When the US Army took the Saxon city of Leipzig in April 1945, a gruelling scene was revealed inside the town hall. The Nazi treasurer of the city, his wife, and his daughter had all committed suicide. But these suicides were not isolated cases. In the spring of 1945, Nazi Germany went to its end in an unprecedented wave of suicides. Not only Hitler and other leading Nazi officials ended their lives amidst Nazi Germany’s total defeat, but also thousands of lower-ranking Nazi officials and ordinary people.
Suicide at the Third Reich’s end almost became a routine phenomenon, despite the strong Christian taboo on killing oneself.
It is tempting to interpret these suicides as direct reflections of the Hitler cult and years of Nazi propaganda that had glorified a notion of heroic self-sacrifice. While there was indeed a suicidal atmosphere at the end of the Third Reich, when people believed that everything was coming to an end, by no means all suicides in this context were directly related to Nazi ideology.
To be sure, for most Nazis, the Third Reich was unimaginable without Hitler, and it is therefore no coincidence that many Nazi leaders killed themselves immediately after they heard of Hitler’s death, reported on the wireless as heroic self-sacrifice. Fear of Allied retribution was a frequent motivation for Nazi and military leaders to kill themselves as well as the determination to maintain control over their lives and bodies. For these Nazi leaders, killing oneself was a final, masculine stand and a reaffirmation of the Nazi creed. Surrender was not an option, invoking memories of the German surrender in 1918, a black date for the Nazis.
For many Germans living the war experience of 1945, politics, the war, and everyday life came together in a lethal cocktail in which for many, there was a complete lack of a future perspective.
What about ordinary people’s suicides? Five times more people killed themselves in 1945 in Germany than in previous years, according to official statistics. This figure is likely an underestimate given the administrative defeat that accompanied the German defeat. Still, these were the highest suicide levels ever recorded in modern German history.
While statistics give us a rough overview of the extent of the suicide wave they completely disregard individual fates and circumstances. A number of suicide notes and police investigations, compiled by the Berlin criminal police, allows glimpses into the micro-level of suicide and approach the motivations of ordinary people’s suicides. Nervousness and depression featured as the most prominent suicide motives in these documents, although we must bear in mind that Nazi propaganda also had an impact on the ways in which ordinary people represented their suicides to those they left behind. In suicide notes left by women, fear of being raped by Red Army soldiers was a significant suicide motive. In Berlin, many women even carried razor blades in their handbags for the eventuality, while members of the Hitler Youth are said to have distributed capsules of potassium cyanide to the audience of the last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic before the end of the war. While such stories may be exaggerated they nevertheless capture the atmosphere of the time in which everything was coming to an end.
For many Germans living the war experience of 1945, politics, the war, and everyday life came together in a lethal cocktail in which for many, there was a complete lack of a future perspective. The destructive energies of the Third Reich which had brought violence, genocide, and destruction to Europe on an unprecedented scale finally reached the home front and found their most extreme expression in a wave of self-destruction. It would be a long time until the consequences of this suicide were overcome.
Headline image credit: Ruins of the Reichstag in Berlin, 3 June 1945. By No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit, Hewitt (Sgt). Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.