europäischen Juden", Berlin 2006, p. 90.

In other words: Reichsbahn and Wehrmacht were a bit less enthusiastic with these priorities, but the "nazi-regime" from the question tried very hard:

22–06–1941 Invasion of the Soviet Union
31–07–1941 Göring orders Heydrich to come up with a "final solution"
23–10–1941 Himmler prohibits Jews within German reach to emigrate
12–12–1941 Hitler orders in a private meeting between him and Gauleiters to make it real
20–01–1942 Wannsee conference

From 1942 onwards the transport system was in such a permanent crisis that Hitler threatened Kleinmann with a Gestapo treatment. While Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and Bormann constantly clamoured more transports, Dorpmüller and Ganzenmüller ensured that they got what they wanted. By overloading rolling stock of all kinds, using defective hardware, speeding up repairs to the point of dysfunctionality and using up the reserves. Deportation was a priority for the whole system.

The ministry, at all events, addressed itself in the main to the large picture. Dr. Fritz Schelp, who took over E 1 in 1942, tells us that resettlement transports were not even included in any all-encompassing scheme since they were numerically insignificant. Considering a total volume of more than 20,000 trains per day, neither his division nor the Main Car Allocation Office (attached to Generalbetriebsleitung Ost) was interested in ten transports or one hundred. Let us not mistake, however, the real meaning of such "negligibility." It implies not an impossibility of performance, but the very opposite. The Reichsbahn moved troops and industrial cargo, soldiers on furlough and vacationers, foreign laborers and Jews. Sometimes space was preempted by the army or some other claimant, but Jewish transports were put together whenever and wherever there was a possibility of forming a train. They too had some priority.

The correspondence of E 2/21 (Schnell) or its section 211 (Stange) has not come to light. We know only that E 2 directives for assigning cars and scheduling trains were routed to the Generalbetriebsleitungen. The orders specified the Leitung that was to take charge of a program and the time frame for its completion. E 2 issued orders for all requisitions involving five or more special trains. At the beginning of the war the individual Reichsbahndirektionen were allowed to proceed on their own with one to five Sonderzüge, subject only to prior consent of the Main Car Allocation Office and a report to 21. On July 14, 1941, following the assault on the USSR but preceding the operations of death camps, the rule was spelled out further and modified. Now the Direktionen could go ahead only with transports that were "obviously and undoubtedly" essential for the war or maintenance of life. For certain specified contingencies, such as the movement of prisoners to concentration camps or mental patients from asylums, the Direktionen could act also if the purpose was not obviously and undoubtedly vital. Division E 2 continued to reserve jurisdiction for processing requisitions of more than five trains, and it repossessed decision-making power for single transports in a list of categories that included "resettlements of Jews."

We know of yet another interruption. From December 15, 1942 to January 15, 1943 a general shutdown apparently halted all Jewish deportations in the Generalgouvernement and elsewhere as well (Belgium). By January 20, however, the flow was resumed. Generalbetriebsleitung Ost had never stopped its planning.
Backlog--a measure of the number of trains that for various reasons were held back for more than a few hours at point of departure or that were aborted because of blockages before they could reach their destinations--became a permanent large scale problem after the spring of 1943. How could the deportations of Jews be continued under such circumstances? In the spring of 1944 Hungary was occupied by the Germany Army. A new wave of destruction was in the offing, and in the middle of that year a half million Jews were poured into Auschwitz. They arrived from Hungary and also from Slovakia in high-priority transports under the auspices of the German armed forces.
The military was a customer, not a comanager, of the railroads: but at a minimum it had to be a factor in Reichsbahn decisions affecting apportionments of space to all users. We have already seen the proximity of military transports and Jewish Sonderzüge in the fact that officials of L were handling both. The army was always in the background when SS requests were approved, and by 1944 its passive presence became active.

Unresolved is the question, repeatedly raised at one of the trial proceedings against Novak, of whether the Jewish trains were being moved with armed forces bills of lading, in quadruplicate, to speed them on their way. There is evidence, however, that in 1944 transports from Slovakia had been processed in this manner.

More than five million Jews were killed during the destruction process in ghettos, on shooting grounds, and in gas chambers. In the three-year period between October 1941 and October 1944 the Reichsbahn transported more than half these people to their deaths.

Raul Hilberg: "German Railroads/Jewish Souls", Society, 1976. (Reprint from 1998 PDF)

Just looking at the dates means the battle for Moscow was already lost and after Stalingrad things would never look good again on the Eastern front. Yet despite a so called "total war" and related efforts Auschwitz still received in the time frame 1944, Aug–Sep 65.000 new inmates designated to be exterminated. Several other camps were also evacuated westward by train before the approaching Red Army.

Thus the highlighted part from the quote in question is true, unless we want to distort the content to mean really just the official time tables or whether German railway officials considered this a significant problem. For the overall priority to ensure the Holocaust would happen and was indeed a "final solution", performed in devestatingly fanatical thoroughness:

a significant proportion of vehicles was deflected from logistical support and used to transport Jews to the gas chambers.

Business as usual:

The Jewish transports were fitted into the Reichsbahn’s operating plan as freight extras. This meant that after the regular freight trains (Stammgüterzüge) and the extras for priority traffics such as Wehrmacht troop movements, coal, and armaments were moved, the special trains for the extermination camps were allowed time on the through routes. The Reichsbahn insisted that the SS and its helpers have the deportees ready at the designated loading location before the scheduled time of departure. Delays frequently followed. This was the result of other, higher-priority trains being allocated slots on the main line first. Once the transports actually began their journeys, they moved slowly. Maximum speeds of just 45 kph were specified in the detailed schedules issued by the divisions. Trains composed of passenger cars moving in Germany frequently ran faster. But once they entered the Ostbahn, they slowed considerably. Initially, the trains carried 1,000 people. Later, as the SS hurried to kill as many Jews as possible before the war ended, trains carrying 2,000 or even 5,000 people became common. Clearly, the planning difficulties that led to fluctuations in the flow of Jews to the work camps and extermination centers, and the decisions that determined the timing of the actions to kill Jews, took place outside of the Reichsbahn. The DRB incorporated the movement of the Jews and other people transported against their wills into its regular system for allocating car space, locomotives, and track time. The division of labor within the Reichsbahn’s bureaucracy, decision by consensus at conferences, and then the execution of the overall plan in accordance with prevailing traffic conditions and maintenance plans were all standard operating procedures. The DRB, as a common carrier, made its services available to the SS as it did to any other customer. […]

The flow of human beings by rail, the vast majority against their will, was interrupted by an embargo of special passenger trains lasting one month that began on 15 December 1942. The Reichsbahn took this measure to free capacity to return members of the Wehrmacht to their homes in Germany or to rest areas behind the front to celebrate the Christmas holiday. In the west, the embargo was imposed on 11 November and lasted until 9 February 1942. Himmler could not tolerate this delay. On 20 January 1943, his patience at an end, he wrote a personal letter to Ganzenmüller, explaining that he wanted to remove all Jews from the area behind the German army in the USSR, Bialystok, and the General Government. He closed by writing, "Help me and get more trains for me."[…]

In the early fall of 1944, the approach of the Red Army from the east compelled Himmler to begin shutting down and demolishing the death camps. However, he held on to the Jews under his control. Many were marched west-ward into Germany. Many others were taken back by rail. Seemingly irrational train movements were undertaken right up to the end of the war in an effort to keep the Jewish prisoners in German hands. Whether this was to use them as a bargaining counter or simply to find an opportune place to kill them, or because the commanders involved had not received orders to do anything else, remains unclear. Yet, even in the last desperate days of the Third Reich, the Reichsbahn helped the Nazi regime pursue its racist goals through the provision of transportation.

Alfred C. Mierzejewski: "The Most Valuable Asset of the Reich A History of the German National Railway. Volume 2: 1933–1945", University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, London, 2000, p119–124.

To illustrate the issue practically, Yad Vashem maintains a database with the goal of documenting every transport to the camps.

One example:

from Departing Station Caserne Dossin (Malines–Mechelen), Camp, Belgium to Leuven, Brabant, Belgium on 31/07/1944
–– over Brussels, Brabant, Belgium Caserne Dossin (Malines–Mechelen), Camp, Belgium Malines, Antwerpen, Belgium Mechelen, Antwerpen, Belgium Louvain, Brabant, Belgium Tienen, Brabant, Belgium Waremme, Liege, Belgium Eupen, Liege, Belgium Aachen, Aachen (Aachen), Rhine Province, Germany Cologne, Köln (Köln), Rhine Province, Germany Kassel, Kassel (Kassel), Hesse-Nassau, Germany Dresden, Dresden (Dresden Bautzen), Saxony, Germany Goerlitz, Görlitz (Liegnitz), Silesia (Lower), Germany Liegnitz, Liegnitz (Liegnitz), Silesia (Lower), Germany Breslau, Breslau (Breslau), Silesia (Lower), Germany Oppeln, Oppeln (Oppeln), Silesia (Upper), Germany Kattowitz, Katowice, Slask, Poland Auschwitz Birkenau, Extermination Camp, Poland ––
Destination of Deportation: Auschwitz Birkenau, Extermination Camp, Poland 02/08/1944

enter image description here

Given that freight transport trains are usually a bit slower than passenger trains, this is still a large number of stops and a long time it had taken. The average transport took 4 days. Booking this trip today with the follow-up organisation –– which in general quite often cannot go much faster than in the 1930s –– would take you tomorrow morning 0600 around 20 hours.

The longest transport, from the Greek island of Corfu, lasted 18 days. When the train got to the camps and the doors were opened, everyone was already dead.

Perhaps two maps & two names might help to illustrate the situation and procedures in late 1944. Auschwitz being located West of Krakow:

WP: Operation Bagration WP: Eastern_Front_1943-08_to_1944-12 enter image description here enter image description here

Source for the fourth map: Map of Railroads Leading to Auschwitz. This might be compared to the reach in Transport and arrival.

Anne Frank: On 3 September 1944, the group was deported on what would be the last transport from Westerbork to the Auschwitz concentration camp and arrived after a three-day journey. […] On 28 October, selections began for women to be relocated to Bergen-Belsen. More than 8,000 women, including Anne and Margot Frank, and Auguste van Pels, were transported.

Arriving at Auschwitz, October 4, 1944: From the Diary of Helga Weiss

This is around the time when the Battle of Aachen began and the Soviets encircled East-Prussia and held out before Warsaw. Before that time-frame, allied bombing on railways, tracks, trains, stations and marshalling yards were almost ineffective and despite a few disruptions movements of troops and material peaked as well as armament productions, and killings. The situation in the ground for the railway itself only changed substantially in very late 1944:

The disruption of rail operations in the Ruhr, and the difficulty in returning empty cars to the region for loading, led to a dramatic reduction in the coal supplies available to the German economy. Manufacturing plants and utilities gradually consumed their stocks of coal beginning in September. By the end of 1944, supplies had been exhausted and production shrank due to a lack of energy. The decline in car placings also prevented the Reichsbahn from transporting semifinished and finished goods. Products, including badly needed munitions, accumulated at factories, forcing many to suspend operations in December 1944 and in the first months of 1945. The ultimate result of the breakdown in the Reichsbahn’s ability to distribute freight was a shortage of weapons and other supplies for the Wehrmacht.

The disintegration of the Reichsbahn can be traced by examining a few indices of its operational performance. During the second quarter of 1944, overall freight car placings fell by 7.75 percent compared with placings for the same period in 1943. This was due to the disruption of operations in the occupied west, the effects of which reverberated eastward to the divisions along Germany’s western border. During the summer of 1944, car placings recovered somewhat but remained slightly below the performance of the preceding year. Significantly, the divisions in western Germany, which were most affected by bombing, and the divisions that served as intermediaries between the west and the east, such as Halle (S) and Berlin, suffered significant declines. RBD Oppeln, because of the westward flow ahead of the advancing Red Army, was unable to compensate for the lower performance of RBD Essen serving the Ruhr. Coal car placings suffered a disproportionate decline because of the proximity of the coal-producing areas to the fronts in both east and west. Overall, coal traffic as measured in coal car placings fell during the third quarter of 1944 by 15.7 percent compared with placings in the third quarter of 1943. The collapse of traffic and, in turn, the disintegration of the German war economy began in earnest during October 1944 and accelerated during the subsequent three months. By the end of the Ardennes offensive in January 1945, overall freight car placings were 43.2 percent lower than during the same period the year before. Coal car placings in January 1945 were 55.8 percent lower than in January 1944. By March 1945, freight car placings were 89.2 percent lower than a year earlier.
The disintegration of marshalling and the disruption of the flow of traffic can be seen in the staggering increase in the number of trains stuck in the backlog. The air attacks in the West caused a rise in the backlog to 1,600 trains by early May 1944. This number declined as the Wehrmacht retreated to Germany and the Reichsbahn was able to consolidate operations. However, it rose steeply when the Allies focused their air attacks on marshalling yards in the western part of the country beginning in September 1944. By mid-December, the backlog had risen to 2,000 trains, and after a brief improvement at the end of the month due to poor weather that hampered the Allied bombers, then rose to about 2,800 trains at the end of February 1945.
The confusion in marshalling and the disruption of the flow of traffic also caused a serious increase in car turnaround time. At the end of December 1944, it stood at 9.6 days, compared to 7.6 a year earlier. However, as Allied air attacks intensified and their armies crossed Germany’s borders, it jumped to 20 days. The inability to move cars in an orderly fashion — the impossibility of conducting coordinated, scheduled operations, the hallmark of the Reichsbahn’s operating procedures — rebounded on the railway itself. The Reichsbahn became increasingly unable to feed its hungry locomotives with coal. Locomotive coal stocks declined from an average of 20 days in 1943 to just 6 days in January 1945, and then dwindled to almost nothing. The situation varied among the divisions. RBD Essen, in the Ruhr coal mining area, had a meagre 8-day stock in early February 1945. But outlying divisions such as Stuttgart and Munich had less than a single day’s supply. Train performance declined accordingly. GBL South, which had delivered about 310,000 train-kilometers per day until the air offensive began, could generate a mere 95,000 train-kilometers per day at the end of March 1945. Mierzejewski, p159–161.

Looking at the numbers and dates it is clear that indeed right up to the end – or as long as Soviets literally didn't stand on the tracks – the trains transporting people to death kept rolling, no matter how detrimental this might have been for the war effort.


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