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"Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself"
The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945
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The astounding true story of how thousands of ordinary Germans, overcome by shame, guilt, and fear, killed themselves after the fall of the Third Reich and the end of World War II.
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FOUR DAYS IN DEMMIN
River Without Bridges
‘We reached another town towards morning. Demmin.’
At the end of the dead-straight avenue, a massive church tower was silhouetted against the dim light of dawn. The rows of sycamores, receding into the distance, led the eye to the tip of the spire, which pointed, needle-like, into the soft pink sky—a tissue-paper cut-out scored with a razor blade, at once slender and powerful, filigree and solid. It was the first time that Irene Bröker had seen anything to break the monotony of the landscape. All she had to do now was to make straight for it.
Irene Bröker was a twenty-three-year-old woman who in late April 1945 was fleeing with her family—or what was left of it—from the north-eastern city of Stettin. Her husband, Werner-Walter, had been missing since the previous autumn, and she had been separated from her parents, father-in-law and sister-in-law during an air raid the day before as they passed through the town of Anklam. Her parents’ carriage had been left behind with a broken wheel, while she was shunted out of town in her car, caught up in the dense flow of vehicles, people and horses. When she looked for her family later, she couldn’t find them. Only little Holger, her two-year-old son, was still with her. She was caeful not to let him stray from her side.
The two of them were not, however, entirely alone; in Löcknitz, a few miles west of Stettin, they had been joined by an elderly doctor and his wife. Like many women faced with hardship after a previously well-ordered life, Irene Bröker had developed remarkable coping skills—not only the ability to suppress all but her most vital emotions, but also the art of finding allies in strangers. Dr P., as Irene Bröker calls the doctor in her memoirs, was to be her greatest support in the days to come. She knew that difficulties lay ahead; she had even provided for a time when she might no longer want to live. On a string around her neck, Irene Bröker carried a small watertight pouch.
Towards morning, then, they arrived in Demmin. For Irene Bröker it was just another name on the escape route; the town surrounding the red-brick church tower that dominated the landscape for miles around held neither memories nor meaning for her. The end of her march lay much further west, beyond the reach of the Russian soldiers.
The horrors of the winter trek—frosty nights and snowstorms on icy roads—were a thing of the past. The second half of April was marked by beautiful spring weather; the countryside was burgeoning. A haze of young green covered the trees and fields; the days were warm, the nights mild. Apart from the occasional shower, there was no rain. But like so many others, Irene Bröker and the doctor and his wife had made only halting progress during the night. By the time they reached the eastern outskirts of Demmin that morning, they were worn out.
We got bogged on a sandy track and had to abandon some luggage to get going again. Many, many valuables had already been left by the roadside and in the fields. We stopped on the outskirts of Demmin, at a big house next to the cemetery. The occupants had fled town that evening. Too exhausted to go any further, we treated ourselves to a night’s rest.
After many sleepless nights, broken only by the occasional chilly nap by the roadside when the trek came to a halt, Irene Bröker had lost all sense of time and was longing for a rest. The stopover in Demmin wasn’t supposed to be more than a quick breather. But the town was a bottleneck. There were three rivers to be crossed on the road west.
• • •
A few hundred yards from the house where Irene Bröker slept, a unit of Wehrmacht soldiers had taken up quarters at a former Prussian cavalry barracks. Among them was Gustav Adolf Skibbe, a fifty-three-year-old from the West Prussian city of Elbing. Skibbe had entered the war late. If the Volkssturm—the old men and Hitler Youth boys called up to serve as a national militia—were the country’s last reserves, Skibbe was among the second-to-last. A few months earlier, he’d been hoping to survive the war at home with his family, but since general mobilisation in January 1943, the civilian population had been sifted with an ever finer sieve until he, too, was caught in its mesh. Skibbe was conscripted in December 1944. Scarcely two months later, his native Elbing was lost in a fierce battle, and he spent the weeks that followed far from the action, mainly around Berlin, nearly five hundred kilometres to the south-west. Then, on 14 March, he came to Demmin. It was four weeks since he’d last seen his family. It was a trying part of the war for him; there was a lot of waiting and toiling and standing around on draughty railway stations. His bones ached; he felt his age. ‘Wretched night, sore feet,’ he writes in the slim notebook he used as a war journal. ‘In Oranienburg, thank God, I was given insoles.’
In his journal, Skibbe kept a brief record of the places where he was billeted, his health and—on rare occasions—his emotions. He wasted hardly a word on the war itself, and less still on politics.
In Demmin, Skibbe’s unit was billeted in the former Uhlan Barracks on Jarmener Strasse. He was kept busy there—mainly, his journal suggests, servicing and repairing machinery—but he noticed the mood of nervous apprehension that had taken hold of residents and refugees alike. He noticed, too, their growing distrust of the troops who were to defend them.
Everything at sixes + sevens. Got hold of sawdust mattresses. 3 men, Möller, Schink and I, sleep in backroom. V. primitive. People v. subdued, almost desperate because of over-crowding in town.
Days passed ‘without much of note’. There was a lot of work to be done. Skibbe concentrated on his machines and, in between times, made the most of the lovely spring weather. On the east side of town, women and schoolchildren dug miles of steep-sided anti-tank ditches and drove wooden stakes into the ground to make tank traps, while the never-ending flow of refugees surged between them into town in dense clutches. The Red Army, which had begun its advance on Western Pomerania, drove them along like water before the bow of a ship.
• • •
Demmin-born Marie Dabs, daughter of a sea captain and wife of the furrier and gentlemen’s outfitter Walter Dabs, was familiar with the refugees. Wave after wave of them had passed through town since February, some staying with relatives, others in rooms or dormitories allocated by the billeting office. Most of them carried on westwards, but they were soon replaced by the next lot. Since her husband had been called up, Marie Dabs had been living alone with her children, Nanni, nineteen, and Otto, fifteen, in the flat behind their shop on Luisenstrasse. The billeting office had sent her an elderly refugee woman from Memel, who complained all the time and hogged the kitchen. ‘She was forever frying,’ Marie Dabs remembered later, ‘especially in the evenings.’ They had let her have Otto’s bedroom, which was soon the worse for wear. When the woman moved on west with her daughter, two young sisters from another refugee family moved in, this time taking over Nanni’s newly decorated room.
Forty-two years old, Marie Dabs had lived all her life in the bourgeois milieu of the small district town. An artfully composed photographer’s portrait of her shows a woman with carefully pinned-up hair whose face speaks of pride at a prosperous life. Now she was having to share that life with complete strangers from the east, and, seeing the fate of the refugees, she often found herself worrying about her own future. Several times she got as far as deciding to leave town with the children. Her friends the Hansens, landowners who lived near Flensburg, in north-west Germany, had sent telegrams urging her to join them; the suitcases were packed and ready. But Marie Dabs let bureaucrats and military brass convince her to stay and keep the shop up and running; the authorised medal and military-decoration business that she ran alongside the furriery had seen a sudden surge in sales in the past weeks. A Wehrmacht general had bought up her entire stock of medals, explaining that, after so many battles, he’d run out. Marie Dabs could feel the front moving closer.
Once again, though, she let herself be reassured; this time, the local chief of police promised to vouch personally for her safety, if she had to flee with her family. In the meantime, he asked her to put up the wife and child of an SS officer friend of his. Marie Dabs clutched at this straw, trusting the authorities rather than her own inner voice. She would later write in her memoir:
They joined us for every meal, but the high-ranking SS officer didn’t see fit to give me any advice. We couldn’t help but wonder, though, when we saw the crowds trekking west along our streets, and the ships of refugees in the harbour. I sincerely hoped that our police chief would keep his promise to bring us to safety along with his wife and daughter!
• • •
Until then, the people of Demmin had known the war only from the newspapers, radio and weekly newsreels. Sometimes, it is true, they were driven into their cellars by the air-raid sirens, but the bombers always flew on, to Stettin or Berlin. On some nights, residents had seen the glow of Anklam, burning on the eastern horizon, and on a few occasions the US bombers had attacked the air base at Tutow, only ten kilometres further east. But not a single bomb had fallen on Demmin. The town was an island in the middle of the war.
Ursula Strohschein, who lived with her parents not far from the Dabs’ fur shop in the old town, in Luisenstrasse, had recently returned home from a visit to the ruined wastes of bombed-out Hamburg. After such a harrowing experience, the sight of the undamaged town gave her new hope. ‘It wasn’t just that I was glad to see it again,’ she said. ‘I felt blessed, too.’ The burgher houses with their pediments and casement windows, the old half-timbered houses, the sixteenth-century tower still standing on Turmstrasse, the Luise Gate beyond, the gently flowing River Peene—all these things made it easy to feel that events might simply pass Demmin by.
But Ursula wasn’t stupid, and nor was she deaf or blind. She knew what she’d seen in Hamburg. She’d heard the reports from soldiers home on leave or billeted in Demmin. She knew what had happened to the refugees who had lost their towns and villages to the Russians and were now flooding west in even larger numbers than before—stubbly-whiskered old men in battered hats, stooped grannies, hollow-eyed young women in headscarves with harassed looks on their faces, snotty-nosed children in stinking pants. ‘Crammed full of strangers’ was Ursula Strohschein’s description of Demmin at that time. The ‘strangers’ inched their way along the streets in halting convoys of carts and barrows and prams, all piled high with swaying towers of the possessions they’d managed to salvage: blankets and pillows, washing baskets, suitcases and rucksacks, wedged and lashed with string. They were a wretched procession, flushed out onto the streets and squares and fields by the ever-advancing front. By late April, the party quartermaster no longer knew what to do with them all. The houses and schools were full to bursting; so were the estates and farms in the surrounding countryside. Those without a roof over their head had to stay in their carts and spend the nights on the road. Even the people of Demmin, so far mere onlookers, had to ask themselves whether to stay or go.
Ursula Strohschein could feel fear and apprehension all through the town. A Hitler Youth banner leader was billeted in her aunt’s beautiful burgher house near the marketplace. ‘What will become of Demmin?’ her aunt asked the young man. ‘We’ll defend Demmin!’ he replied. We, Ursula observed drily, meant a handful of Hitler Youth boys and Volkssturm men. ‘Herr Banner Leader’ did not hang around to discuss the matter, but hurried upstairs to get changed and then made himself scarce.
• • •
On Saturday 28 April, Dr Wilhelm Damann took a walk through the boys’ high school in Frauenstrasse, a dark-red building with a pointed ridge turret. Damann had been a teacher himself, but lost his job when the Nazis came to power. Now lessons had been suspended all over town, and the red-brick school had been converted into a military hospital, its corridors filled with wounded and dying soldiers. In the school hall, where leaving ceremonies had once been held in solemn formality, and half-grown men sent forth into the world with edifying words, doctors now cut bullets and shrapnel out of the half-grown men’s flesh and sawed off their arms and legs. Today, though, Wilhelm Damann could see from the corridor that the hall was being cleared of wounded men. Those who didn’t get a place in a truck or requisitioned removal van had to make do with a horse and cart. When Damann stepped out onto Frauenstrasse again, the street was full of German soldiers, all heading towards Peene Bridge. Fighting against this flow were people carrying boxes and bags crammed full of groceries. The army food stores and depots had been opened. That’s when Damann knew it was the beginning of the end: ‘Things were starting to fall apart.’
• • •
The Wehrmacht made no secret of their intention to surrender the town and blow up the bridges behind them as they moved west. It was the last chance of escape for any doubters and ditherers. Others had long been preparing for this moment. High-ranking Nazis, leaders of party organisations, the district administrator, the mayor, the head of the grammar school, local officials—such people set off west with few regrets.
From Marie Dab’s fur shop, it was only a short walk to the wide market square, and she went to the town hall to talk to the chief of police, who had promised to vouch for her when the time came. What she saw in the square ‘beggared belief’:
Our entire police force was sitting on the back of a truck, and the chief stood beside it, ready to join them. He called out to me: ‘Do you want to come with us? Jump up!’ I stood there, stunned, unable to say a word.
Without the children? Never! Marie Dabs could only stand and watch as the truck drove off—and with it, her last hope of getting out of Demmin in time. Two things struck her at this moment. The first was her betrayal by the chief of police, whose promises she had blindly trusted to the end—and he hadn’t been alone in jumping on the truck; all the other policemen in town who’d talked her into staying were complicit in this betrayal. Marie Dabs thought, too, of the high-ranking SS officer whose wife and child had moved in with her. He’d blown in for dinner from time to time but had little to say for himself, although he must have been well informed—and then one day he’d been gone, and his wife with him. There was the Wehrmacht general, too, who’d bought up her entire supply of medals and sworn blithely: ‘The Russians won’t make it over the River Oder!’ She’d never seen him again either. It was the same story with all the people from the party—Otto’s Deutsches Jungvolk leader, for example, and the district group leader—they had all spread hope and refused to hear of escape, and now they’d gone and escaped themselves.
Worse, though, than these people’s betrayal was that Marie Dabs had believed them rather than herself. ‘How naive I was.’ She was shocked by her own gullible stupidity, her feeble wait-and-see attitude. Despite having some idea of what was going on and sensing that their lives were at risk, she’d persisted in shutting out the truth and letting herself be hushed. Now it was too late. From this point in her memoirs, Marie Dabs’ narrative is shot through with self-reproach, as she accuses herself of having failed herself and her children. ‘Why didn’t I do it? Why didn’t I leave when the Hansens telegraphed me? I did all the wrong things, and cruel fate ran its course.’
Distraught, she returned to the fur shop and called the children. The three of them packed their bags—a small suitcase of groceries, cognac and cigarettes for bartering, and a larger suitcase containing good clothes, an eiderdown and the children’s photo albums—and prepared to flee the town. They hid the valuables they couldn’t carry in the cellar, along with the medals and military decorations from the shop. Then they tied everything to the luggage racks of their bicycles. Throughout all of this, Marie Dabs didn’t for a moment forget that she was the furrier’s wife: ‘I had on my dark-grey tailor-made suit, a red-and-white blouse and a pair of stout shoes, and carried my two fur coats over my arm.’ She cast a last look around the familiar rooms, taking in the white sales cabinets, the racks of shirts and ties and caps, and the fur room with its white wardrobe full of fur coats and muffs.
Just as they were about to set off, the youngest daughter of the local cinema operator, Herr Feindt, came running up and told them that her father had died of a heart attack. No one had been able to save him. Frau Feindt and her three daughters ended up leaving the dead man behind in their flat and fleeing towards Lake Kummerow. Meanwhile, Marie, Nanni and Otto Dabs pushed their bikes down to the harbour and over Kahlden Bridge in the flood of soldiers and fleeing people.
• • •
That same day, Gustav Skibbe noted in his war journal that his unit was to abandon its garrison. No final battle in Demmin. The Wehrmacht was clearing all its bases. To his delight, Skibbe received an extra vehicle ‘for withdrawal purposes’. After a sleepless night, he drove to the army’s food stores, where the liquidation of the base was well underway. Broken and emptied packing cases were strewn all over the place. Meat, cigars, schnapps. Soldiers and civilians were carting off sacks of potatoes and whole cartons of cigarettes, snapping and shouting at each other, tearing the loot out of each other’s hands and laying into one another. ‘Murder. Manslaughter,’ Skibbe wrote. He packed what he could for himself and the men in his unit. It was a ‘hasty retreat’ rather than an orderly withdrawal. The first aircraft buzzing the town, the first dead. The war had finally reached Demmin. It was 29 April. ‘Mum’s birthday,’ Skibbe wrote. ‘What gloomy thoughts drift out to her. Office cleared amid bombing, low-flying aircraft—several deaths among refugees. Rush hour—one unit came flooding back, a hideous to-do. Moved overnight to bridge by harbour. No one to be allowed out.’
Retreating without a fight had its price. Civilians were surrendered to the enemy with no means of defence. Residents and refugees alike were prevented from leaving town on the roads west so as not to hold up the withdrawing army. The soldiers began their retreat over the Peene. Once on the other side, they would blow up the bridges.
• • •
Irene Bröker and her companions had chosen the worst possible moment to break their journey. The day of respite in the abandoned house by the cemetery almost proved their undoing. The Waffen SS searched the house, looking for deserters and traitors; Dr P. managed to hide under the bed just in time. The military police—known derisively as the ‘chained dogs’ because they wore big metal gorgets round their necks—had only a cursory look round.
Bröker later remembered how strange the house felt after they’d left:
The telephone in the house suddenly stopped working. It had gone eerily quiet. We wanted to go on our way and hoped no one else would show up now that the house had been searched. We didn’t want to end up in the ditches that had been dug around the town.
As they were cramming their suitcases back in the car, some women passed and told them that the SS had blocked the bridges. Irene Bröker felt a sudden chill. She cursed the army for commandeering the main routes west for military vehicles. She and her family had been forced to make a detour north to the Baltic as they fled, travelling on congested back roads. If they’d headed straight for the west, she thought, they could be in Mecklenburg by now, which was presumably in British hands. They’d be safe. ‘But there we were in late April, caught in Demmin as if in a trap.’
• • •
Demmin was known as Dreistromland—the land of three rivers. The River Peene rises in the hills of Mecklenburg, about forty kilometres south-west of Demmin, and winds its way down through the plains of Western Pomerania to the Baltic. The Peene is no wild torrent, its banks a bare two metres above sea level at Demmin, its gradient gentle and current sluggish. In a tenacious east wind, the river will give up and flow uphill. Demmin lies on a kind of peninsula in a westward loop of the Peene. Seen from the air, the river forms a blackish green semicircle around the slight hill on which Demmin’s old town is situated—the market square, with the town hall standing solitary in the middle; the proud brick church of St Bartholomaeus; and Luise Gate, the town’s only surviving gatehouse—and sometime prison—with its thick stone walls and gothic stepped gables. In the course of this semicircular loop, the Peene is joined by two tributaries—the Trebel from the west and the Tollense from the east, both sharply meandering little rivers, too. In and around Demmin, these three rivers form a complex network of branches and canals, basins and ditches, pools and marshland. The town’s location at this junction of three rivers once gave it some standing as a seaport. Its red-brick warehouses are quite imposing enough to compete with the church tower.
In late April 1945, Demmin had fifteen thousand townspeople and a few thousand refugees. The bridges had been blocked by Wehrmacht soldiers, who were waiting for orders to dynamite them. From the air, the blackish-green ribbon of the Peene could be seen cutting off the escape routes to the west. From the air, it was obvious: they were all trapped.
• • •
Since 25 April 1945, a hundred thousand Red Army soldiers—the 65th Army of the 2nd Belorussian Front—had been on the final leg of their march from Stettin to the demarcation line between the Soviet and Western Allied occupation zones. Their current objective was to capture the German territory north of Berlin as far as the Demmin-Malchin-Waren line within a fortnight. As the troops advanced, they came across the dwindling remains of the XXXIInd Army Corps, a largely worn-down division of Flemish SS legionaries and a few bedraggled Volkssturm units. Although these soldiers were in no fit state to repel the Soviet tanks and troops, they fought on and inflicted appreciable losses; the Soviets had no reason to regard the fighting and killing as over. They even quickened the pace of their own advance to prevent the retreating Germans from drawing up a new defence line on the Baltic coast.
And so the heavy Soviet tanks and armoured personnel carriers rolled swiftly north-west, along country roads and over fields which the many streams and canals made hard to navigate. They passed through the small towns and tiny villages of Western Pomerania: Altentreptow, Letzin, Alt Teterin—and Hohenmocker, where the foremost brigade spent the night of 29 April. On the following day, the Red Army soldiers were to capture Demmin and then push on rapidly in pursuit of the enemy. Those were their orders.
War Without Limits
By this time, Soviet soldiers had been fighting for three years and ten months, or 1409 days, in a war foisted on them by Nazi Germany on 22 June 1941. Under the slogan ‘Crusade against Bolshevism’, the Germans’ eastern campaign was, from the outset, planned as a war of extermination against an inferior race, the Soviet Untermensch. Even before the first shots were fired, the German command had issued to troops a series of orders in clear breach of international law—orders that not only encouraged but actually demanded that they commit crimes against enemy soldiers, prisoners and civilians. It was hardly surprising, then, that the battle was fought from the start with unprecedented ruthlessness and brutality on both sides. Behind the 1600 kilometres of front line, SS units were organising systematic murder operations and the industrial extermination of the so-called enemies of the people. And when the German retreat began in 1943, Wehrmacht soldiers set fire to thousands of towns and villages and fields in the east as part of the ‘scorched earth’ policy.
From day one, the eastern campaign claimed an exceptional number of losses. While an average of 2100 Germans died daily, the death toll on the Soviet side—slain soldiers, starved POWs, murdered civilians—reached more than 14,100 a day. By the end of April 1945, at least twenty million Soviet nationals had lost their lives—at the hands of the Germans whose towns and villages the Red Army soldiers were now rolling through with their tanks. It is unlikely that the Russian soldiers were aware of the precise figures, but they all knew that the Germans had set out to herd them into slave camps or throw their bodies into pits. Each one of them had cause for revenge and retribution, for feelings of hatred and triumph. Many had lost loved ones, and what’s more, they had been fighting since 1941 without a single day’s leave. Now, after 1409 days of exterminatory war, they were on the point of victory, declaring: ‘The time has come to annihilate the fascist beast once and for all, so that it can never again threaten our homeland with a new war.’
• • •
- "Gripping ... Huber tells the shocking stories of ordinary German suicides with literary power and skill, making excellent use of unknown material."—Richard Evans, The Guardian
- "Vivid and disturbing...Though the topic is relentlessly grim, Huber portrays his subjects with empathy and offers key insights into the German mindset before, during, and after WWII. Readers will be convinced that reckoning with the war's legacy requires studying this underexamined tragedy."—Publishers Weekly
- "Huber retells the self-annihilation of May 1945 in dispassionate, vivid detail...It's hard not to hear faint echoes in our current plight."—Andrew Anthony, The Observer
- "A remarkable book -- grim and fascinating. Florian Huber tells the story well."—Robbie Millen, The Times
- "An under-represented history that is equal parts terrifying and tragic...Amid the nearly unbearable darkness, Huber injects notes of hope...Illuminating yet haunting."—Ruta Sepetys, Financial Times
- "Huber tells this terrible history with compassion and care. He writes with an ease that makes the book flow smoothly despite the bleak nature of the subject, aided by a fine translation from the German by Imogen Taylor."—Laurence Rees, Telegraph
- "A harrowing insight into the psyche of everyday German citizens...Huber's book is extremely well researched ... By drawing on the thoughts, movements and mental state of the diarists, he is able to provide a compelling insight into the minds of everyday Nazi citizens."—Jacob Farr, The Scotsman
- "A grimly compelling study of the psychology of fanaticism."—The Economist
- "All eyes will be opened by the facts on offer in "Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself"...Huber follows a cast of real, all-too-human characters as they head into darkness...His terrible evidence is priceless, and belongs on every bookshelf."—James Hawes, The Spectator
"Bleak, arresting...A sobering study of a dark period of Europe's history."
—Matt Elton and Ellie Cawthorne, BBC History Magazine
- On Sale
- Mar 10, 2020
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Little Brown Spark