THE wave of suicides among Nazi party leaders and army generals at the end of the Second World War was triggered by fear of Soviet reprisals which the regime’s propaganda stoked to fever pitch, according a new study.
Allied to this paranoia of revenge was the prospect of chaos across the country which “ordered German minds” feared following the days of revolution and poverty at the end of the First World War, it says.
Suicide in the Third Reich is a book out this week in Germany – the first of its kind – that sets out to find the answers to one of the biggest examples of mass suicide in history.
As a reich meant to last 1,000 years imploded, the hierarchy of the Nazi party began preparing for its doom. Propaganda chief Josef Goebbels died along with his wife Magda, who poisoned their six children.
Heinrich Himmler, the SS overlord, killed himself by biting on his cyanide capsule after being captured by British troops
Luftwaffe chief Hermann Goering took the same way out before he was to be hanged at Nuremberg; so did labour chief Robert Ley, Holocaust organiser Odilo Globocnik and eight regional Nazi gauleiters, or governors.
Added to those were 53 generals, hundreds of lesser-ranked officers, thousands of minor Nazi bureaucrats – and, of course, fuhrer Adolf Hitler.
The knock-on effect on ordinary people reached its zenith in April 1945 when 3,381 Berliners took their own lives.
Author Christian Goeschl spent years researching the phenomenon, asking why a civilised people could so easily fall into a “cult of death”.
He pins some of it down on the fear that swept Germany as a result of the propaganda pumped out about “subhuman Russians” descending on the country.
For years, the Germans had been fed a diet of half-truths and outright lies about the fate that would befall the country if it fell to the Soviets.
“These stories of the ‘cruel Russians’ did much to strike fear into many hearts,” said Mr Goeschl. “The fear grew as stories of mass rapes, which were true, committed by Russians on German women as they advanced reached the ears of the hierarchy.”
Mr Goeschl studied Weimar Republic (1919 to 1933) suicide rates; these also climbed as the democratic society crumbled.
He went on: “I believe it was an outbreak of anomie in 1945, that is a lack of social norms, the breakdown of social bonds between an individual and their community ties, with fragmentation of social identity and rejection of self-regulatory values.
“Many men committed suicide in Germany in the 1930’s because they had no work, no prospect of work, no self value.
“In 1945, the chaos which many feared would envelop Germany was too much for them.”