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The Fruits of Moral Collapse

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The Fruits of Moral Collapse

A new book examines Germany’s mass suicides following the end of World War II. April 24, 2020
The Social Order
Politics and law

Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945, by Florian Huber (Little, Brown Spark, 304 pp., $29.00)

What happened to Germany immediately after World War II? This question is often overshadowed by the liberation of the concentration camps and the onset of the Cold War. In Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945, German historian Florian Huber sheds light on a darkly fascinating period. His book, which received its first American printing last month, offers a gripping account of the “suicide epidemic” that swept the Third Reich in its final days. Huber also provides a revealing look into the minds and souls of ordinary Germans forced to confront the reality of Nazism.

Through diaries, memoirs, and public records, Huber follows ordinary Germans through the Reich’s last days, which were, for many, the last days of their lives. We meet the elderly couples who hung themselves together, the fathers who shot their families before taking their own lives, and the mothers who marched to their fate in icy rivers, dragging their children behind them. After detailing these grim scenes, Huber looks back to 1926, tracing the rise of the Nazis and analyzing how ordinary Germans came under their spell. He shows how even those who joined the Nazi Party for reasons of expediency or youthful ignorance were corrupted by the Reich’s twisted morality.

Huber ultimately understates the significance of the German mass suicides. For him, Germans who killed themselves in 1945 did so either to avoid the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Allies—like the citizens fearful of the brutality of Russian soldiers, as was Hitler himself—or to escape the guilt that would overwhelm them once imminent defeat revived their dormant consciences. Whatever the reasons, the sheer number of Germans who chose to take their own lives is remarkable. As Huber notes, the Christian prohibition on suicide still held great power in Germany. In a sermon in March of that year, a Berlin vicar attempted to dissuade his congregants—many of whom had confessed thoughts of suicide—from ending their lives.

Huber notes, however, that “the power of this taboo” faded “against the backdrop of the physical, emotional, and mental horrors of Germany’s downfall.” As the Red Army advanced, “social conventions . . . no longer seemed to apply,” as suicide transformed from a sin to “a last resort before total surrender [and] a consolation to the desperate.”

Attributing the suicides to a change in norms misses a subtle, yet crucial, point. To the extent that social norms changed, they did so as a result of the moral collapse that Nazism wrought in Germany. One influential explanation of this collapse was offered by Hannah Arendt, the German-Jewish political theorist. Huber relies on Arendt’s 1950 report The Aftermath of Nazi Rule to capture the inability or unwillingness of Germans who survived past 1945 to grapple with their country’s actions. But a key to understanding the German suicides may actually lie in Arendt’s controversial 1963 work, Eichmann In Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, where she explores “the totality of the moral collapse” ushered in by Nazism. She observes that “just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody ‘Thou shalt not kill’ . . . so the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: ‘Thou shalt kill.’”

Mass suicide sprang from a similar inversion of moral imperatives, one that transformed self-harm from a sin into a necessity. In a sense, it was the logical conclusion of the twisted morality that Arendt described: standing face-to-face with the abyss, thousands of Germans followed Nazism’s commandment to kill—one last time. Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself offers important historical insight for any theoretical analysis of Nazism. By cataloguing the self-inflicted carnage of 1945, Huber offers another way of understanding the human cost of political evil.

Photo by Fred Ramage/Keystone Features/Getty Images

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