Suicide in Nazi Germany

Cornelie Usborne delves into a complex and painful phenomenon of the Second World War

July 16, 2009

Most of us are familiar with the mass suicides by the Nazi leadership in the spring of 1945. At the end of April when the Third Reich was doomed, Hitler and Eva Braun, his wife of a few hours, killed themselves; so did Goebbels and his wife, but not before they had poisoned their six children. Other top Nazis followed suit. The top brass of the party and the SS, police, the army leaders and Nazi lower officials told themselves that they acted out of "heroic self-sacrifice".

What is much less known, however, is the nationwide suicide epidemic at the end of the Second World War among German Jews and ordinary Germans, Nazi supporters and detractors alike.

In the final weeks of the war, carrying cyanide capsules or razor blades was apparently common; in Berlin, the city most badly affected by the war and hence by suicides, health authorities were said to freely issue cyanide. The reasons for such despair were heavy bombing, individuals' concerns about their families' whereabouts, the feeling of a total moral breakdown and, particularly in the East, fear of the Red Army, stoked by Nazi propaganda. It has been suggested that Russian troops raped nearly 2 million German women in Berlin alone, of which more than 10,000 died in the aftermath, often by suicide.

This wave of suicides towards the end of the war has left little trace in the public memory of the Second World War. Christian Goeschel explains this silence by calling suicide "a topic that does not easily allow for simplistic and moralising views of Germans as victims and others, including the Allies, as perpetrators, or the other way round". His book may go some way to reassess this complex and painful phenomenon.

In a superb chapter, he spells out the harrowing fate of thousands of German Jews who were driven to suicide by Nazi racial policies. Goeschel explores both the socio-political contexts of and the individual motives for suicides, starting with the boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933 then moving on to the violence unleashed in the so-called Night of Broken Glass in 1938, when at least 30,000 Jewish men were abducted and taken to concentration camps, and finally the accelerated wave of deportations during the war that resulted in more than 3,000 suicides.

Even years later, Holocaust survivors including Jean Amery, Paul Celan, Primo Levi and Bruno Bettelheim were not immune to this tendency. Despite the Judaic taboo on suicide, it became a routine event after 1938 when all other options had run out. Goeschel posits it as an act of self-determination and a decision aimed at keeping one's dignity vis-a-vis Nazi atrocities, rather than a form of resistance towards Nazism or merely an act of hopelessness.

With a particularly keen eye for the quotation that brings personal experience to life, Goeschel has painstakingly collected and shrewdly interpreted a rich vein of previously unused archive sources. Suicide notes and police reports of suicide investigations reveal the many different social and political pressures that drove so many to take their lives in extraordinary circumstances. Goeschel commendably combines general observations with personal examples as he explains how the changing fortunes of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich could ruin different people's personal lives, taking into account the role of age, gender, religion and class in suicide statistics.

This and the new evidence emboldens him to question received opinions of Nazi history, such as the assertion that most Germans endorsed or even enthusiastically supported the Nazi regime right to the bitter end; the many suicides during the war of members of the revived resistance movement and of thousands of ordinary Germans who were prosecuted for such offences as listening to foreign radio stations or undermining the German war effort tell a different story.

Suicide in Nazi Germany

By Christian Goeschel

Oxford University Press

264pp, £25.00

ISBN 9780199532568

Published 26 February 2009

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