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. The city's Mayor and his family also killed themselves. Photo by J. Malan Heslop U.S. Army Signal Corps photographer, 20th April 1945

Germany was stricken by a series of unprecedented waves of suicides during the final days of the Nazi regime. The reasons for these waves of suicides were numerous and include the effects of Nazi propaganda, the example of the suicide of Adolf Hitler, victims' attachment to the ideals of the Nazi Party, a reaction to the loss of the war and, consequently, the anticipated Allied occupation of Nazi Germany.

The phenomenon[edit]

There were many reasons for the mass suicides amongst Germans in 1945. Many feared impending Soviet or other Allied invasion, with what they saw as the inevitable deaths, rapes and torture. Others were afraid of imprisonment by the Allies. Many were fearful of being persecuted for their political beliefs or actions during the war. Many were simply mortified by Germany's defeat and even by the death of Hitler.

Life Magazine speculated about the suicides: "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]

The Catholic 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]

Three phases of the suicide wave[edit]

The suicides happened in three 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 many Nazi officials committed suicide;
  • The final phase occurred after the takeover of Germany by the Allies.

While each suicide had its own unique motives, the scale of the suicide waves suggests that fear and anxiety were common motivations.[3]

Nazi propaganda and suicides[edit]

The willingness to commit suicide before accepting defeat was a key Nazi idea during the Second World War.[4] 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!"[5]

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 (the fraction) of a second. Then one is redeemed of everything and finds tranquility and eternal peace."[6][7] Many supporters of Nazi ideology and party shared the apocalyptic message of National Socialism and looked forward to ending their lives.[8] Years of exposure to Nazi propaganda also led many Germans to assume that suicide was the only way out.[9]

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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12]

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.[13] 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".[14] 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."[15] 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.[16] 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.[17] In addition, many suicides are believed to have occurred due to depression caused or exacerbated by living in a war zone among ruins.[18]

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 9 April 1945.

A common method of suicide was cyanide poisoning. Many Germans hoarded cyanide capsules in anticipation of the Allied occupation, and there are stories about Hitler giving out cyanide to members of his staff. It was also claimed by some that cyanide pills were distributed by the Hitler Youth during the last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic on 12 April 1945. Suicide levels reached their maximum in Berlin in April 1945 when 3,881 people killed themselves during the Battle of Berlin.[citation needed]

In March 1945, the British printed a German-language black propaganda postcard, supposedly issued by the Nazis, which encouraged suicide by hanging, giving detailed instructions as to how this can be achieved with minimum pain.[19] It is not clear why this postcard was designed, or whether anybody actually followed its instructions.

Locations[edit]

Just over 7,000 suicides were reported in Berlin during the year 1945, but it is thought that many suicides went unreported due to the chaos of the post-war period.[20] Other locations where suicides happened include:

There were also a large number of family suicides or murder-suicides; both mothers and fathers are reported as having killed their children.[22]

Notable suicides[edit]

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

Other notable examples include:

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 8
  5. ^ Goeschel page 150
  6. ^ Goeschel page 151–152
  7. ^ Bessel, page 188
  8. ^ Bessel, Ludtke, Weisbrod pages 78–79
  9. ^ Bessel page 188
  10. ^ Goeschel page 154
  11. ^ Goeschel page 154
  12. ^ Goeschel page 154
  13. ^ Goeschel page 157
  14. ^ Goeschel page 157
  15. ^ Goeschel page 158, 162
  16. ^ Goeschel page 159
  17. ^ Goeschel page 165
  18. ^ Goeschel page 165
  19. ^ H.1321, Hanging Instructions postcard. http://www.psywar.org/postcards.php
  20. ^ Goeschel page 160
  21. ^ (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
  22. ^ Goeschel page 163
  23. ^ Goeschel page 153

Sources[edit]