The Wave of Suicides in the Reich at the End of WWII
Excerpts from the book “Suicide in Nazi Germany” by Christian Goeschel.
On 30 April 1945, when the military situation had become totally hopeless and Soviet troops were progressing towards the Reich Chancellery, Hitler killed himself together with Eva Braun, whom he had married a few hours earlier in his bunker. Other top National-Socialists were hardly surprised when they heard about Hitler’s suicide. Göring declared during an interrogation in October 1945: ‘We always knew that the Führer would kill himself if things were coming to an end. We always knew that. There is not the least doubt about it.’ Many National-Socialists committed suicide in 1945. Along with Hitler, top National-Socialists like Joseph Goebbels and Heinrich Himmler all committed suicide. Bernhard Rust, Reich Minister of Education, killed himself on 8 May 1945. Himmler committed suicide in Allied captivity (that’s not true – he was killed by the British Secret Service). He bit into a capsule of potassium cyanide which he had carried in his mouth at an interrogation Centre near Lüneburg on 23 May 1945 after the British had identified him and had ordered him to strip naked. Reich Minister of Justice Thierack, killed himself in a British internment camp in October 1946. Field Marshal Walter Model, a National-Socialist who had declared his loyalty to Hitler after the failed assassination attempt of 20 July 1944, shot himself in a forest near Düsseldorf in late April 1945. He did so to avoid surrender.
When hearing the news of Hitler’s death, some National-Socialists reportedly committed suicide immediately, thereby following their leader into death. Goebbels, Hitler’s official successor as Reich Chancellor, had his children poisoned before requesting a SS guard to shoot his wife and himself. In a letter on 28 April 1945 to his stepson Harald Quandt, Goebbels claimed that his death would set a heroic precedent for a new Germany which would ‘survive this war, but only if it has precedents at hand on which it can lean itself’. Suicide figures among the party and SS top echelons were staggering. Eight out of 41 party regional leaders who held office between 1926 and 1945 and 7 out of 47 higher SS and police leaders committed suicide, followed by an unknown number of lower National-Socialist officials. For these National-Socialists, life was impossible after the Third Reich’s downfall. Fear of Allied vengeance and the notion of self-sacrifice may well have motivated these suicides. In the Army’s top echelons, suicide was also widespread. According to a 1950 statistic, 53 out of 554 army generals, 14 out of 98 Luftwaffe generals and 11 out of 53 admirals killed themselves. Upon learning of Hitler’s death Gauleiter Jakob Sprenger of Hesse-Nassau and his wife committed suicide on 8 May 1945 in the Tyrol. On the same day, National-Socialist Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies. Some top National-Socialists immediately committed suicide. Josef Terboven, Gauleiter of Essen and Reich Commissioner in occupied Norway, committed suicide in a spectacular way on 8 May 1945, detonating 50 kilograms of dynamite in his bunker. Wilhelm Rediess, higher SS and police leader in Norway, shot himself in Oslo on the same day.
In the weeks preceding the German surrender, suicide became almost a routine phenomenon in Germany, as a report written by the SS security service (SD) in March 1945 suggests: ‘Many are coming round to the idea of doing away with themselves’ and ‘suicide in sheer despair at the certainty of approaching catastrophe is the order of the day’. Suddenly, suicide lost its status as an extraordinary act, and was even discussed at a service in the Berlin Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church in early March 1945. Here, Gerhard Jacobi, the local pastor, spoke out against suicide as an immoral act, for which in his view only the National-Socialists were to blame. He told Jacob Kronika, a Danish correspondent:
The danger of a suicide epidemic exists. Again and again I am sought out by members of my parish, who confide in me that they have secured cyanide. They see no way out. The person chiefly responsible for the increase in suicidal tendencies is Dr Goebbels. He drummed it into the people that the Russians will bring hell in their wake. These horror stories have certainly had their impact. All Berliners know that the Russians will soon be in Berlin, and they see no alternative - other than cyanide.
Jacobi’s vivid illustration of the danger of a suicide epidemic nevertheless foretold the way in which members of the Soviet army would indeed behave in Germany. Many suicides did indeed occur in the immediate context of the approaching front, preceding the mass suicides of the National-Socialist elite. National-Socialist propaganda had exhorted Germans to hold out and keep fighting the ‘Bolshevik-Mongol hordes’. On 26 April, the Panzer Bär, a National-Socialist propaganda news-sheet for German soldiers, sketched a horrific scenario that Germans would have to face in case they lost the war. One captured Soviet major had allegedly said: ‘We’ll work the German scum until they croak.’ The National-Socialist demonization of the Red Army, including for example eyewitness accounts of Bolshevik atrocities in Nemmersdorf, a village in East Prussia, in October 1944, helped to create a suicidal atmosphere. In a leaflet distributed in February 1945 in Bohemia, National-Socialist propaganda claimed that if the ‘Bolshevik murderer-pack’ were victorious, ‘incredible hatred, looting, hunger, shots in the back of the neck, deportation and extermination’ would follow immediately. In an appeal to the prowess of German men, the leaflet demanded from German men ‘to save German women and girls from defilement and slaughter by the Bolshevik bloodhounds.’
Red Army soldiers did indeed commit crimes such as the rape of German women, beginning in East Prussia in early 1945, and continuing towards the west as the Red Army advanced. Margret Boveri, a journalist who documented the impact of the war’s end on German women in a diary, described on 3 May 1945 the failed suicides of German girls who had been raped by Red Army soldiers. Her very sober style suggests that rape, like suicide, had become a normal phenomenon by this time: ‘Afterward they were totally shattered, would happily have poisoned themselves, but had no poison; they found razor blades and wanted to slit their wrists, but for whatever reason, put it off.’
Many women committed suicide in anticipation of being raped by Red Army soldiers or afterwards. Numbers vary considerably and are unreliable because many women did not report these sexual attacks and many women were raped repeatedly. Some historians suggest that Soviet soldiers raped up to 1.9 million German women at the end of the war. In Berlin alone, Red Army soldiers raped between 20,000 and 100,000 German women. Probably more than 10,000 Berlin women died in the aftermath of being raped, often by suicide. The 17-year-old Lieselotte G from Friedrichshagen, an eastern suburb of Berlin, committed to her diary on 29 April 1945, a few days after the Soviet occupation of her suburb:
On the first day, about one hundred suicides in Friedrichshagen are said to have occurred. It’s a blessing that there is no gas supply, otherwise some more people would have killed themselves. We might perhaps also be dead. I was so desperate! ...My German Fatherland had to come to this, now that we have been handed over, without any rights, to the powers of foreigners.
Like Lieselotte G, many Germans in the eastern parts could not cope with Soviet occupation. After all, National-Socialist propaganda had claimed that the Soviets were subhuman beings. Carrying cyanide capsules was common in the months around the end of war; in Berlin, for example, the local health authority allegedly distributed capsules of potassium cyanide and women carried razor blades in their handbags. In some cases, people were anxious to store cyanide in the right way to ensure that it would not lose its lethal effect, as Boveri noted later with some surprise. Since Boveri’s own dose of cyanide had not been recently renewed, she would not have died, as she later admitted. Hitler allegedly gave cyanide pills to his secretaries as a farewell gift; and members of the Hitler Youth are said to have distributed poison to the audience of the last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic on 12 April 1945. Though these reports may be exaggerated they nevertheless capture the subjective feeling among many Germans that everything was coming to an end.
In the Tempelhof district of Berlin, the wife of an old professor committed suicide by taking sleeping pills immediately after the Soviets arrived in late April 1945, as their landlady later remembered. On 5 May 1945, the journalist Ruth Andreas-Friedrich wrote in her diary about the shock of Germans about the Red Army’s arrival: ‘I shudder. For four years Goebbels told us that the Russians would rape us. That they would rape and plunder, murder and pillage ...’ Many other women committed suicide because they were afraid of being raped. Take the case of Hanna von B. She poisoned her eight-year-old daughter and then swallowed an overdose of sleeping pills in February 1945 in the upper-middle-class Lichterfelde suburb. Her husband, a captain in the Wehrmacht, testified: ‘The news that the Russians had reached the Oder depressed my wife greatly. She feared that she and her child would fall into Russian hands. She told me often that she would end her life before that happened.’ Any suicide raises the question of the relationship between a suicide and those left behind. One historian argues that suicide in 1945 was ‘not only a consequence of fear and despair, but ... also of anger and hatred’, and that these two emotions reflected the psychological breakdown of German society. But this point is hard to verify, as the case of Hanna von B suggests. In her suicide note, she expressed her love towards her husband; she did not express any feelings of anger or hatred towards him: ‘My dear good one, dad ... We won’t change plans any more, daddy, and my only wish is to put this plan into practice very calmly for Peterl’s [her daughter’s] sake. We love you very much ...’ Hanna probably felt that her husband was unable to protect their daughter and herself from the invading Russians. Many Berliners vividly recorded the suicidal atmosphere of the early months of 1945. Hertha von Gebhardt, from the middle-class Wilmersdorf suburb, noted in her diary on 26 April 1945, as the battle for Berlin still raged, that ‘Frau K [is] totally fragile, and wants to take her own life. We keep trying to make sure that she does not run outside.’ Allied bombings continued to affect the everyday lives of ordinary people until the surrender. Many Berliners killed themselves after losing their property during some of the very heavy air raids on Berlin in 1945.
In the chaotic context of 1945, the Allied bombings had an even more profound impact on German morale than before. On 31 March 1945, for example, the 39-year-old Erna M jumped to her death off the landing on the fourth floor of a staircase. Her husband had gone missing in action on the Eastern Front and she had lost her flat in Pankow, in northeastern Berlin, in a bombing raid. Blaming the Allies for Erna’s suicide, the criminal police noted: ‘The deceased became melancholic over recent events ... then her flat was totally destroyed in one of the last terror raids. She lost everything.’ In Hamburg, heavily bombed in 1943, as we have seen, the 67-year-old pensioner Hermann P shot himself on 15 February 1945. The police investigation revealed that he had told his wife: ‘I just wanted to see whether the pistol is working ... If the house caught fire during a bombing, and I did not have the opportunity to get out of the flat, I would not want to burn alive, as you will understand.’ Suicide levels reached a clear maximum in Berlin in April 1945. At the climax of the battle of Berlin, no fewer than 3,881 people killed themselves.
The suicide rate was at an approximate 242.7 per 100,000 population: that is, approximately five times higher than in the previous years. Altogether, 7,057 suicides were reported in Berlin in 1945, an underestimate, given the administrative chaos that accompanied German defeat. There is no reliable or more precise statistical breakdown of these numbers concerning the age and sex of the suicides. According to one source, however, 3,996 women and 3,091 men committed suicide, turning upside down the traditional pattern of more men than women committing suicide. Mass rape is the obvious explanation for this, along with the fact that a high proportion of men were either dead, at the front, or in captivity. Drawing wider conclusions merely from statistics about motivations for suicide is difficult, if not impossible.
In order to understand the suicide epidemic, we must turn our attention to individual cases. Individual cases have survived in the files of the Berlin general state prosecutor and the criminal police. These institutions were hardly politically neutral and probably receptive of the National-Socialist idea of heroic self-sacrifice. Ordinary people too committed suicide because they lacked any future perspective for the time after the imminent defeat. In a sense, they thought they would not survive the end of the Third Reich.
One of the most immediate problems Germans faced was the uncertainty concerning their families’ whereabouts. Suicide was common especially among those who had fled the eastern territories of Germany from the Red Army or those who had had to leave their families behind. Leading civil servants and party members, such as Dr Rudolf S, a head of department in the Reich Ministry of Propaganda, committed suicide for this reason. The criminal police noted after they found him shot dead in his office in Goebbels’s Ministry on 22 April 1945: ‘All circumstances suggest that S did the deed himself ... The present, general conditions and fear for his family have to be assumed to have been the factors motivating him. S did not know what happened to his family, but it is likely that they fell into enemy hands.’
The SS officer Alwin V committed suicide with his wife on 4 February 1945 in the expensive Zehlendorf district, reportedly because of hopelessness regarding the fate of his family. According to his sister, he had been depressed: ‘My brother-in-law told me of the refugee trains and how miserable it was for him. I assume that he was also thinking of his parents in East Prussia, and that the same things would happen to them.’ Alwin felt unable to help his parents, and this feeling of powerlessness prompted him to die together with his wife. He was probably also afraid that the Allies would take revenge on him and his family. In Potsdam, the 73-year-oldwidow Ida K gassed herself in her kitchen on 8 February 1945. The police commented: ‘Reason ...: Fear of the Russian invasion.’ And on 25 March the double suicide of the 37-year-old carpenter Erich A and his 35-year-oldwife Margarete was reported in Potsdam. According to the police, Erich A had written in a suicide note ‘life did not have a point. Reason....: the current situation.’ The reports of local police stations in the countryside around Berlin and Potsdam yield similar cases. For instance, the 53-year-old dressmaker Frieda B was found dead from poisoning herself on 1 April 1945 in Wittenberg. The police stated tersely that her suicide had been prompted by ‘melancholia, due to the current situation’. What is striking about these police reports is that they all mention topoi like ‘the Russians’, ‘the current situation’ or ‘the war’. The police and the authors of the suicide notes felt no need to explain them further. That the authors did not clarify the reasons for their suicides suggests that they believed that their relatives would know what they were talking about. Even if National-Socialist propaganda was not to blame for all suicides, then, it had created a common language and set of identifications for the masses of Germans who were living this war experience.
In the areas that were occupied by the Soviets in early 1945, suicide took place on a mass scale. Plenty of eyewitness accounts are available in the edition of ‘Documents on the Expulsion of Germans from the East’ that a team of historians around Theodor Schieder edited under the aegis of the Federal Ministry for the Expelled in the early 1950s. A female clerk of the city council of Schönlanke in Pomerania, for example, claimed that during the approach of the Red Army in February 1945, the following events occurred: ‘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...’ And a Protestant pastor from Schivelbein, a village in Pomerania, reported the following about the arrival of the Red Army in March 1945 (note the shock with which he registers the disregarding of the religious ban on suicide by his congregation): ‘After a short time we heard what sorts of tragedies played out in just a few short nights. Whole, good, churchgoing families took their lives - drowned themselves, hanged themselves, slit their wrists, or allowed themselves to be burned up along with their homes.’ And in Demmin, a town in Lower Pomerania, some 700 to 1,000 people are said to have committed suicide directly after the arrival of the Red Army. In Teterow, a small town in Mecklenburg, the burial register counted some 120 suicides in May 1945 alone. In Darmstadt, in western Germany, the local court was heavily occupied in issuing death certificates for those who committed suicide while fleeing the Red Army in the winter of 1944/45. At this stage, often facing financial problems and unable to remarry while their partners were officially still alive, many refugees applied to the courts for help. They wanted to know conclusively if their relatives were dead because this knowledge made it easier for them to come to terms with their own past. In one case, the owner of a drugstore, Kurt P, originally from Hammer in Pomerania, a place in an area with a very high suicide rate towards the end of war, received the information he had sought. On 21 October 1954 a Darmstadt court certified the death of his wife who had ‘died during the Russian invasion, probably through suicide’. In a similar case, the 37-year-oldfarmer Franz Karl H, from Zorndorf near Königsberg, applied in July 1946 to the local court in the nearby district town of Dieburg for a death certificate for his daughter and his two grandchildren. In his testimony, he declared how the ‘Russians’ had invaded their village on 12 February 1945: ‘As a result of the events taking place then, our daughter E became so mentally exhausted that she killed her two daughters, aged one and a half and five years, and then drowned herself.’
Killing one’s children and then oneself was quite common at the end of the war. In Berlin, the 45-year-old Corporal Max K shot his two sons, aged 8 and 15, before killing himself on 2 April 1945. According to the criminal police, his wife had tried in vain to stop him. The police commented that the ‘reason for the deed is ... the fear of the approaching enemy’. As noted above, Goebbels and his wife murdered their six children with poison before killing themselves. In her final letter to her adult son by her first marriage, which she wrote to him from Hitler’s bunker on 28 April 1945, Magda Goebbels announced her suicide and the murder of her children:
The world that will come after the Führer and National Socialism will not be worth living in, and therefore I have taken my children away. They are too dear to endure what is coming next, and a merciful God will understand my intentions in delivering them from it. We have now only one aim: loyalty unto death to the Führer. That we can end our lives with him is a mercy of fate that we never dared to hope for’.
Suicide, in combination with killing one’s family, implies a very high degree of hopelessness and identification with National-Socialist propaganda concerning the cruelty of ‘the Russians’. Fathers and, in some cases, as we have seen, mothers, killed their children before they took their own lives because they did not see a future for themselves. The fact that it was mothers, who killed their children, before taking their own lives, reflected in a sense the changed role of German men since the beginning of the war: men had failed.
Suicide rates rose, though not dramatically, in some western parts of Germany, too. There were 42 suicides in Upper Bavaria during April and May 1945. In previous years, there had only been between three and five suicides during these months. Many National-Socialists and people from Protestant regions of Germany, now occupied by the Red Army, had fled to Upper Bavaria at the end of the war, which may help explain why there were more suicides than previously. In Hamburg, too, some killed themselves. Numbers were significantly lower than in Berlin and there was no sharp increase at the end of the war. In April 1945, only 56 people committed suicide in Hamburg, according to a report by the British Control Commission in Germany. On 5 February 1945, the 71-year-old pensioner Otto V was found gassed to death in his flat in the Fuhlsbüttel suburb. His lodger told the police that V had believed that ‘the Russians would come here’, under whom ‘he did not want to live’. Although there was no evidence at all that the Russians would occupy Hamburg, the criminal police commented: ‘Supposedly, V could not adjust himself to the situation, since he was afraid of the Russians conquering [Hamburg]’. Two West German psychiatrists wrote an article in 1949 in which they analyzed the trend of the suicide rate in northern Baden and Bremen. They noted a sharp increase in the suicide rate in 1945. Even so, levels were still lower than they had been in 1939. In Frankfurt am Main, a largely Protestant city, there were fewer suicides per 100,000 people after the surrender of the city in March 1945 than during the war.
In the small village of Södel in Hesse, occupied by the Americans, the 68-year-old businessman Hermann V was found hanged in his garden on 19 March 1945. He left a farewell letter to his wife and children that said: ‘I am really very sorry to leave you, but you should not think badly of me, the war made me do it.’ Not far away, in Friedberg, the district town, a man aged 35 hanged himself on 4 February 1945. The cause, according to the local constabulary’s report, was depression. His wife then killed her two young children before cutting her own wrists. While there is considerably less evidence of suicides in this area than in the countryside surrounding Berlin, the two cases from the Friedberg area suggest that at least some Germans living in the West also thought that life was not worth living after the end of the war. Many Germans felt the absence of a future perspective, as though life would be insupportable after the destruction of the National-Socialist regime, regardless of the ideology of the occupier. Nevertheless, despite the rise in suicides that accompanied the hardships and chaos of the last months of the war and the first months of peace, western parts of Germany did not see a wave of suicides on the scale occurring in areas further east, where panic and fear of the Red Army caused people to kill themselves in extraordinary numbers. Fear of the Red Army was therefore one of the main motivations for suicides among German civilians at this time.
The suicide epidemic of 1945 took place in three overlapping phases. The first one began in the eastern territories of Germany as early as in January 1945 when the Red Army had already begun or was about to begin to occupy East Prussia and Silesia. The second one occurred around April and May 1945 when many National-Socialist officials, from the top to the bottom of the party hierarchy, took their lives. The final wave took place after the Allies’ arrival. Nevertheless, while suicides had different individual motives, the sheer magnitude of this suicide wave suggests that many Germans had some common motivations for killing themselves. The suicide wave certainly sheds light on the collective emotions of fear and anxiety towards the end of the war.
Contemporaries were not slow to comment on this suicide epidemic. The Catholic psychiatrist Erich Menninger-Lerchenthal noted‘organized mass suicide on a large scale which had previously not occurred in the history of Europe’.
Needless to say, fear of the behavior of Red Army soldiers should also not be underestimated, nor should the lurid warnings of National-Socialist propaganda. Women in particular resorted to suicide to avoid rape or because of shame after it had occurred. The belief that the Red Army posed a threat to life even led to many suicides among convinced Christians. Many contemporaries felt a complete breakdown of norms and values. To many people who committed suicide, politics, war, and everyday life were not perceived as separate things, but came together in a tremendously difficult time, where life seemed wholly deprived of any future purpose. Moral, psychological, and religious norms and values had collapsed. For the mass of Germans, life had been restructured to promote an eventually suicidal campaign of war, and when this failed, killing oneself became culturally and socially acceptable in a culture of suicide in defeat. The lack of a future was understood to apply to the German people in general, and found its expression by the common fears that they had and the common language they used to describe them. Each suicide had a profound impact on friends, families and relatives. They all had to come to terms with their losses on a very personal and emotional level. The chaos, misery and disorientation spanned the end of war and the beginning of the occupation. It would be some time before they were overcome.