DW: The beginning of your book "Child, promise me that you will shoot yourself" (German title: "Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschiesst") is set in the small town of Demmin in Western Pomerania. According to your research, between 700 and 1,000 people committed suicide there during the last days of the war. What made you examine Demmin out of all places?
The suicide phenomenon was particularly pronounced in Demmin. That's partly due to its geographical location. Demmin is like a peninsula, located in between three rivers. After the bridges had been blown up, nobody was able to escape - not even the soldiers of the Red Army after they had captured the city on April 30th 1945. At that time, there were also thousands of refugees from the Eastern territories in Demmin, in addition to its regular population. It was totally overcrowded. They were all imprisoned in a trap with hardly any space to move. This general sense of panic then erupted and spelled disaster for many people. But Demmin wasn't a singular case.
What caused the Germans to be so profoundly scared of the Soviet troops' invasion?
Over years, people had been indoctrinated by German propaganda about what was bound to happen should the enemy set foot on German soil. This scenario was painted in the scariest colors. The "Mongol hordes," as the Russians were called, were said to cut off the tongues and to stab out the eyes of children, to rape the women. These narratives made people terrified of the Russians - particularly when refugees, who had already experienced crimes and rape elsewhere, added their reports to these rumors. This panic, reinforced by actual experiences of violence, came to a boiling point. People believed that the only way to escape these horrors was to commit suicide.
Was this collective suicide limited to areas feared to be invaded by the Red Army? What was the situation like in the West, where the British and American troops were advancing?
It wasn't only the fear of the enemy and of the Soviet army. Many people felt a sense of guilt and entanglement. They were afraid of what might come next. Many could not even imagine what the world might be like after these twelve years in a state of emergency. This sense of being doomed was not limited to the East German population. It prevailed throughout the country. I found cases of collective suicide in all the places I researched. Statistically speaking, the number of suicides sky-rocketed in Bavaria, but also in cities like Hamburg. Entire families committed suicide all over Germany.
Hitler committed suicide on April 30th. Did people emulate him?
The day after Hitler had shot himself, the German radio news reported that the "Führer" had been killed in a heroic struggle against the enemy. The fact that he had taken his own life wasn't mentioned all. What is fascinating though is that the idolization of the "Führer", whom many Germans had adored like a messiah, had completely evaporated in the weeks and months before the end of the war. I was not able to find even a hint of sympathy for Hitler in any of the diaries that I studied. People reacted with complete indifference to his fate during that time. This notion that the "Führer" had swept people along with him into suicide is absolutely false. Hitler's suicide does not play any role in this phenomenon.
What kind of people took part in the mass suicide? Were most of them staunch members of the Nazi party NSDAP?
We can actually determine which professions most of the people in Demmin had, based on their death certificates. However, there is no particular pattern to detect. They were men, women, workers, artisans, midwives, students, school children. They represented a cross section of the population of that small town. I am absolutely convinced that this was the case everywhere else, too. There were also people who had a reasons to be afraid, of course. Among those who committed suicide, there were indeed many criminals who had committed Nazi crimes. But that does not hold true for all of them.
Was there any particular case that aroused your sympathy?
I was particularly touched by the fate of the fur trader Marie Dabs in Demmin. She was a very lively, robust person. You get that sense from her diaries. She had mastered all kinds of life crises. She had already experienced the First World War, then the years of famine after that and the global economic crisis. When her husband was drawn into the army at the outbreak of the Second World War, she took over the business and took care of the children. Even during those trying times, this woman probably never considered taking her own life. But once she was erring around the streets during the last days of the war and coming across people in the woods hanging from the trees, even this strong woman was overcome by anxiety and started to look for poison to kill herself and her children. Even she suddenly had doubts about whether her life was worth living. Her story deeply affected me. The only reason she survived after all was that she did not find the necessary means to kill herself.
There were also photos taken on May 8th 1945 in which you can see people cheering though...
Many people were relieved, of course. All the persecuted minorities in particular: Jews who had survived, as well as political dissidents. Nowadays, we can say it was a liberation for everyone. And some Germans did see it that way even back then. But what many others saw was quite the opposite. So much so that they believed they had no choice but to kill themselves.
Why is it that the largest mass suicide in German history is still relatively unknown until now? Is the topic still a taboo?
This knowledge gap is partly due to the fact that in the GDR, the former East Germany, it was forbidden to talk about what had happened in Demmin. It would have made the Red Army appear in an unfavorable light. On the other hand, quite a bit of time has passed since Germany’s reunification. So I can only come to the conclusion that the suicide phenomenon does not quite fit in with the narrative we have formed about our past in the last 20, 30 years or so. Much has been characterized through a rigid scheme of perpetrators and victims, heroes and executioners. These suicides show that we have to differentiate more. These people were not only perpetrators. And yet, they were not victims either who could be compared to those suffering and dying in the concentration camps. They were people who killed themselves under extreme circumstances.