Everyone knows about the final days of Adolf Hitler – his abject suicide in a clammy Berlin bunker. Many prominent Nazis followed suit, including the master propagandist Joseph Goebbels, who broadcast messages to the public espousing the virtue of death over defeat. His wife, Magdalena, wrote: ‘Our glorious idea is ruined, and with it everything beautiful, admirable, noble and good that I have known in my life. 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.’ There were six of them, all killed with cyanide.
But what of the everyday people? This is the subject of Florian Huber’s Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The mass suicides of ordinary Germans in 1945, a 2015 bestseller in Germany now translated into English by Imogen Taylor. Huber, an author and documentary filmmaker, examines the tens of thousands of Germans who took their own lives in 1945 – mostly in eastern states, where the much-feared Red Army was brutally advancing (some two million German women were raped during this time).
The first part of the book, Huber’s strongest, focuses on the small north-eastern town of Demmin. From April 30 to May 3, some 700 to 1,000 people took their own lives there – men and women, young and old, Nazi Party members and non-members. Abandoned by the German army, which burned the bridges behind them, Demmin’s civilians were stranded. Corpses filled the rivers and woods; many of those who committed suicide killed their children as well.