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‘The thought of living on is unbearable’: the story behind the German mass suicides of 1945

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Soldiers of the German Armed Forces who were captured by the Red Army in Berlin, Germany, 1945
Soldiers of the German Armed Forces who were captured by the Red Army in Berlin, Germany, 1945 Credit: dpa picture alliance / Alamy Stock Photo 

Laurence Rees reviews Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself​ by Florian Huber, translated by Imogen Taylor

If you’re German, it can be hard to discuss the war. The legacy of the Holocaust is so atrocious that it’s difficult to talk about home-grown suffering without looking as if you’re saying Germans were the real victims. And that’s why Florian Huber’s book about mass suicides in the last year of the war is so intriguing. Because here is a German dealing directly with German trauma.

About a quarter of the book – by far its strongest section – is dedicated to the suicides at Demmin in East Germany. Many of the town’s inhabitants killed their families and then themselves as the Red Army arrived at the end of April 1945. Gerhard Moldenhauer, for instance, announced to a neighbour, “I’ve just shot my wife and children. Now I’m going to do in a few Russians!” He subsequently put a bullet in his own head as the Soviet soldiers approached his home.

Others hanged themselves, took poison or – and this was the most common method of suicide – drowned themselves in one of the rivers that surrounded Demmin. Lotte-Lore Martens witnessed “a never-ending line of women... some of them still heavily bleeding... in a trance, trailing a child – or two or three or sometimes four” moving towards the water. “There was no stopping them. Mass psychosis.”

The immediate cause of this trauma is not hard to understand – many of these women had been raped, often gang-raped, by soldiers. They had also witnessed the Red Army burning their town, and getting drunk on anything they could find – including bottles of cologne. These German women looked at life and saw it not worth living, for them or their children.

Us Russians in Berlin, 1945 Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo

It’s horrific, but it’s not a new story. More than 20 years ago I visited Demmin and filmed an interview with an eyewitness to the suicides for Nazis: A Warning from History, a TV series I made for the BBC which was also shown in Germany. Nonetheless, Huber tells this terrible history with compassion and care. He writes with an ease that makes the book flow smoothly despite the bleak nature of the subject matter, aided by a fine translation from the German by Imogen Taylor. You would have to be heartless not to be moved as you read this litany of rape and suicide.

The pathos of many of the letters left behind is deeply affecting. “The thought of living on is unbearable,” wrote one German schoolteacher after the defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, “and it is equally unthinkable that I could now live a happy life with you, darling Inge, and our dear little girl, because the war – which seems to me as good as lost, what with the indestructible Bolsheviks on one side and the Americans joining on the other – will leave me unable to earn sufficient money, either now or in the future.” After writing this note to his wife, he killed himself.

Another diary entry from early 1945 reveals how “people are talking about cyanide, which seems to be available in any quantity. The question of whether to resort to it is not even debated. Only the requisite quantity is discussed – in an easy, offhand manner, the way people usually talk about, say, food.”

But though the title leads one to expect that the whole book will be about the suicides, Huber – in an attempt to explain why Germans killed themselves – spends the second half of the work mostly telling the familiar history of the Third Reich from a variety of personal perspectives. All this isn’t really necessary. In fact, Huber answers his own question about the motivation for many of these suicides in one sentence: “After 12 years imbibing Nazi ideology, those who had believed in it, identifying as part of the national community and subscribing to its moral and social norms, faced not just a collective loss of meaning but the threat of personal disintegration.”

As Huber also points out, the proportion of Nazi voters in Demmin in the March 1933 elections was higher than the national average. They even demonstrated their affection for the regime by making a “living swastika” in the town hall square. And thus – though Huber does not put it quite this way – it’s reasonable to suppose that many of those who decided to kill themselves at the end of the war must have supported Adolf Hitler and the Nazis; must have looked the other way when the Jews were deported; would have been cheering to the heavens if their Führer had triumphed and turned Ukraine and Russia into slave states. Now, their world had collapsed, and they had to suffer the terrible revenge of the Red Army.

Poverty-stricken youths in East Germany, 1948 Credit: Hulton Deutsch

Of course, none of that excuses what Soviet soldiers did. The atrocities they committed were horrifying war crimes and the guilty should have been held accountable – and mostly never were. But the primary reason people suffered was because their leaders launched the most disgusting racist war the world has ever seen.

In the occupied Soviet Union, Nazi soldiers committed countless crimes. They forced villagers to walk down roads they guessed were mined, and – not surprisingly – many of these human mine detectors were blown to pieces. They operated a “hunger” policy with the aim of starving tens of millions of people to death. In Kharkov, where this policy was implemented, the inhabitants were reduced to eating grass and the bark from trees. And this is without even mentioning the horrors of the Holocaust, with millions of Jews shot beside pits in the Soviet Union or gassed in Auschwitz and the other death camps.

Yet you will look in vain in this book for substantive eyewitness testimony from anyone who suffered in this way. And without this context, there is a danger that the Red Army soldiers who invaded Germany might be perceived as something akin to the “subhuman Bolshevik horde” that Nazi propaganda claimed they were, rather than an army bent on vengeance. The reality is that the Nazis sowed the wind and ordinary Germans reaped the whirlwind.

In these terrible circumstances, it is perhaps surprising that more people were not driven to suicide. Why this didn’t happen is not an issue that Huber properly addresses. Instead, he believes the suicides were an “epidemic”. But is this the correct way to describe the scale of what occurred? One problem is that no one knows exactly how many Germans took their own lives. Huber, rather confusingly, quotes two different estimates for the toll in Demmin. Early in the book he says “seven hundred to a thousand” suicides, and later “between five hundred and more than a thousand”. But whatever the precise figure within these parameters, the fact is that more than 90 per cent of the population of Demmin didn’t kill themselves, despite receiving the most appalling treatment that must have tested the resolve of the strongest-hearted.

Overall, across the whole of Germany, the estimate is that tens of thousands committed suicide in the last years of the war. But when you consider that perhaps two million German women were raped, that means that at least 95 per cent of women who were so horribly abused managed to carry on with their lives, often subsequently to endure hunger, disease and further suffering. Isn’t that something that should make us marvel at the strength of the human spirit?

Ultimately, the book offers us confirmation of truths we already knew. War is hell and ordinary people suffer.

Florian Huber’s Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans, 1945 is published by Allen Lane at £20. To order your copy for £16.99 call 0844 871 1514 or visit the Telegraph bookshop.