from the editor's desk

Review of ‘Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: the mass suicide of ordinary Germans in 1945’ by Florian Huber

Huber, Florian. Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself: the mass suicide of ordinary Germans in 1945. Trans. Imogen Taylor. Melbourne: Text Publishing, 2019. RRP: $32.99, 304pp, ISBN: 9781925773699.

Fiona Wilkes

Readers are advised that the following review contains descriptions of suicide.

From the ages of nine to eleven, I only read books about war. As hyperfixations go, it might be the one my parents found the most confusing and potentially even troubling. I was fascinated by the horror of what unfolded within the pages of these books, both fiction and nonfiction. In my life, I had never experienced anything close to what the people on their pages had endured, nor had I yet even been exposed to barely comparable atrocities via the news. As an adult woman with a diagnosed anxiety disorder, I realise now that I was not merely interested in the horrors of war; I was planning how I would survive, or maybe just react, if something like that ever happened to me.

Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself by writer and documentary maker Florian Huber chronicles the reaction of German society to the final days of World War II, and the unprecedented wave of suicides that took place in response to the arrival of the Allied forces on German soil. The first portion of the book concerns itself with chronicling these suicides, using testimonies of those who survived to hammer home the desperation of the first few weeks of the Allied presence. What is striking is how few people committed the act alone. What was present seemed not a fear of death, or of any possible afterlife, but rather the fear of being left behind:

Many married couples and families […] committed joint suicide. Elderly couples killed themselves together […] Some killed themselves along with their parents or grown-up children […] Even large families were wiped out at a single blow. (55)

As someone with a keen interest in history, who has done my fair share of research into World War II (starting, of course, with those pre-pubescent years of reading, followed by an undergraduate degree in History), what I found particularly striking about Huber’s summary of the suicide epidemic of 1945 is how relatively unknown it is. I had never heard of the events of Demmin, or of any other instances of mass suicide in post-war Germany. The official stance on the matter, from survivors and officials alike, seems to have been silence. 

The second half of Huber’s book is dedicated, first, to ‘the good times’ of Hitler’s relatively peaceful pre-war reign, and then to the hardships of the war years. In the pre-war years, optimism was catching. Post, depression and despair infected the masses. This section is peppered with personal anecdotes from survivors, all of whom are acknowledged as having once been members of the Nazi party. Regardless, Huber is careful not to cast blame on ordinary Germans, spending a significant portion of the book on the dangers of propaganda. He writes, when detailing the experiences of a ten-year-old boy whose father had recently been killed in East Prussia, that ‘Karl had seen waves of refugees surging through Demmin and knew the Red Army soldiers were coming. He had grown up on Nazi propaganda—”The Russians cut off children’s tongues!”—and was afraid’ (40). This same boy later watches as his grandfather wrestles a razorblade from the hand of his mother, who is intent on killing her family and then herself, rather than allowing them to fall into the hands of the Russian army. However, the influence of propaganda was not limited to the eastern parts of Germany, where Russia was the most pressing threat. It also concerned the West.

During the retreat, German propaganda, with its tales of American soldiers who sucked the blood out of little children and raped all women in their path, had such a profound effect on the people that many families were sitting around with guns, ready to annihilate themselves when the Americans came. (109)

Huber attributes this propaganda as a partial cause of the suicide epidemic he describes:

Nazi propaganda had drummed it into the Germans that the Soviets brought hell on earth wherever they went. It was almost impossible to escape the horror stories, and, confronted with them day after day, many people saw no alternative but to equip themselves with poison. (77)

The indoctrination of the German masses is evident through the story of Melita Maschmann, who joins and subsequently devotes herself to the Hitler Youth in 1933. When World War II ended, she was forced to acknowledge the many atrocities of Nazi Germany, including those that she herself had been involved in. Huber does not excuse the actions of Maschmann or her peers, but he does concede that they were acting under the influence of a regime which had reared them to devote themselves, body and soul, to its causes. Maschmann, like Huber, puts her choices down to a young life lived under, and entirely for, Hitler: ‘Many had felt the same way. Many were dead. I had been spared and left to live. But how do you live after a youth like that?’ (262)

It is difficult to say, considering its subject matter, that reading this book was an enjoyable experience. I liken it to the feeling I had at age nine, when discovering for the first time how awful human beings can be to one another. But, while this book terrified me, it also fascinated me. And though I felt sick to my stomach, I felt hopeful too. In light of the continuing newest war in Europe, one I hoped never to see, Huber’s book feels essential. In short, it asks of humanity, how do we react when we have nothing left to lose?

Fiona Wilkes is a current PhD Candidate at The University of Western Australia specialising in English & Literary Studies. A fierce feminist and queer woman, her work focuses on the plights of women and queer folk of the past, present and future. Her creative works have been accepted for publication by Westerly Magazine, Coffin Bell Journal, Pulch Mag, Millennial Pulp Literary Magazine, The Elevation Review, LEON Literary Review, Lily Poetry Review, You Might Need to Hear This, ratbags art collective and Pelican Magazine. She was recently shortlisted for the Jacob Zilber Prize for Short Fiction and she was a featured writer at the 2022 National Young Writers Festival.

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