The Nazi Propaganda That Triggered a Mass Suicide - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Soviet soldiers discovering suicide victims in Demmin, Germany, in April 1945.
SourceAlamy

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because propaganda can have unexpected dangers.

By Denise Hruby and Marta Kasztelan

When the war was lost, the country panicked. As Nazi Germany’s Wehrmacht retreated at the end of World War II, they blew up bridges in a last attempt to stop the Russian army from advancing onto German soil. German civilians were terrified: Since the defeat at Stalingrad in 1943, Nazi propaganda tried to secure Germans’ support of the war by drawing a terrifying picture of an unfathomable alternative.

If the Germans lost, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels warned in broadcast speeches, the Red Army would burn cities to the ground, send civilians to labor camps in the tundra, order mass executions and leave those who remained to starve.

“Bolshevism means slavery, rape, mass murder and extermination — fight back! Fight until victory!” posters read. They displayed images of Germans hanging from the gallows. German soldiers who returned from the front described the horrific onslaught and crimes they had committed in Russia. If the Red Army made it to Germany, they’d retaliate. Stories spread of Russian savages who would rape every single woman and adolescent, torture children by cutting off their tongues and butcher them without mercy.

As Allied forces advanced, Nazi leaders, most prominently Adolf Hitler, Hermann Goering and Goebbels, committed suicide to escape being held responsible for their war crimes. German civilians too were so fearful of what would become of them — and what the Russians might do to retaliate — that thousands committed suicide. But nowhere, experts say, did as many people kill themselves as in Demmin, a small town in eastern Germany that today is home to just more than 10,000 people.

In late April 1945, with bridges over the three rivers that converge in Demmin blown up by the Wehrmacht, Russian soldiers got stuck. Some locals had already committed suicide, and there were indeed cases of sexual assault, rape and theft. But many of the horrors the Nazis had described were nothing but propaganda.

So many walked into the water. But I was 14 at the time; I had my own mind already, and I thought if I stay, I still have a life to live.

A current resident of Demmin, Germany

Demmin was handed over peacefully, and the local population and refugees were surprised at the occupying soldiers’ decency. Until, that is, a local pharmacist poisoned a high-ranking Russian soldier, which prompted the Russians to retaliate by setting buildings on fire. 

With the town’s residents terrified of further punishment, one of the rivers and a small, shallow pond turned into mass graves. The number of bodies in the water became too many to count. “Some jumped into the water with their children tied to their backs, others filled their backpacks with rocks,” a local said during a visit to the cemetery earlier this year. 

“So many walked into the water. But I was 14 at the time; I had my own mind already, and I thought if I stay, I still have a life to live,” said the now-90-year-old, who wouldn’t give his name, saying the memories were still too painful. 

A few feet behind him, a rock with a brass plaque commemorates those who “chose death, maddened by the purpose of life.” The exact number of people who died remains unknown, though experts put the figure at well over 1,000, or 1 in every 17 residents. 

Demmin Cemetery site of the grave site of the mass suicide of victims from WW2.

Grave site of the mass suicide victims.

While the tragic incident was taboo in what became Soviet-dominated East Germany — the image of Russian soldiers as heroic liberators did not fit with the reality of a people so frightened by the mere sight of them that they committed suicide — the memory remains alive. 

Each year on May 8, far-right extremists and neo-Nazis mark the defeat of the Third Reich with an annual “funeral march,” which is usually met with far larger, anti-fascist counterprotests. 

Living in Demmin, an acclaimed 2018 documentary, gives the few remaining survivors a voice. Now nearing the end of their lives, they are trying to make sense of the tragedy they witnessed when they were children.

“There was a stink in the air — the slightly sweet scent of bodies floating in the water, mixed with the burning city,” one survivor recalls in the documentary, while another, sitting in a chair in a retirement home, simply asks: “Why did so many people do this? Why?”

As for the Russians, though they do remember stories of assault and the burning of Demmin, there were also small acts of kindness. Shocked by the mass suicide, the Russians bandaged the wrists of those who tried to cut their arteries and took them to hospitals.

Living in Demmin is an important historic chronicle of the events people remember, but getting there wasn’t easy, director Martin Farkas says in a video message: “When I first arrived, they didn’t want to talk to me and said, ‘Let bygones be bygones.’ But once they opened up, I had the impression that they were feeling a sense of relief to speak about this. To some, it’s like their legacy for future generations — shall we never let something like this happen again.”

This story was supported by a Reporters in the Field cross-border grant, hosted by n-ost and the Robert Bosch Foundation.

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