This week marks the 70th anniversary of a string of events that occurred at the end of World War II in Europe, most of them associated with the Battle of Berlin and the end of the Nazi regime. Most people know that Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker (which is itself the focus of some interesting history) on April 30, 1945 as Soviet troops were closing in on the last pitiful remnants of the dying Nazi state. Many people have also heard of the other suicides of top Nazis that occurred in the Führerbunker at about the same time, including Eva Braun Hitler, Adolf’s long-time mistress whom he finally married just that day, plus the odious Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife Magda, who horribly murdered their six children to boot. But these high-profile suicides were only the tip of the iceberg. In reality they were only a small part of several successive waves of politically-motivated suicides that rippled through Germany in the closing days of World War II, a suicide plague which claimed at least 7,000 lives and probably many more. It’s a grim subject, but one worth thinking about.
Suicide is definitely a touchy topic. Most of us reflexively think of suicide as a deeply individual act, usually motivated by intensely personal factors that often even a victim’s closest loved ones and friends can’t understand or may not even be aware of. This is certainly true of my own experience; the suicide of my best friend, which occurred in 2000, came as a complete surprise and left many unanswered questions. America’s and the world’s reaction last year to the suicide of comedian Robin Williams, or the long-simmering culture trauma following Kurt Cobain’s death in 1994, certainly fit the traditional pattern of thinking about suicide. It’s very odd to us, then, to think of suicide as not necessarily personal, but collective, behaving very much as a communicable disease. It’s also difficult to imagine suicide being motivated by political factors rather than personal ones like depression, relationship problems or financial issues. Thus, the suicide wave in Germany in 1945 upends our usual assumptions about why people kill themselves.
The former Nazi mayor of Leipzig, Germany committed suicide with his wife in April 1945. Allied troops found their bodies in this office.
The first wave of suicides began in January 1945, shortly after the beginning of what was to be the Soviet Red Army’s final offensive on the Eastern Front. The German military machine had mostly burned itself out in the surprise attack against American and British forces in the West in December (the Battle of the Bulge), and ordinary Germans as well as those in the Nazi government began to realize the war was pretty much lost. “Battlefield suicides” of Wehrmacht (German Army) military leaders, like Joachim Rumohr, happened with increasing frequency as Germany suffered more and more defeats–usually among officers who killed themselves to avoid capture–but the suicide wave was marked by the deaths of ordinary people too. After flagging a bit in the winter, the second wave of suicides ramped up as the Soviets approached Berlin. On March 28, 1945, Albrecht von Blumenthal, a noted scholar of classical literature and fierce patriot, entered a suicide pact with his wife; they both shot themselves. A few days later Karl Astel, head of the University of Jena and a researcher in the Nazi eugenics program, blew himself away in a hospital ward. Austrian poet Joseph Weinheber, despondent over the advances of the Red Army, deliberately OD’d on morphine on April 8. Three days later a Luftwaffe general and the Nazi official in charge of plundering the Eastern provinces did themselves in too. By now hundreds of Germans were offing themselves.
The second wave of suicides included the high-profile political leaders, like Hitler, Eva Braun and Goebbels, and continued on through the final defeat of the Nazi regime in late April and throughout May. Besides the Führerbunker crowd, others who killed themselves included general Georg Scholze (shot himself), Hitler’s secretary Martin Bormann (poison), provincial politician Jakob Springer (who took his wife with him), administrator Fritz Bracht (poison, also with his wife), former Nazi ruler of Norway Josef Terboven (blew himself up), and many, many more. Several thousand people killed themselves in Berlin alone; a number I’ve seen is 7,000, but in the chaos of the fall of the city to the Russians this number is probably too low. A third and much slower wave of suicides followed the Allied victory, and consisted of many former Nazi officials who were now in Allied captivity. The most famous of these was Hermann Goering, who chomped a suicide capsule on October 15, 1946, the night before he was supposed to be executed at Nuremberg for war crimes.
Why did they do it? The reasons, I think, are complex and multivaried. Obviously high-ranking Nazis and military commanders feared being captured by the Allies and prosecuted for their crimes. Hitler himself is believed to have taken his own life to avoid the humiliation of capture by the Soviets. But what about all the ordinary people who presumably were of little issue to the monstrous Nazi plans? Presumably some of it can be chalked up to Nazi propaganda that tried to scare the German people into ferocious, fight-to-the-death resistance by exaggerating what the Allies would do to them if Germany lost. But that can’t be all of it. Unlike in Japan–where many people also killed themselves at the end of the war–suicide is not embedded in German culture as a potential response to shame or dishonor. Yet thousands of people felt that life was no longer worth living if it wasn’t under a Nazi order. Perhaps the expected hardships and privations of defeat, coupled with family and personal losses during the war, drove many people over the edge. But it’s hard to escape the conclusion that many suicides were primarily political, or at least more political than personal.
This German soldier elected to die rather than try to live in a non-Nazi Germany. Note the face of the Hitler portrait has been gouged out.
Personally, I wonder if there’s something inherent in extreme right-wing ideology that has something to do with it. Right-wing ideologies tend to be both messianic (“we alone are the saviors of the nation”) and exclusionary (“and those people are our enemies”). Both of these messages are heavily underscored, for example, in Hitler’s Mein Kampf. A messianic and exclusionary belief system generally makes compromise impossible, and the impossibility of compromise makes unacceptable the idea of living under any other system. People in the Nazi era were encouraged to meld their own personal self-esteem with the well-being of the German nation, which was one of the keys to Hitler’s hold on power. The flip side, of course, is that if the nation suffers, a true believer’s self-esteem is also crushed. I’m no psychologist, but my guess is that may help explain what happened.
To those of us who live in political systems where compromise is part of the game (i.e., democracies), the idea of suicide for political reasons seems difficult to understand. For instance, in the United States, even as heartbreaking as it was to conservatives when Barack Obama was reelected in 2012, I’m not aware of a single instance in which even the most devoted conservative committed suicide over it. But then again, our system is based on the inherent idea that you don’t get to call the shots all the time. Hitler and the Nazis were fond of describing themselves as the permanent and monolithic will of Germany–the “thousand-year Reich.” To a fanatical Nazi, the idea of Nazis not being in charge was unthinkable. Even death was preferable to it. Thus, there is something about the German suicide wave of 1945 that seems more like murder than suicide. In the case of those who ended their lives, the real cause of death may have been the hateful, destructive ideology that somehow took hold in their minds, and destroyed their lives.