Why did so many Germans follow Hitler in committing suicide?

In his last official photo, Adolf Hitler leaves the safety of his bunker to award decorations to members of Hitler Youth (Keystone Features/Getty Images)

Florian Huber has a sobering analysis of Germany's suicide epidemic of May 1945

Having recently blogged about Around the Year with the von Trapp Family, by Maria Augusta von Trapp, it led me to ponder just how vigorous the Catholic faith and culture was in Austria before the War. Von Trapp lovingly describes the way the family kept their Austrian religious customs alive after they had immigrated to the US in 1938 in order to escape the Nazis. Yet it seems that most Austrians were in favour of the Anschluss of that year, despite their ancient faith and its traditions.

If this is true of Catholic Austria, what about the people of Germany itself? I have been thinking more of this question since reading Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945 by Florian Huber (Allen Lane). An analysis of the epidemic of suicides in early May 1945 that followed that of Hitler, it makes for sober reading. It seems that the Christian taboo against suicide was entirely disregarded by thousands of the German population, particularly in the east, which faced an invasion by the Russian army.

Huber only mentions once, in all the cases he describes, that the “deep faith” of a certain doctor in Königsberg “saved [him] from being sucked into this maelstrom.”  He also records a Lutheran pastor in Berlin, the Reverend Gerhard Jacobi, a member of the Confessing Church that included Dietrich Bonhoeffer, warning parishioners against “the risk of a suicide epidemic.”

Of course, Huber is concentrating on acts of suicide, particularly in the eastern provincial town of Demmin, two hours north of Berlin, rather than on the mass of citizens who endured, hanging on grimly despite bombings, death and near-starvation until the War’s end. This would have included Catholics, particularly from the Bavarian south, who had never voted for the Nazi Party. Nevertheless, the thought of mothers of families, throwing themselves and their young children into local rivers, along with uncles and aunts and grandparents in a collective act of despair, is appalling.

Hannah Arendt, the German Jewish philosopher, who returned to Germany from the US after the War, writes that she was “astonished by the emotional vacuum left by Germany’s defeat.” Many Germans had invested all their emotional and spiritual wellbeing in a false god, and when Hitler killed himself too many felt they had no option but to follow him. Ironically, the book’s title comes from a father’s advice to his 21-year-old daughter after he had been called up to defend Berlin; fortunately she chose to live.

My final thought is that in times of great suffering, fear and social unrest, it is only those individuals with a strong faith, rather than merely a cultural and socially respectable habit, who will prevail while also keeping their inner integrity intact. Sometimes one is aware that a supposedly civilised way of life is a very shallow and fragile thing.