On April 30, 1945, as Nazi Germany was approaching its final collapse, the people of Demmin began to kill themselves.
Early that afternoon, the Red Army entered the quiet Pomeranian town, a hundred miles north of Berlin, which had been abandoned by the Wehrmacht. A handful of diehards put up token resistance, among them Gerhard Moldenhauer, a local schoolmaster, who fired a few shots at the Soviet advance guard from the window of his apartment. He then shot himself in the head before the soldiers could storm the building. Moldenhauer had already killed his wife and three children in the cellar below.
Over the next four days, hundreds more followed them to their graves. Since few had guns, many hanged themselves. Others took poison or slit their wrists. But the most common suicide method was drowning in nearby rivers, canals, and other waterways, with some using rucksacks full of stones to weigh themselves down. Like Moldenhauer, many first killed their own children. Meanwhile, the Soviets embarked on a wave of looting and rape as Demmin, previously undamaged by the conflict, was engulfed by fires of indeterminate origin. Incomplete surviving records suggest that at least 500 and perhaps more than 1,000 people ultimately either committed suicide or were killed by family members in the town of 15,000 inhabitants, who had been joined by a few thousand refugees.
Demmin’s sudden lurch into self-annihilation serves as the focal point for Florian Huber’s book, originally published in Germany in 2015 and newly translated by Imogen Taylor, about the wave of mass suicides that swept the Third Reich during its final days. While the suicides of Hitler and his chief henchmen came to symbolize the downfall of their regime, the suicides of tens of thousands of ordinary Germans amid the Nazi collapse left a faint imprint on collective memory and have only recently begun to receive sustained historical attention.
Huber, an author and filmmaker, duly sets out both to piece together the story of these suicides and to explain why so many chose death over life in a dismembered and defeated nation. Drawing on primary sources, including unpublished diaries and interviews with witnesses, he blends scholarly acumen with novelistic pacing and a keen eye for macabre detail. Of the suicides in Demmin, he notes that “in a number of cases, the survival instinct prevailed despite desperate attempts to die” as some mothers ended up swimming to safety, leaving their children to drown. And the poisoned daughter of a Nazi official is said to look like “a model posing for a photo shoot” in an iconic image by Lee Miller—one of the few photographers to have captured scenes of the suicide epidemic.
A handful of diehards put up token resistance, among them Gerhard Moldenhauer. He soon shot himself in the head.
Midway through his book, Huber cycles back to the Weimar Republic and the early years of Hitler’s regime in an effort to locate the epidemic’s psychological roots. As in the preceding chapters about the suicide wave, his account here centers on ordinary individuals who recorded their day-to-day experiences of political and economic turmoil followed by what many remembered as “an era of happiness” after the Nazis seized power.
Much of what Huber relates about how hitherto apathetic Germans got swept up in the Führer cult will already be familiar to those acquainted with the period. More intriguing is his exploration of the inner conflicts that lurked in some cases behind outward displays of devotion to the Nazi cause. Even enthusiastic supporters of Hitler’s anti-Semitic policies at times recoiled from the violence and intimidation inflicted upon their Jewish neighbors (which doesn’t mean they did anything to help them). And Huber contends that growing awareness of Nazi crimes during the war at once fed a collective guilty conscience and fueled an ever more delusional belief in final victory, for defeat promised fierce retribution. As one observer noted, it was common to hear people say: “If Germany loses, every German will be killed.”
Yet Huber underplays the primary motivational influence of such fears within the suicide wave itself. He posits instead that the epidemic was “an extreme expression of the meaninglessness and pain people felt in the face of defeat” as their world crumbled around them. Why, then, as his book documents, were the suicides heavily concentrated in the eastern Reich, where the advancing Soviets were in a vengeful mood after their homeland had endured years of murderous Nazi occupation?
Huber’s title, “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself,” suggests an answer. For the quotation is drawn from the last words spoken by a doomed conscript to his 21-year-old daughter as he set out to fight the Soviets, never to return. The clear implication was that his daughter should kill herself rather than be raped and murdered by Russian soldiers. That brutally prosaic threat seems like a more plausible explanation for mass suicide than abstract existential concerns about confronting “meaninglessness” without the guiding hand of the Führer.
Max McGuinness is the New York theater critic for the Financial Times