The mass suicide of ordinary Germans in 1945
The small town of Demmin, located in the north-west corner of Germany, found itself in the immediate path of the rapidly advancing Russian forces. The catastrophic events that were to overtake the civilian population are described in Florian Huber’s compelling book “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself.”
Prior to the arrival of the Red Army, the people of Demmin had known the war only from the newspapers, radio, and weekly newsreels. Sometimes they were driven into their cellars by the air-raid sirens, but the bombers always flew on, to Stettin or Berlin. Not a single bomb fell on Demmin. The town is described by Huber as ‘an island in the middle of the war.’
With a resident population of 15,000, Demmin was also having to accomodate an unprecedented influx of refugees. The streets were overcrowded. People felt they were imprisoned, with hardly any space to move. There was a growing sense of alarm and anxiety. Those who were left were forced to grapple with the consequences of the Russian invasion.
People felt abandoned – The German army had retreated. There was no organised resistance. Demmin was at the mercy of the Russians.
People felt fearful – Propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels shared horrifying stories about the depravity of Red Army soldiers. Party newspapers featured photographs of them rampaging through the region looting, raping and killing.
People felt trapped – A knowledge of the geography is important. Demmin is like a peninsula, located in between three rivers. After the bridges had been blown up, there was no escape.
On 30 April 1945, the rumble and roar of the approaching tanks could be heard. Mass panic arose. People took refuge underground. Others mistakenly believed the rumours of Russian brutality were exagerated. Some people took more drastic measures. Florian Huber describes these cataclismic events. He says,
“In the days between 30 April and 3 May 1945, Demmin became the scene of an unprecedented wave of suicides. People went to their death in droves: young men and women, staid married couples, people in the prime of life, the retired and elderly. Many took their children with them: infants and toddlers, schoolchildren and adolescents… Those who went to their deaths were of all ages, classes and professions. The suicides of Demmin represented a cross-section of small-town German society. It was as if the death urge had suddenly gripped them all.”
Estimates suggest some 600 to 1,000 people took their own lives. Although some children were murdered by their parents before the parents killed themselves.
Let us consider some of the factors that led to the mass suicides of ordinary people.
(1) The shame and humiliation of defeat
After the First World War many German citizens were emotionally vulnerable. The stipulations of the Versailles treaty humiliated the German people. Hitler offered them hope. They looked to him to awaken national pride, to restore confidence, to facilitate economic recovery and to make Germany great again. They were prepared to overlook the suffering inflicted on his political enemies, Jews and other minorities. But they descended into despair as the war took its terrible toll. The dream that everything was possible had died, leaving the people with nothing.
Nazi ideology placed great importance on the concept of honour. Its loss posed a threat to the very foundations of life. Death was considered preferable to living in defeat.
As Magda Goebbels, who killed her six children before she and her husband Joseph Goebbels killed themselves, wrote:
“The world that will come after the Führer and National Socialism won’t be worth living in, so I have taken the children with me.”Magda Goebbels
For Nazi officials, capture and defeat signified the end of the world as they knew it. They had been taught that in such circumstances taking your life was the honourable thing to do. Some even described it as ‘heroic.’
Twenty-seven-year-old Lothar Buchner of the National Labour Service was dead even before Russian soldiers reached his house in Jahnstrasse. He had hanged himself, as had his wife, her sister, and their mother and grandmother. Before that happened, though, one of them had put a noose around the neck of three-year-old Georg-Peter.
(2) The fear and anxiety of personal loss
Ordinary people were terrified of the Russians. Nazi propagandists had been building up a terrifying picture of the “Bolshevik Mongol hordes”. Shocking photographs of dead children, and of women with rucked up skirts and torn underwear, who had clearly been raped before death, were widely published. The intention was to stiffen German resolve. The actual result was to induce panic.
The Russian soldiers were focussed on revenge and retribution. From day one of the eastern campaign the soviet side had suffered heavy losses. Slain soldiers, starved POWs, and murdered civilians accounted for the 14,000 casualties inflicted by the Germans daily. By the end of April 1945, at least twenty million Soviet nationals had lost their lives.
The Russian soldiers had suffered greatly. Their friends and loved ones had been killed. They were also tired and weary, having been in the field of battle since 1941 without a single days leave. They were closing in on a hard won victory. Nothing was going to hold them back and nothing was off limits. They took what they wanted. They looted shops and houses, killed whom they pleased, violated the women, irrespective of their age, and set fire to buildings. Two-thirds of the town of Demmin was torched.
Medical student, Lotte-Lore Martens saw clouds of smoke rising from the old town. But it was another sight that left her reeling: a desperate procession of women, running not so much from the fire as from their own fate.
Hosts of raped women, some of them still heavily bleeding, staggered up the road below, many trailing a child, or two or three or sometimes four. Sooner or later they all turned off right, towards the [River] Tollense. There was no stopping them. Mass psychosis. They went to their deaths in the water.
(3) The sense of guilt and remorse at having ‘sold out’ to an evil regime.
Not all Germans supported Hitler and his government agenda. There were those who opposed Nazi ideology but at great personal cost. Some gave in to the pressure to conform. In doing so they compromised their beliefs.
Gerhard Moldenhauer, a schoolmaster from Demmin, was an opponent of Hitler. Like millions of other Germans, he’d had to make a choice: either her could toe the line and silence his inner voice, or he could stay true to his convictions and be ostracised. Moldenhauer’s family were also keen Hitler supporters. He opted for a secure future and the unity of his family. He joined the Nazi Party, opening the door to a teaching career in the Third Reich.
Given the precariousness of the situation Moldenhauer shot his wife and three children, fired out of the window at the Russians advancing up the street and then shot himself before they could break down the door.
Wilhelm Damann, a friend of Moldenhauer’s, wrote a report a decade after these events. He believed this desperate act was prompted by Moldenhauer’s past life and the betrayal of his principles. He said,
“I see this act as that of a gambler who’d staked everything on one card and knew he’d lost. Presumably shame played a part too.”Wilhelm Damann
What about the survivors?
In 2015, Karl Schlosser, now 80, spoke about how he miraculously escaped death. He recalls the night his mother, Magdalena Schlosser, packed some provisions – and a handful of razorblades. The night the Soviet soldier has assaulted her, she had formed a resolve.
They escaped the smoldering ruins. In an open field, outside the town boundary, Karl saw his mother standing before him. In her hand she held one of the razor blades she had packed before they took flight. ‘We’re going to heaven now, to join your father!’ Magdalena Schlosser was planning to kill them – Karl, his brother, their grand-parents and great-grandparents – and then herself. There, in the middle of the field, she wanted to put an end to their nightmare. Fortunately, Karl’s grandfather intervened, shouting at her, grabbing her arms and wresting the razor blade from her hand. He saved the family’s lives.
On their return, ten-year-old Karl Schlosser saw corpses lying in the water, swollen to shapeless masses in the warm spring weather, some of them tied to one another with ropes. He saw hanged bodies swaying in the wind.
Decades later, Karl Schlosser says,
“I can still see those people hanging in the apple trees when I shut my eyes.”Karl Schlosser
What can we learn from the tragic events that overwhelmed the people of Demmin?
Be careful who you place your hope in:
After The Great War the German people felt humiliated. The needed something or someone to lift them out of their despair. Hitler emerged from lowly beginnings to inspire hope. He spoke of a new day and a new direction, detailing a glorious future. He was untouchable.
History records that Hitler was a flawed individual, a merciless tyrant, who murdered millions based only upon their race, political views, or sexuality. He may have been a persuasive orator but his words concealed a massive lie. He was no ‘Messiah.’
Don’t sell your soul for someone else’s dream:
The German people had surrendered to the rule of evil. They had sold out to a charismatic leader who believed only in death or victory. They had surrendered their right to think for themselves. With the grim reality of defeat came the sudden realisation –
Where do you go when your hopes are shattered, your dreams dismantled , and your future mired in guilt and shame? Where do you go when all that you value has been taken from you and the future is uncertain? Where do you go when you recognise you have been damaged by ideology and deceived by those in authority?
Find someone qualified to help you process your thoughts:
After the war many Germans were left with their troubled thoughts and memories. There was no one there to help them find a way out of the emptiness and confusion. There were so many questions that demanded answers, questions like “What is the meaning of life?”
The mass suicides of ordinary Germans reminds us that when life ceases to have meaning ‘What is there to live for?’
If you were to visit the south-eastern edge of the old cemetery in Demmin you would find a heavy boulder inscribed with words from the diary of a Demmin schoolteacher, written on the 1 May 1945: Suicides, overwhelmed by doubts about the meaning of life.
Marie Dabs, the furrier’s wife from Demmin, had never had any doubts about the meaning of her life. Her robust nature had got her through economic crises, illnesses and wartime hardships. She had adapted herself to life in the Third Reich without losing heart or mind; the Nazi’s death cult was alien to her. But when, in the last days of April 1945, she was caught up in the wave of suicide that crashed over Demmin, the mood of doom almost got the better of her. If she’d had poison to hand, she would have killed herself and her children.