Book review: Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself, by Florian Huber

Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself, by Florian Huber
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself, by Florian Huber
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In this exploration of the relatively undocumented suicide epidemic that swept across Germany at the end of the Second World War, Florian Huber gives a harrowing insight into the psyche of everyday German citizens, from the time of Hitler’s meteoric rise to power to the destructive downfall of Nazi Germany.

The author and documentarian focuses on the small town of Demmin in northeastern Germany where, towards the end of the war, over 1,000 people were believed to have taken their own lives out of a swollen population of around 15,000.

He gives his account a degree of immediacy by reproducing diary extracts from ordinary citizens, who were gripped by fear as the tide of war turned and the Eastern Front moved ever closer.

Huber paints a portrait of a nation in which people had been encouraged to believe the worst of their adversaries. The massacre, rape and general pillaging by the Red Army at Nemmersdorf in 1944 was documented by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and played in mobile cinemas across eastern Germany, so it was perhaps inevitable that mass hysteria and chaos would follow when people began to realise that the Russians were marching in the direction of their homes.

Huber’s book is extremely well researched, thanks to the author’s use of the privately run German diary archive at Emmendingen in southwest Germany. By drawing on the thoughts, movements and mental state of the diarists, he is able to provide a compelling insight into the minds of everyday Nazi citizens.

The last acts of desperation by fathers who hanged their entire families or mothers who tried to drown both themselves and their young children, only to survive, demonstrate the depths to which the human mind can sink to when it is gripped by fear, guilt and shame.

The book is divided into three sections, and in the first of these and most of the second the author focuses mainly on Demmin and the lives of its inhabitants. By jumping from individual to individual and from family to family, the book looks at a range of different types of residents. However, this approach doesn’t allow the reader to build much of a connection with those who documented their experiences as the Russians arrived.

During part three, Huber moves away from Demmin and attempts to understand why Germany as a whole was overcome by a suicide “epidemic” at the end of the war. At times it feels as if he might be trying to shift the blame from everyday Germans to forces beyond their control; however, he also reminds us that guilt had a role to play. In one account he describes a young woman, Lore Walb, stating that Germany “simply cannot lose the war” after the horrors that they, as a nation, had committed. - Jacob Farr

Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself, by Florian Huber, Allen Lane, £20