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Fear, shame, guilt, suicide: ordinary Germans at the end of the Second World War

The German people were seduced by Hitler’s message of glorious blood sacrifice – right up until it needed to be paid. 

 

These are two terrible books; terrible because their subject matter is so harrowing. Both are concerned with the last days of the Third Reich as seen, not from military headquarters, but from the wrecked streets and vile-smelling cellars where ordinary Germans waited for the end.

They are very different works. Heinz Rein lived through the final fighting when Hitler, from his bunker, decreed that any German officer ordering a retreat was to be killed on the spot by his own men. Berlin Finale is a novel, first published in serial form shortly after the events it describes. Overlong, overwrought and overloaded with stilted debate, it is of interest now chiefly as valuable testimony from one who was there. Florian Huber, born 20 years after the war’s end, is a historian. He doesn’t write purple-tinged apocalyptic prose, as Rein does. Instead, drawing on letters and memoirs, he records, in baldly simple sentences, the experiences of some representative Germans. He wasn’t there. He didn’t see, as Rein did. But his book is the more urgently compelling of the two.

Each author focuses on one segment of the world that was falling apart. For Rein, it is a little group of dissidents – a young deserter, a heroic saboteur, a humanitarian doctor, a doctrinaire communist, and a kindly innkeeper – who work together clandestinely, attempting to save at least some of the people and buildings of Berlin by persuading German troops to accept defeat. For Huber it is the German civilians who killed themselves at the war’s end, in particular those – at least 600 of them – who took their own lives in the Pomeranian town of Demmin (population circa 15,000) within the four days following the arrival of Red Army at the end of April 1945. The two authors’ literary strategies are different and yet they corroborate each other’s stories. Both of these books describe what happens when a society arrives, collectively, at the belief that there is a fate worse than death, and that that fate is imminent.

The protagonist of Rein’s novel is the city of Berlin. His human characters are simplistically drawn. Their language is unnatural. They say things like “the black storm clouds hang menacingly outside our city” or lapse into Marxist jargon: “With the fall of the Third Reich the bourgeoisie is finished as an autonomous class.” Whether noble anti-Nazis or cartoonish SS villains, they are always upstaged by the sombre grandeur of the set on which their drama is played out.

Rein conjures up a vision of a city turned inside out, where the streets are too dangerous to pass along, and the only way from A to B runs through rubble-heaped courtyards and choked passageways. Bridges buckle. Blocks of flats become labyrinths as roofs collapse and staircases fall in. Roads cease to be thoroughfares, becoming instead shooting alleys, strafed from the air. His description of a vast department store ablaze has the kind of doom-laden splendour of one of John Martin’s apocalyptic visions.

Rein, though, was not a romantic painter. His publishers call Berlin Finale a “documentary novel”. The narrative is repeatedly interrupted as the characters read aloud to each other the day’s Wehrmacht report (mendacious and euphemistic but just about comprehensible to those familiar with the code employed by Nazi propagandists). While the Red Army’s tanks are already rumbling though the suburbs and the SS is going from house to house determined, even in extremis, to kill doubters, Rein’s heroic gang are having long drawn-out discussions about matters of political protocol (can a bourgeois music-student be treated as a comrade by an echt working-class socialist?).

From time to time one of them will say something ironic, such as: “I suggest we bring this training course to an end.” But, improbable as Rein obviously realised it was to insert their seminars into a story of desperate hideaways, he couldn’t resist. It is as though, for him, constructing a credible work of fiction was not the main task: instead he wanted to put in everything that was seen and said and suffered and thought by people like him, the Germans who longed for the German defeat.

His characters eagerly await the Russians’ arrival. Distributing flyers, disabling trains, pleading with artillerymen not to fire, they do all they can to dissuade German troops from fulfilling Goebbels’s boast that, “The whole German people will perish with us, so gloriously that even after a thousand years the heroic downfall of the Germans will occupy pride of place in world history.” They want to save the civilians crouching in subterranean shelters. They want some small part of the city’s buildings to survive. They think it is not glorious, but imbecilic, to fight to the last breath. They want the enemy to come quick, and end the war.

They also, at least to begin with, believe (because they have been listening to Radio Moscow) that the Soviet Army is made up of “fresh, rested young fellows, well dressed, well fed, with shiny guns and excellent training”. By the end they have learnt otherwise. When at last they break through the wall of a cellar to see a Russian soldier, Wiegand, the heroic anti-Nazi, calls out “Tovarich!” (comrade). The other “twists his lips in a contemptuous smile and replies, ‘Nix tovarich. Give watch.’” A few days later Wiegand walks away from a meeting with a Russian major, “while the cries of women being raped echo from the houses”. After the war Rein lived and wrote in East Germany, but in the 1950s he left for West Germany.

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No one in Demmin, according to Huber’s account, expected the Red Army to come as saviours. Displaced people from the east had been pouring though the town for weeks, and the stories they told were grim. But there was no escape. Demmin stood at the confluence of three rivers. As the Wehrmacht withdrew on 28 April 1945, it blew up the bridges. Those civilians who had dithered, who could not bring themselves to leave their homes in time, were trapped. Hundreds killed themselves.

Huber’s book is based on the letters and memoirs of those who were there. He doesn’t embroider or theorise. In brief paragraphs, as curt as hammer blows, he tells what happened: how a young Nazi official, his wife, her sister and their mother and grandmother all hanged themselves, one of them having first hanged the three-year-old son; how a schoolteacher, who had joined the Nazi Party rather than give up his job, shot his wife and three children, fired out of the window at the Russians advancing up the street and then shot himself before they could break down the door; how a furrier and his wife filled large rucksacks with stones and walked into the river; how a mother roped her three children together and dragged them after her into the canal; how a medical student watched from a hilltop as “hosts of raped women, some of them still heavily bleeding”, staggered up the road below, many “trailing a child, or two or three or sometimes four. Sooner or later they all turned off right, towards the [River] Tollense. Mass psychosis. They went to their deaths in the water.”

Pulling back, to widen his focus, Huber shows that this “suicide epidemic”, as a Berlin preacher called it, was nationwide. A doctor in Königsberg wrote in January 1945, “Wherever you go these days, people are talking about cyanide… The question of whether to resort to it is not even debated. Only the requisite quantity is discussed – in an easy offhand manner the way people usually talk about, say, food.” The suicide of military commanders after a defeat has been conventional ever since the heroes of antiquity used to fall on their swords in the high Roman fashion – the Nazi leaders knowingly followed that tradition – but this “mass psychosis” was something new.

Huber records it, his style still laconic, quoting the bare facts of one case after another – sometimes just one line to cover a whole family’s deaths, sometimes a fuller, more nuanced account where a surviving diary allows him to enter the minds of those who did away with themselves. Having established the extraordinary pervasiveness of the phenomenon, he turns back to the beginnings of Nazism to try to account for it.

Some of the motives for self-killing were obvious. In the east, especially, there was fear. Ever since Hitler declared war on the Soviet Union, Nazi propagandists had been building up a terrifying picture of the “Bolshevik Mongol hordes”. In October 1944 the Wehrmacht had driven the Russians back from the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf and found there the remains of massacred civilians. Shocking photographs of dead children, and of women with rucked up skirts and torn underwear, who had clearly been raped before death, were widely published. The intention was to stiffen German resolve. The actual result was to induce panic.

Along with fear there was shame. As Hitler and those around him became ever more frantic in their rhetoric, even ardent followers lost faith. “Everything I believed has turned out to be madness and crime,” wrote a Nazi journalist. And beyond shame there was guilt. As Huber notes, in the immediate postwar period Germans said constantly, “We didn’t know. We didn’t know.” Perhaps they didn’t all know about the death camps, but some of them did. As Marie Dabs, a shopkeeper in Demmin who managed to get her Jewish apprentice boy exempted from “labour service” wrote, “Even we small-town people had worked out where the ‘labour service’ would end up.” And every family had a son or a nephew fighting on the Eastern Front.

In Rein’s novel the young deserter Lassehn had “seriously considered suicide when he realised the aim was to fertilise the enemy’s land with the blood and corpses of the remaining population, those who were not deported, as war booty, for slave labour”. In April 1945, the guilt and the fear came together. Germans who suspected what their own troops had done to Russians were terrified of the Russians’ retribution.

Huber argues, though, that there is more to the suicide epidemic than an appropriate response to a desperate situation. To understand it more fully, he goes back to 1918, to Germany’s defeat and the humiliations of the Treaty of Versailles. Still drawing on personal testimonies of “ordinary people” he describes succinctly the fluctuating public mood. The uncertainty of the Weimar Republic, the Depression, the yearning for a saviour, the advent of Hitler, the economic revival, the apparent impunity with which the Führer was building the Reich – this story has been told many, many times, and often with more authority. But Huber, in noting the queasiness recorded in private journals, emphasises something not often attended to: the emotional vulnerability of an entire society.

In Munich, in October 1938, a Swiss worker saw a vision of bucolic ecstasy. “Long rows of beaming people stood arm in arm, swaying to the music. Beer flowed in torrents, roast chickens seemed to fly through the air.” This was more than merriment. It was delirium. Huber, following the development of Hitler Youth officials, workers, mothers, the teenage children of parents damaged by their experience of the First World War, traces how that strangely heightened emotional state was achieved, and how it coexisted, for many, with fear and doubt. Joining the Hitler Youth while they were still children, thrilled by ceremonies and songs, flattered by petty power and office, a whole generation was seduced. This is something Heinz Rein’s characters also discuss. Rein’s Lassehn is 22. As the much older inn-keeper Klose tells him: “You didn’t grow up in normal times… By the time you started thinking the troublemakers had already glued up your brain.”

Among the aids to that seduction the most potent included the constant talk of blood sacrifice, the glorification of those who died, and the romantic exaltation of those who vowed never to surrender. Rein imagines people struggling against an institutionalised death wish – Hitler’s insistence that there would be something magnificent about allowing Germany’s victorious enemies to raze Berlin to the ground and exterminate all its people. Huber describes ordinary people who had imbibed that death wish along with all the other intoxicating potions peddled by Nazism. When defeat came, he argues, for all too many of them suicide was the only response for which their minds had been prepared. 

Lucy Hughes-Hallett’s books include “The Pike: Gabriele D’Annunzio, Poet, Seducer and Preacher of War” (Fourth Estate)

 

Berlin Finale
Heinz Rein
Translated by Shaun Whiteside
Penguin Modern Classics, 672pp, £10.99

Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945
Florian Huber
Translated by Imogen Taylor
Allen Lane, 304pp, £20

This article appears in the 21 August 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The great university con