Why a Wave of Suicides Washed Over Germany After the Nazi Defeat

Toward the end of World War II a suicide wave swept the areas of Germany occupied by the Red Army. Florian Huber’s new book blames the influence of Nazi anti-Bolshevik propaganda and the mass rapes by Russian soldiers

Oded Heilbronner
Oded Heilbronner
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Volkssturm officer Walter Doenicke lies on the floor of city hall in Leipzig, Germany after committing suicide, April 19, 1945.
Volkssturm officer Walter Doenicke lies on the floor of city hall in Leipzig, Germany after committing suicide, April 19, 1945.Credit: NARA / OWI
Oded Heilbronner
Oded Heilbronner

“Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945,” by Florian Huber, translated from the German by Imogen Taylor, Allen Lane, 304 pages.

When Jewish philosopher Hannah Arendt returned to West Germany in 1949, she encountered a society that was incapable of feeling sorrow, pity or empathy. When she posed questions about Nazism and the Holocaust to random Germans she met, they answered with pursed lips, and mainly with an argument that was repeated over and over: “We don’t remember.”

That was 70 years ago. Since then the Germans’ memory has been restored, and in recent decades it has been working overtime. The Germans’ inability to remember and mourn in the first decades after World War II disturbed many young Germans born after the war, and in the late ‘60s they began to ask their parents questions about what they did during the Nazi regime. That was the West German version of the events of 1968, which served as a backdrop to the rise of left-wing German terrorism in the ‘70s.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 50Credit: Haaretz

At about the same time, high school students in West Germany began to write compositions about “My place of birth during the Third Reich.” A few years later the Germans “discovered” the Holocaust and have studied it to an extent that may even overshadow the preoccupation with it in Israel.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the unification of Germany, and the establishment of a certain German normalcy, a kind of dichotomy reigned. On the one hand, Germans made new discoveries about the degree of Nazification in all parts of German society during the Nazi period; on the other, they began to “discover” German suffering during the Third Reich.

The cover of 'Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945' by Florian Huber.Credit: Allen Lane

First it was the suffering of non-Jewish Germans who didn’t belong to the Volksgemeinschaft (“the people’s community”) that the Nazis aspired to during their reign: the mentally and physically challenged, gay men, Roma (Gypsies), beggars, hedonistic young people and of course opponents of the regime.

Then came the recognition of the suffering of ordinary Germans during the bombings and the advance of the Allied forces, who didn’t only destroy the Germans’ homes, but also their cities, treasures and Germany’s glorious material history. The political circumstances of the late 20th century led to the emphasis on the cruelty of the Asian, Slavic, communist, Russian occupier.

Then came the turn of the refugees – those who were deported and those returning from captivity in the East who arrived after difficult journeys from central and eastern Europe, including the Baltics and the Soviet Union.

At the start of the 21st century, the hundreds of thousands of German women who were cruelly raped by Russian soldiers were “discovered.” The 1945 diary “A Woman in Berlin” by an anonymous woman was published in English in 1954, in German in 1959 and in Hebrew in 2006, and was also made into a film. It became a symbol of the cruelty of the Red Army, though recently historian Julia von Sell pointed out problems on the work’s authenticity.

Now it’s the turn of the German suicides, mainly those who took their lives toward the end of the war in the cities and villages as the Red Army advanced toward Berlin. Germany has been greatly preoccupied with them in recent years. That may be related to the fears stirred by the immigration wave from Arab countries, the strengthening of the far right around the country, and the incessant conflict between the German government and the Russian authorities.

Killing your wife and two children

The German mass-suicide victims in the final weeks of the war are the heroes of Florian Huber’s book “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself,” which came out in English this year after being published in German in 2006; its title in that language translates as “My Child, Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself.”

The author is a German historian and documentary filmmaker who has focused on post-1945 German history; for example, the night the Berlin Wall fell and West German reeducation policy after the Nazi period. He has also made films about the 1936 Berlin Olympics and the 1972 Munich Olympics, where Israeli athletes and coaches were massacred by the Palestinian group Black September.

The wife of Leipzig Deputy Mayor Ernst Kurt Lisso, Renate Stephanie, and their daughter Regina after they committed suicide on April 18, 1945. The deputy mayor also committed suicide. Credit: Margaret Bourke-White / LIFE Picture Collection via Getty Images

Huber chose to end his current book with a clerk named Paul Kittel, who was 58 in 1959 when he was tried in Hanover for killing his family in the eastern German town of Demmin, north of Berlin, in the last days of the war. On May 1, 1945, when the Red Army arrived, Kittel took a gun that was on the body of a neighbor who had committed suicide and used it to shoot his wife and two children, who were 13 and 14. He then tried to kill himself, but his gun had run out of bullets. He was caught by the Russians, like the other surviving male residents of the town, and spent 10 years in a detention camp. After his release he settled in Hanover in West Germany. A jury ruled that Kittel should not be held responsible for the killing of his family, and he was released. A Hanover newspaper reported on the incident under the headline “Alive thanks to a missing bullet.”

The book reveals that suicides were common in Demmin as the Red Army approached; of the town’s 15,000 residents, more than 1,000 are believed to have killed themselves.

But mass suicides also took place in many other German cities, towns and villages, mainly in the east as the Russians approached. Usually the residents committed suicide with poison that was sometimes provided by the local authorities, others hanged, shot or drowned themselves in the region’s many rivers and lakes. And there were also more complicated cases that combined murder and suicide (or attempted suicide), as with Kittel. When the Russians arrived in the capital, tens of thousands of Berliners are believed to have killed themselves.

Although in western Germany too there were cases of suicide in areas occupied by the British and U.S. armies, there is no comparison with the number of cases in the east. And in the west, those who took their lives were members of the Nazi Party, senior officials or regular people who were fervent believers in Nazi ideology. In the east these groups were joined by ordinary people who had no direct connection to the party or government.

Suicide since Goethe

The subject of suicides in Germany, in Nazi Germany in particular, isn’t entirely new. German discourse has been preoccupied with the subject since the “Werther hysteria” in the late 18th century following Goethe’s book “The Sorrows of Young Werther,” and the many suicides during the Weimar Republic. In fact, the Nazi leaders themselves spoke in terms of suicide on the eve of their rise to power in 1933. In his diary in late 1932, Josef Goebbels said he’d kill himself if Hitler wasn’t appointed chancellor.

On the “Night of the Long Knives” in 1934, when Hitler had the SS kill many of the leaders of the SA along with veteran opponents of the Nazi Party, it was suggested to SA leader Ernst Röhm that he commit suicide. When he refused, he was killed.

Other instances of suicide during the Third Reich include those by some of the officers who conspired against Hitler in the famous assassination attempt of July 1944, nor should we forget the many suicides among the Nazi leaders, first and foremost Hitler, in late April and early May 1945. In a somewhat different context, we should recall the terrible suicides by German Jews, mainly at the outbreak of the war and the start of the deportations to the east.

Berlin in ruins caused by the Allied air raids at the end of World War II, August 1945.Credit: AP

There is no question that a death’s head always hung above the insanity called Nazism, like the death’s head symbol of the SS. Suicide served as a central motif in the ideology and declarations of the leaders of the Third Reich, certainly in the sense of seeing suicide as a heroic death, and of the martyrs who fell on their swords for the sake of the country and Führer. The party leaders, Goebbels in particular, encouraged the Germans to kill themselves rather than fall into Russian captivity, and many took that suggestion up.

Huber’s book isn’t an academic study; he is preceded by professional historians who studied the issue extensively, including Germany’s Christian Goeschel. His 2009 book “Suicide in Nazi Germany” placed the phenomenon, including among the country’s Jews, in a historical perspective and provided sociological explanations.

Huber’s book is unique mainly because of his sources. He mined the archive of German diaries in the town of Emmendingen in southwest Germany, where tens of thousands of diaries, letters, private papers and memoirs by Germans of various periods are stored. Huber read several dozen diaries of Germans who lived in the eastern regions occupied by the Red Army. They were all written by witnesses who describe the suicides of their neighbors in Demmin and nearby towns.

One case Huber describes is that of Gerhard Moldenhauer, a former socialist and opponent of Hitler who realized that if he wanted to be a teacher he had to join the Nazi Party. So in the mid-’30s he joined the party and was allowed to teach at a school. On April 30, 1945, he was sitting with his family in a basement in Demmin. They heard the voices of Russian soldiers approaching. Moldenhauer shot his wife and three children, emerged from the basement and shouted “I have just shot my wife and children. Now I’ m going to do in a few Russians.” He hit several who were walking in the street, then he shot himself in the head.

Moldenhauer’s friend and neighbor Wilhelm Damann tried to understand the reasons for this shocking case of murder and suicide. In the diary that he began in the ‘50s, Damann offers an interesting explanation that may also be relevant in other instances, and not necessarily in areas occupied by the Red Army. In Damann’s opinion, the reasons are related to Moldenhauer’s past; that is, his betrayal of the ideals that guided him until the early years of the Third Reich, and his preference for the material comforts provided by the Nazi regime rather than moral principles.

With the defeat and the arrival of Russian soldiers, when it became clear that the goal was to cruelly avenge the destruction that the Germans had wreaked on the Soviet Union, Moldenhauer suddenly understood his mistake. Or as his neighbor and friend put it: “I see his act as that of a gambler who’d staked everything on one card and knew he’d lost. Presumably shame played a part too.”

Huber tries to suggest additional reasons for the mass suicides. For this he devotes half his book to the events in Demmin and neighboring towns during the Third Reich. He describes the economic hardships on the eve of the Nazi rise to power, and the massive support for the party even before 1933. He surveys the economic prosperity and the comforts in the context of the Volksgemeinschaft created by the Nazis, the admiration for Hitler that bordered on hysteria, the broad support for the regime in the first years of the war, and the fears that arose with reports on the defeats at Stalingrad and later elsewhere in Europe.

Huber carefully shows that despite the fears of the residents of this region, most had faith in Hitler until the very end. Many burst into tears when they heard about the attempt to assassinate him in 1944, and didn’t lose faith in his power to prevent a defeat. Huber also describes the Nazi propaganda machine, which made sure to stress the expected revenge by the Russians and the order to fight to the finish that for Germany’s soldiers and civilians meant no retreat. And if and when all this turned out useless, the regime ordered suicide.

The soldier turned out not so pleasant

Thus to some extent we can understand the relatively large number of suicides in eastern Germany. The very fact that these regions had a clear Protestant majority makes them more prone to mass suicides, as opposed to Catholic regions. But Huber also meticulously describes many cases of suicide in western and southern Germany, which were occupied by the Western armies (who were often welcomed by the locals).

He doesn’t attempt to provide a comprehensive explanation for the “eastern” phenomenon, and like him, other researchers who have studied the mass suicides are cautious about such an explanation and assume that there was a combination of reasons. They compare the suicide wave in the final days of Nazi Germany to similar historical phenomena like Masada during the Great Revolt by the Jews against the Roman Empire, and the mass suicides at Jonestown, Guyana, in 1978.

And still, we continue to wonder why there were so many suicides in eastern Germany, while in western and southern Germany there were regions suffering similar circumstances that didn’t experience a similar number of suicides. Of course, this reflected the growing fear of the Red Army, whose image had been tarnished by Nazi propaganda, which portrayed it as a cruel and vengeful Asian army, mainly in its treatment of women (the Western armies weren’t described this way).

Leipzig's Deputy Mayor Ernst Kurt Lisso, his wife Renate Stephanie and their daughter Regina after committing suicide by cyanide in the Leipzig New Town Hall to avoid capture by American soldiers.Credit: NARA / US Army Signal Corps

But there are additional theories related to the political culture in the eastern regions. Even before the rise of the Nazis, these areas were the site of cruel ethnic and national struggles, and of fears that the Bolshevik revolution, which had always been described in the German and European press as cruel, would spill into neighboring regions such as the Baltics, Poland, East Prussia and other parts of eastern Germany.

For ages the Russian-Slav had the image of a voracious bear, a rapist and a murderer – not only in Germany. More than elsewhere in Germany, after World War I the eastern regions, in Eastern Europe as well as in eastern Germany – “Bloodlands,” as the historian Timothy Snyder calls them – experienced mass cruelty by volunteer forces and armed militias, from both the far right and the communists. The local Germans not only experienced occasional acts of cruelty, they also heard and read descriptions of the cruelty of the forces of the far left, supporters of the Soviet Union. As mentioned, the residents of these areas were known for their support for the Nazi Party early on, and as Huber notes, many of them remained fanatical supporters of the party until the bitter end.

Nazi propaganda was therefore preaching to the long converted, and exploited this fact to describe the Cossack as a rapist, the Siberian soldier as a voracious bear and the Bolshevik as a pyromaniac. The combination of this propaganda, the political culture that preceded it and personal factors, as shown by the case of the Moldenhauer family, led to a wave of mass suicides in those regions.

Still, even explanations based on anti-Bolshevik propaganda find it hard to fully account for what happened in Demmin. Huber also includes a horrifying description that to some extent contradicts the image of the Bolshevik soldier-bear. The description emphasizes the simple and terrible fact that unlike the British and American armies, there was a culture of rape in the Red Army – which was constantly fighting and whose soldiers were far from their families and partners for years. This fact helped contribute to many incidents described in the book. Not only did women who were raped take their own lives, so did their families, who couldn’t bear the terrible humiliation.

Huber’s description discusses the Schlösser family: great grandparents, grandparents, the parents Karl and Magdalena, an aunt and two children who were hiding in the home of Karl Schlösser’s parents. As Huber writes, when the Russians arrived at the house, Karl was surprised to see two pleasant and refined soldiers, totally different from those described in Nazi propaganda. “They looked nothing like the Bolshevik soldiers he’d imagined – the murderous arsonists.” Their uniforms were covered with mud and they looked more like high school students dressed up as soldiers. They cocked their rifles when they saw the large family. Nobody spoke because they had no common language.

Their body language was pleasant, almost friendly. Those moments were etched in the memory of Karl Schlösser even years later, when he wrote about the incident in his memoirs. As he put it: “One of them grabbed Mother and disappeared with her, while the other guarded the door with his rifle.” The family sat there, helpless, while in another room the Soviet soldier threw himself on Magdalena Schlösser and raped her.

A day later the grandparents, her husband’s parents, committed suicide.

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