Mass suicide in Demmin
On May 1, 1945, hundreds of people committed mass suicide in the town of Demmin, in the Province of Pomerania (now in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), Germany. The suicides occurred during a mass panic that was provoked by atrocities committed by soldiers of the Soviet Red Army, who had sacked the town the day before. Although death toll estimates vary, it is acknowledged to be the largest mass suicide ever recorded in Germany.
Nazi officials, the police, the Wehrmacht and a number of citizens had left the town before the arrival of the Red Army, while thousands of refugees from the East had also taken refuge in Demmin. Three Soviet negotiators were shot prior to the Soviet advance into Demmin and Hitler Youth, amongst others, fired on Soviet soldiers once inside the town. The retreating Wehrmacht had blown up the bridges over the Peene and Tollense rivers, which enclosed the town to the north, west and south, thus blocking the Red Army's advance and trapping the remaining civilians. The Soviet units looted and burned down the town, and committed mass rapes and executions.
Numerous inhabitants and refugees then committed suicide, with many families committing suicide together. Methods of suicides included drowning in the rivers, hanging, wrist-cutting, and use of firearms. Most bodies were buried in mass graves, and after the war, discussion of the mass suicide was tabooed by the East German Communist government.
During the last weeks of World War II, tens of thousands of Germans committed suicide, especially in territories occupied by the Red Army. The suicides occurred in two stages: in a first wave before the Red Army's arrival, in part due to a "fear of the Russians" spread by Nazi propaganda, and – as in Demmin – in a second wave after the Red Army's arrival, triggered by executions, looting and mass rapes committed by Soviet soldiers.
In 1945, Demmin had between 15,000 and 16,000 inhabitants. Thousands of refugees from the East were also in town, roughly doubling its population. In late April, when the Eastern Front drew closer (Battle of Berlin), women, children and elderly men were forced to dig a 5 kilometres (3.1 mi)-long anti-tank ditch east of the town. On April 28, the German flight from the town began: the Nazi party functionaries left on confiscated fire engines, the hospital was evacuated, all the police departed, and a number of civilians fled.
Demmin was reached by spearheads of the Soviet 65th Army and the 1st Guards Tank Corps at noon on April 30, 1945. At the tower of the church, a white banner was hoisted. According to an eyewitness, three Soviet negotiators, one of them a German officer, approached the anti-tank ditch and promised to spare Demmin's civilian population from "harassment" and looting in the case of a surrender without fight. The eyewitness was then 19 years old, serving as a German soldier, and laid in the anti-tank ditch. According to him, three shots were fired at the negotiators, who sank to the ground. The remaining Wehrmacht units, belonging to Army Group Weichsel, and some Waffen-SS, retreated through Demmin, and roughly about half an hour after the incident, blew up all bridges leading out of town behind them. By that time, Soviet units were already advancing through Demmin.
The destruction of the bridges prevented the Soviet from advancing westward toward Rostock, which they had planned to reach the same day. It also prevented the flight of the civilian population, who were trapped by the rivers surrounding the town. According to eyewitnesses, some "fanatics," primarily Hitler Youth, shot at the Soviet soldiers, despite several white flags being hoisted on Demmin's buildings. Memorably, a Nazi loyalist schoolteacher, having slain his wife and children, launched a grenade from a panzerfaust on Soviet soldiers, before finally hanging himself. According to the Focus magazine, an eyewitness stated that the first Soviet soldier was shot near the hospital at 11:05 AM by someone running amok, apparently the aforementioned teacher, who had before told a neighbor that he had killed his wife and his children. A third eyewitness confirmed the identity of the amok gunman in a report by Norddeutscher Rundfunk and blamed him and other fanatics for causing the Soviet troops to retaliate with plundering the town. Then, it was "quiet" until the evening, when the atrocities started. Another incident is said to have happened on 1 May, when the local pharmacist hosted a "victory party" of Soviet officers, killing them with poisoned wine. The Focus magazine however dismissed that as a "legend" and also theologian and historian Norbert Buske concluded in a 1995 study that the story had been fabricated.
The Soviet soldiers in turn were allowed to loot the town for a period of three days. They committed mass rapes of local women, according to eyewitnesses, "regardless of age", and shot German men who spoke up against this practice. Furthermore, large areas of the town were set on fire, with nearly all of the center burning down completely. 80% of the town was destroyed within three days. Reportedly, Soviet soldiers had brushed the houses' walls with gasoline before setting them on fire, and stood guard three days to prevent extinguishing. Many of the soldiers committing the mass rapes, executions, and pillaging were reportedly drunk. Already on April 30, when the atrocities started in the evening, Soviet soldiers had looted both Demmin's cereal distilleries and several alcohol stores.
These events, along with the fear of atrocities stirred up by the Nazi propaganda before, caused a mass panic among the population. Many families committed suicide together, locals as well as refugees. The suicides were either carried out with guns, razor blades or poison, others hanged or drowned themselves in the Peene and Tollense rivers. Several mothers killed their children before killing themselves, or walked into one of the rivers with a rock in a backpack and their babies in their arms. Some families committed suicide by walking into the rivers, tied together. A local forester first shot three young children, then their mothers, then his wife and then himself, surviving as a blind man. In another recorded case, a daughter cut the wrists of her parents.
Not in every case were the suicides successful. Some mothers who had drowned their children were unable to drown themselves thereafter. In other cases, the dose of poison used was lethal for the children, but not for their mothers. There were also cases where children survived the drowning. After a failed suicide, some committed suicide by another method. For example, a mother and her repeatedly raped daughter, who had repeatedly failed to drown themselves in the Peene river, committed suicide by hanging themselves in an attic. Another mother who before had poisoned and buried three of her four children tried to hang herself on an oak three times, but the rope was cut each time by Soviet soldiers. There are further records of Soviet soldiers preventing suicides by retrieving people from the river and nursing cut wrists. In another case, a grandfather forcibly took away a razor blade from a mother who was about to kill her children and herself after being raped by Soviet soldiers and hearing of the death of her husband. After Soviet soldiers had raped a girl's cousin to death and shot her uncle, her mother cut her wrist and the wrists of her brother and her own, likewise all other women of the family committed suicide, of whom the aunt was able to also save a grandmother of the said girl. One family survived because the 15-year-old son managed to persuade the raped mother to abort the suicide on their way down to the Tollense river.
Demmin's current chronicler, then 14 years old, recalls:
"My mother was also raped. And then, together with us and with neighbors, she hurried towards the Tollense river, resolutely prepared to jump into it. [...] My siblings [...] realized only much later that I had held her back, that I had pulled her out of what may be called a state of trance, to prevent her from jumping into the water. There were people. There was screaming. The people were prepared to die. Children were told: 'Do you want to live on? The town is burning. These and those are dead already. No, we do not want to live any more.' And so, people went mostly into the rivers. [...] That made even the Russians feel creepy. There are examples where Russians, too, tried to pull people out or hinder them. But these hundreds of people, they were unable to withhold. And the population here was extremely panicked."
Many of the dead were buried in mass graves on the Bartholomäi graveyard. Some were buried in orderly graves on the initiative of relatives. Others were not buried, as their bodies were not retrieved from the rivers. More than 900 bodies were buried in the mass graves. 500 of them were recorded on sheets of a warehouse accountant's book converted into a death register. Weeks after the mass suicide, bodies still floated in the rivers. Clothes and other belongings of the drowned formed a border along the rivers' banks, up to 2 metres (6.6 ft) wide.
Focus magazine (1995) quoted Norbert Buske as saying, "We will have to assume more than 1,000 deaths." According to Goeschel (2009), with reference to Buske (1995), "Some 700 to 1,000 people are said to have committed suicide directly after the arrival of the Red Army;" Grashoff (2006), using the same reference, stated that "estimates of the number of suicides range from 700 to 1,200." Der Spiegel (2005) put the death toll at "more than 1,000." The NDR stated that "nearly a thousand women and children committed suicide." Bauer (2008) wrote that "some thousand people committed suicide, mostly by drowning." According to psychologist Bscheid (2009) and jurist and sociologist Volkersen (2005), it was the largest recorded mass suicide in Germany. Both mentioned 900 suicides. Rostock historian Fred Mrotzek estimated that the death toll was 1,200 to 2,500 people.
Under the Communist East German government, the mass suicide became a taboo. The mass graves' site was not cared for deliberately, overgrew, and was at times tilled with sugar beets. The only visible hint of the mass grave was a solitary monument, soon overgrown, too, with the engraved date "1945". In contrast, a 20 metres (66 ft) obelisk was erected in Demmin's burned down center to commemorate Soviet soldiers who had died in the area. The local museum listed "2,300 deaths due to warfare and famine" for the years of 1945 and 1946. As late as 1989, the chronicle of the district's Communist party blamed the destruction of the town on Werwolf and Hitler Youth activities. The atrocities were blamed on Germans disguised as Soviets by a document found in the local Soviet military administration in Neubrandenburg. As Der Spiegel puts it:
"Arbitrary executions, the rapes, the torching of towns - the atrocities of the Red Army were a taboo in the GDR, the mass suicides as well. Those who had witnessed it all or even survived a failed suicide - children, elderly, raped women - were ashamed and kept quiet. Somehow, life had to go on in the system of the liberators. Today, many do not want to remember, for too long they had struggled to find a balance between what they had suffered and what they had learned."
Only a few East German documents mentioned the events. The first post-war district official (Landrat) of Demmin, who was confirmed in this position by the Soviet authorities on May 15, 1945, briefly mentioned the events in an internal "activity report" of November 21, speaking of more than 700 suicide victims. Dieter Krüger, eyewitness of the events, son of a raped mother and survivor of a failed family suicide, started recording the mass suicide when working for the local museum in the 1980s, but his works were confiscated. Historian Erla Vensky managed to "smuggle" a line about a "panic, in the course of which 700 people committed suicide" into the "History of the local workers' movement".
After the collapse of the East German government, some of the eyewitnesses, including Demmin's current chronicler, "broke the silence" and made their account of the mass suicide public. A new memorial was dedicated at the site of the mass graves. A dedicated issue of a journal published by the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern was released in 1995. Since, accounts of the event were published by German media. In 2008, the mass suicide was thematized in a novel.
Similar mass suicides
- Neubrandenburg: more than 600 suicides
- Burg Stargard: 120 suicides
- Neustrelitz: 681 suicides
- Penzlin: 230 suicides
- Tessin: 107 suicides
- Vietzen and Rechlin: mass suicide by drowning in Lake Müritz
- Teterow, Güstrow, Rostock, Bad Doberan: hundreds of suicides each
- Malchin more than 500 suicides, buried in a mass grave
- Schönlanke (now Trzcianka): about 500 suicides
- Stolp (now Słupsk): about 1000 suicides
- Lauenburg (now Lębork): about 600 suicides
- Grünberg (now Zielona Góra): about 500 suicides
- Berlin: more than 4,000 suicides in April and May, including mass suicides
- Lakotta, Beate (2005-03-05). "Tief vergraben, nicht dran rühren" (in German). SPON. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
- Grasshoff, Udo (2006). "In einem Anfall von Depression--": Selbsttötungen in der DDR (in German). Ch. Links Verlag. p. 184. ISBN 978-3-86153-420-4. Quote: "Es handelte sich dabei zum Teil um eine Panikreaktion aus einer von der nationalsozialistischen Propaganda geschürten Angst vor den Russen; die Selbsttötungswellen ereigneten sich aber zumeist in zwei Phasen. Den ersten von Angst und Panik bestimmten Selbsttötungen folgte in vielen Orten eine zweite Selbsttötungswelle, nachdem es zu Hinrichtungen, Plünderungen und massenhaften Vergewaltigungen durch die Besatzer gekommen war. Im mecklenburgischen Demmin zum Beispiel nahmen sich innerhalb von einer Woche von ca. 15000 Einwohnern etwa 700 das Leben. [...] 15: Schätzungen der Zahl der Selbsttötungen reichen von 700 bis 1200. Vgl Norbert Buske, Das Kriegsende in Demmin, Schwerin 1995, S. 44f." Translation: In part, this was a panic reaction, out of a fear of the Russians, fuelled by Nazi propaganda; For the most part, the suicides occurred in two waves. The first suicides, which were sparked by fear and panic, were, in many places, followed by a second wave of suicides, after executions, looting and mass rapes had occurred. For example, in the course of one week, some 700 of 15,000 inhabitants killed themselves in the Mecklenburgian town of Demmin. [...] 15: Estimates of the number of suicides range from 700 to 1,200. Cf. Norbert Buske (1995), Das Kriegsende in Demmin, Schwerin, p. 44-45.
- Bauer, Kurt (2005). Nationalsozialismus: Ursprünge, Anfänge, Aufstieg und Fall (in German). UTB. p. 533. ISBN 978-3-8252-3076-0. Quote: "Im Anschluß an die Kampfhandlungen kam es immer wieder zu Massakern an der Zivilbevölkerung und an Wehrmachtssoldaten, die sich ergeben hatten. Ausgedehnte Plünderungen und Raubzüge waren alltägliche Begleiterscheinungen des Vormarsches der Roten Armee. Zum kollektiven Trauma wurden die massrenhaften Vergewaltigungen deutscher Frauen durch die russische Soldateska. [...] Von zwei Millionen Vergewaltigungsopfern in den von der Roten Armee besetzten deutschen Gebieten ist in der Literatur die Rede. Jede zehnte Frau dürfte an den Folgen der Massenvergewaltigungen gestorben sein oder anschließend Suizid verübt haben. Massenselbsttötungen von Menschen, die der Roten Armee nicht hatten entkommen können, waren ein weiteres, erschreckendes Phänomen in der Kriegsendphase. In der vorpommerschen Kleinstadt Demmin verübten in den ersten Maitagen 1945 in einer Massenpsychose an die 1000 Menschen Selbstmord, zumeist durch Ertränken." Translation: After the fighting, there were repeated massacres of civilians and Wehrmacht soldiers who had surrendered. Extensive looting and raids were every-day occurrences during the Red Army's advance. Mass rapes of German women by Russian soldiers became a pervasive trauma. Two million rape victims are mentioned by writings at the time. One in every ten women died of the mass rapes, or else committed suicide afterwards. These mass suicides of people who had not been able to escape the Red Army were another terrifying phenomenon in the final stage of the war. In the small West Pomeranian town of Demmin, some 1,000 people committed suicide during the first days of May 1945, in most cases by drowning themselves.
- Vernier, Robert (1995-05-08). "Tragödie an der Peene" (in German). Focus. Retrieved 2010-08-20.
- Zimmer, Gisela. "Kriegsende in Demmin" (in German). NDR. p. 1. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
- Batow, P.I.: Операция Одер, Боевые действия 65-й армий в Берлинской операций - апрел - май 1945 года. (Russian), museum Demmin, signature 10.629.
- Lakotta, Beate (2005-03-05). "Tief vergraben, nicht dran rühren" (in German). SPON. Retrieved 2010-08-16. "Studienrat Moldenhauer, ein Nazi-Mitläufer, erschoss seine Frau und seine drei Kinder, bevor er eine Panzerfaust auf die Russen abfeuerte und sich erhängte (Translation: Lecturer Moldenhauer, a Nazi follower, shot dead his wife and his three children prior to launching a panzerfaust grenade at the Russians and then hanging himself)."
- Vernier, Robert (1995-05-08). "Tragödie an der Peene" (in German). Focus. Retrieved 2010-08-20. "'Der erste Russe wurde um fünf nach elf vor dem roten Krankenhaus erschossen', erzählt der Demminer Uhrmacher Rolf-Dietrich Schultz. Damals, mit neun Jahren, ist er von einem Keller in der Treptower Straße aus Augenzeuge. Der Amokschütze ist offenbar Studienrat Gerhard Moldenhauer. Der NSDAP-Mitläufer hatte einer Nachbarin erklärt: 'Ich habe eben meine Frau und meine Kinder erschossen, nun will ich noch ein paar Russen umlegen.' Ein Scharmützel gibt es auch am Luisentor. Das alte Stadttor, zuletzt Treffpunkt der Hitlerjungen, beschießen die Russen mit Panzergranaten. Dann herrscht – zunächst – Ruhe. Die Exzesse beginnen noch am Abend (Translation: The first Russian was shot dead at five past eleven in front of the red hospital,' stated watchmaker Rolf-Dietrich Schultz from Demmin. Back then, aged nine, he was an eyewitness, watching from a cellar in Treptower Straße. The gunman was apparently Lecturer Gerhard Moldenhauer. The NSDAP follower had declared to a neighbour: 'I've just shot my wife and children, now I just want to pick off some Russians'. A skirmish also took place at Louisentor gate. The old towngate, which used to be a meeting point of the Hitler Youth, was being shelled with tank grenades by the Russians. Then, there was a - temporary - silence. The true violence started later that evening)."
- Zimmer, Gisela. "Kriegsende in Demmin" (in German). NDR. p. 1. Retrieved 2010-08-23. Citing Demmin chronicler Hans-Gerhardt Quadt who was 14 at the time: "Es gab Fanatiker, die auf vorbeiziehende Russen schossen, die sich das auch vorgenommen hatten. Ich nehme den Studienrat Gerhard Moldenhauer, der seiner Nachbarin sagte: ‚Ich habe eben meine Familie getötet, jetzt lege ich noch einige Russen um und dann scheide ich selbst aus dem Leben.’ Und so hat er das auch gemacht, und hat hiermit eine Schuld auf sich geladen, die nun nach sowjetischem Kriegsrecht dazu führte, dass Demmin drei Tage zur Plünderung freigegeben wurde. Demmin ist drei Tage zur Plünderung freigegeben und das bedeutete, wir zünden die Stadt an und wir üben hier das Kriegsrecht aus. (lit.: There were fanatics who shot at Russians passing through and who were willing to do that. For example Lecturer Gerhard Moldenhauer who told his neighbour: 'I have just killed my family, now I'm going to pick off some Russians and then I'm going to pass away too.' And that he did and thereby he made himself guilty of causing three days of plundering in Demmin. According to Soviet martial law: ‘Demmin may be plundered at will for three days’ and that meant 'we'll burn the city and bring martial law upon them'".)
- Zimmer, Gisela. "Kriegsende in Demmin" (in German). NDR. p. 2. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
- Buske, Norbert (1995). Das Kriegsende in Demmin 1945. Berichte, Erinnerungen, Dokumente. Landeskundliche Hefte (in German). Schwerin: Helms. ISBN 3-931185-04-4.
- Zimmer, Gisela. "Kriegsende in Demmin" (in German). NDR. p. 3. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
- Zimmer, Gisela. "Kriegsende in Demmin" (in German). NDR. p. 1. Retrieved 2010-08-16. Quote: "[...] auch meine Mutter fiel der Vergewaltigung anheim. Und dann rannte sie mit uns und mit Nachbarn in Richtung Tollense und hatte den absoluten Vorsatz hineinzuspringen. [...] Meine Geschwister [...] die haben das auch erst viel später mitbekommen, dass ich meine Mutter zurückgehalten habe, sie aus diesem - ja man könnte es Trance-Zustand nennen - gerissen habe, um sie daran zu hindern, nicht ins Wasser zu springen. Da waren Menschen. Es gab Schreie. Die Menschen waren bereit zu sterben. Kindern wurde gesagt: 'Wollt ihr noch leben? Die Stadt brennt. Die und die sind auch schon tot. Nein, wir wollen nicht mehr leben.' Und so sind die Menschen zumeist in die Flüsse gegangen. [...] Das wurde auch den Russen unheimlich. Es gibt Beispiele, wo auch die Russen versucht haben, Menschen rauszuholen oder sie daran zu hindern. Aber die Hunderte von Menschen haben sie nicht hindern können. Und die Bevölkerung hier war in einer riesigen Panik."
- Zimmer, Gisela. "Kriegsende in Demmin" (in German). NDR. p. 4. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
- Vernier, Robert (1995-05-08). "Tragödie an der Peene" (in German). Focus. Retrieved 2010-08-20. Citing Buske (1995): Das Kriegsende in Demmin. Quote: "Wir werden von mehr als 1000 Toten auszugehen haben (lit.: we will have to assume a number of more than 1,000 dead)."
- Goeschel, Christian (2009). Suicide in Nazi Germany. Oxford University Press US. pp. 162, 205. ISBN 0-19-953256-7.
- Lakotta, Beate (2005-03-05). "Tief vergraben, nicht dran rühren" (in German). SPON. Retrieved 2010-08-16. "Über 1000 Menschen in dem vorpommerschen Städtchen töteten sich selbst samt ihren Familien (lit.: More than 1,000 people in that Western Pommeranian town killed themselves and their families)."
- Zimmer, Gisela. "Kriegsende in Demmin" (in German). NDR. p. 1. Retrieved 2010-08-16. "Die Schreckensbilanz am Ende: fast tausend Frauen und Kinder begehen Selbstmord (lit.: The horrible outcome: almost a thousand women and children commit suicide)."
- Bscheid, Andrea Karoline (2009). "Das Nürnberger Bündnis gegen Depression. Prä/Post-Vergleich eines depressions- und suizidpräventiven Programms nach 2 Jahren Intervention" (in German). University of Munich. p. 19. "Die bislang größte bekannte Massenselbsttötung in der deutschen Geschichte ereignete sich im Mai 1945 in Demmin. Ca. 900 Einwohner nahmen sich vor und nach dem Einmarsch der Roten Armee das Leben, indem sie sich selbst in der Peene ertränkten (lit.: The greatest mass suicide that is known in the history of Germany so far took place in May 1945 in Demmin. About 900 citizens took their lives before, and after the Soviet invasion [of the town] by drowning themselves in the Peene river)."
- Volkersen, Nils (2005). 50 einfache Dinge, die Sie über Ihr Recht wissen sollten (in German). Westend-Verlag. p. 86. ISBN 3-938060-05-0.
- Büssem, Axel (2005-05-02). "Der Massenselbstmord von Demmin" (in German). DPA, Stern. Retrieved 2010-08-21.
- "Der Massenselbstmord im mecklenburgischen Demmin" (in German). Naumburger Tageblatt/Mitteldeutsche Zeitung. 2005-04-27. Retrieved 2010-08-21.
- Lakotta, Beate (2005-03-05). "Tief vergraben, nicht dran rühren" (in German). SPON. Retrieved 2010-08-16. Quote: "Willkürliche Erschießungen, die Vergewaltigungen, das Abfackeln der Städte - die Gräueltaten der Roten Armee waren in der DDR tabu, ebenso die Massenselbstmorde. Diejenigen, die alles mitangesehen oder gar einen gescheiterten Suizidversuch hinter sich hatten - Kinder, Alte, vergewaltigte Frauen - schämten sich und hielten still. Irgendwie musste das Leben im System der Befreier ja weitergehen. Heute mögen manche nichts mehr davon hören, lange genug haben sie um die Balance zwischen Erlittenem und Erlerntem gerungen."
- Bessel, Richard (2003). "Policing in East Germany in the wake of the Second World War". Crime, histoire et sociétés 7 (2): 5–21: 6–7. Referencing MLHA, Kreistag/Rat des Kreises Demmin, pp. 46ff, 62-64: [The Landrat des Kreises Demmin] to the Präsident des Landes Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, Abteilung Innere Verwaltung, [Demmin], 21. Nov 1945, Tätigkeitsbericht über die Verwaltung des Kreises Demmin vom Mai bis November 1945. Quote: "365 houses, roughly 70% of the town, lay in ruins, over 700 inhabitants had ended their lives by suicide."
- Zimmer, Gisela. "Kriegsende in Demmin" (in German). NDR. p. 5. Retrieved 2010-08-16.
- "Canitz' Verlangen (review)". mare online. Retrieved 2010-09-04.
- Subject literature
- Buske, Norbert (1995). Das Kriegsende in Demmin 1945. Berichte, Erinnerungen, Dokumente [The End of the War in Demmin in 1945. Accounts, Memories, Documents]. Landeskundliche Hefte (in German). Schwerin: Helms. ISBN 3-931185-04-4.
- Batov, Pavel Ivanovich (2000). В походах и боях [In Campaigns And Battles] (in Russian). Moscow: Golos. ISBN 5-7117-0212-2.
- Collection of photographs showing Demmin in 1945, after the fire (demminarchiv.de)
- Collection of photographs showing Demmin in 1945, after the fire (demmin-web.de)