Mass suicides in 1945 Nazi Germany

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The Deputy Mayor of Leipzig and his wife and daughter, who committed suicide in the Neues Rathaus as American troops were entering the city on 20 April, 1945. The Mayor and his family also killed themselves. Picture by Robert Capa

Mass suicides in 1945 Nazi Germany was the large-scale deaths of civilians, government officials and military personnel during the final weeks of the Third Reich and the war in Europe. Studies have shown there were numerous reasons for the suicides. These include the influence of Nazi propaganda (reaction to the suicide of Adolf Hitler), staying loyal to the tenets of the Nazi Party, the nation's impending defeat and the anticipated Allied occupation of Nazi Germany.

There were three distinct periods of suicides between January and May 1945 when thousands of people took their own lives. Life Magazine reported that: "In the last days of the war the overwhelming realization of utter defeat was too much for many Germans. Stripped of the bayonets and bombast which had given them power, they could not face a reckoning with either their conquerors or their consciences. These found the quickest and surest escape in what Germans call selbstmord, self-murder."[1] German psychiatrist Erich Menninger-Lerchenthal noted the existence of "organised mass suicide on a large scale which had previously not occurred in the history of Europe [...] there are suicides which do not have anything to do with mental illness or some moral and intellectual deviance, but predominantly with the continuity of a heavy political defeat and the fear of being held responsible".[2]

Overview[edit]

Reasons[edit]

There were several reasons why so many people decided to end their lives in the last months of the war. First, by 1945 Nazi Propaganda had created fear among some sections of the population about the impending military invasion of their country by the Soviets or western Allies. Information films from the Reichs Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda repeatedly chided audiences about why Germany must not surrender telling the people they faced the threat of torture, rape and death in defeat. Secondly, many Nazis - who had been indoctrinated in unquestioning loyalty to the party - also felt obliged to follow the example of Adolf Hitler when it was reported that the Führer had taken his own life. Finally others killed themselves because they did know what would happen to them following defeat. The Soviets, America and UK had made it clear in 1943, with the Moscow Declaration, that all those considered to be war criminals would face judgement. Many party officials and military personnel were therefore aware they would face severe punishment for their political beliefs and conduct during the war.

Suicides happened in three successive waves:

  • The first phase began in early January 1945, when Soviet forces drove Germany back to its territories in East Prussia and Silesia.
  • The second phase occurred in April and May when numerous Nazi Party officials and senior military personnel committed suicide. Suicide levels reached their maximum in Berlin in April 1945 when 3,881 people killed themselves during the Battle of Berlin.
  • The final phase occurred after the takeover of Germany by the Allies.

Although each suicide had its own unique motives, the scale of the suicide waves suggests that fear and anxiety were common motivations.[3] There were also a large number of family suicides or murder-suicides where mothers and fathers killed themselves and their children.[4]

Methods[edit]

The body of Volkssturm Bataillonsführer Walter Doenicke lies next to a torn portrait of Hitler. Doenicke committed suicide in the city hall, Leipzig, Germany shortly before the arrival of allied troops on 19 April 1945.

Cyanide capsules were one of the most common ways that people killed themselves in the last days of the war. On 12 April 1945, members of the Hitler Youth distributed cyanide pills to audience members during the last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic. Prior to his own suicide in the Führerbunker, Hitler ensured all his staff had been given poison capsules.

In March 1945, the British reprinted a German-language black propaganda postcard, supposedly issued within the Third Reich, giving detailed instructions on how to hang oneself with the minimum amount of pain.[5]

Members of the German armed forces often used weapons to end their lives. For example, SS-Obergruppenführer Ernst-Robert Grawitz killed himself and his family with a grenade, Wehrmacht generals Wilhelm Burgdorf and Hans Krebs shot themselves in the head with their pistols, and Josef Terboven, the Reichskommissar for Norway, blew himself up in a bunker by detonating 50 kg (110 lb) of dynamite.

Locations[edit]

More than 7,000 suicides were reported in Berlin in 1945, but it is thought that many suicides went unreported due to the chaos of the post-war period.[6] Other locations where suicides happened include:

State encouragement[edit]

The willingness to commit suicide before accepting defeat was a key Nazi idea during the Second World War.[8] Adolf Hitler declared his preference of suicide over defeat in a speech he gave in the Reichstag during the invasion of Poland in 1939, saying, "I now wish to be nothing other than the first soldier of the German Reich. Therefore I have put on that tunic which has always been the most holy and dear to me. I shall not take it off again until after victory is ours, or I shall not live to see the day!"[9]

When it became apparent that the Nazis were about to lose the war, Germany's leaders (including Goebbels and Hitler) spoke publicly in favour of suicide as an option. Hitler declared on 30 August 1944 during a military briefing, "It’s only [a fraction] of a second. Then one is redeemed of everything and finds tranquility and eternal peace."[10][11] Many supporters of Nazi ideology and party shared the apocalyptic message of National Socialism and looked forward to ending their lives.[12] Years of exposure to Nazi propaganda also led many Germans to assume that suicide was the only way out.[13]

The glorification of violent death is believed to have originated with the post-World War I Nazi struggle for power and the early deaths of Nazi activists such as Horst Wessel. In the same way, the suicides of leading Nazis were meant to be seen as heroic sacrifices.[14] In a radio speech on 28 February 1945 (circulated in most newspapers in the Reich on 1 March), Joseph Goebbels declared on public radio that, if Germany were to be defeated, he would "cheerfully throw away his life" as Cato the Younger did.[15] On 28 March of the same year, the Nazi paper Völkischer Beobachter published an article titled "Risk of One's Life" by Wilhelm Pleyer, which called on Germans to fight to the death.[16]

The suicidal atmosphere was enhanced by the Nazis' report of numerous Soviet mass graves and other atrocities committed by the NKVD and Red Army towards the end of the war.[17] A Nazi leaflet distributed in February 1945 in Czech territories warned German readers about the "Bolshevik murderer-pack" whose victory would lead to "incredible hatred, looting, hunger, shots in the back of the neck, deportation and extermination" and appealed to German men to "save German women and girls from defilement and slaughter by the Bolshevik bloodhounds".[18] These fears, and the portrayal of "Soviet Bolsheviks" as sub-human monsters, led to a number of mass suicides in eastern Germany. One female clerk in the city of Schönlanke within Pomerania said, "Out of fear of these animals from the east, many Schönlankers ended their lives. (around 500 of them) Whole families were wiped out in this way."[19] The fear of Soviet occupation was so great that even people living far from Soviet lines, including a pensioner in Hamburg, killed themselves in fear of what Soviet soldiers would do to them.[20] The behaviour of Soviet troops also played a role, as many Germans committed suicide to avoid rape or out of shame at having been raped.[21] In addition, many suicides are believed to have occurred due to depression caused or exacerbated by living in a war zone among ruins.[22]

Notable suicides[edit]

Himmler's corpse after his suicide by poison in Allied custody, 1945

Many prominent Nazis, Nazi followers, and members of the armed forces committed suicide during the last days of the war. Others killed themselves after being captured. The list includes 8 out of 41 NSDAP regional leaders who held office between 1926 and 1945, 7 out of 47 higher SS and police leaders, 53 out of 554 Army generals, 14 out of 98 Luftwaffe generals, 11 out of 53 admirals in the Kriegsmarine, and an unknown number of junior officials.[23]

References[edit]

  1. ^ "Suicides: Nazis go down to defeat in a wave of selbstmord". Life Magazine, 14 May 1945. Accessed 10 April 2011.
  2. ^ Goeschel page 165
  3. ^ Goeschel page 164
  4. ^ Goeschel page 163
  5. ^ H.1321, Hanging Instructions postcard.
  6. ^ Goeschel page 160
  7. ^ (German) Lakotta, Beate (5 March 2005). "Tief vergraben, nicht dran rühren" SPON. http://www.spiegel.de/spiegel/spiegelspecial/d-39863564.html. Retrieved 16 August 2010
  8. ^ Goeschel page 8
  9. ^ Goeschel page 150
  10. ^ Goeschel page 151–152
  11. ^ Bessel, page 188
  12. ^ Bessel, Ludtke, Weisbrod pages 78–79
  13. ^ Bessel page 188
  14. ^ Goeschel page 154
  15. ^ Goeschel page 154
  16. ^ Goeschel page 154
  17. ^ Goeschel page 157
  18. ^ Goeschel page 157
  19. ^ Goeschel page 158, 162
  20. ^ Goeschel page 159
  21. ^ Goeschel page 165
  22. ^ Goeschel page 165
  23. ^ Goeschel page 153

Sources[edit]