The Background of a Terror Hype: “Child Promise me that You Will Shoot Yourself”

Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschießt: Der Untergang der kleinen Leute 1945. (www.piper.de)

In the days of the Brexit, I often wondered about the emotional position of many people in the leave camp. We heard arguments that, although many reasonable people had very reasonable arguments against the Brexit, people in the exit group just believed it was better to leave the European Union: their decision making was fully based on emotions. During these agitating days I was reading Florian Hubers’ Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945, which gives a fascinating insight in the psychological situation of many people in Germany between 1929 and 1946.

In Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 (Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschießt: Der Untergang der kleinen Leute 1945) the German historian Florian Huber tells the story of the wave of collective suicides among ordinary people in Germany in 1945. He also tries to give a plausible explanation for this massive, and mostly forgotten, tragedy. The book begins with the shocking events in early May 1945 in Demmin, a city in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, which, at that moment, is materially untouched, but full of refugees from the East. The Soviet Army is approaching the town, and the townspeople are in full panic about the upcoming occupation. The Nazi propaganda has for years demonized the Soviet Union and people expect the worst. As a response, many decide that committing suicide is the only solution, and many individuals, mothers with children and families kill themselves by fire arms, poisoning, hanging or drowning. After the arrival of the Soviet Army there was isolated fighting from non-regular troops, the city is set on fire and many soldiers rape women. After a few days the Army moved on leaving the city in dumb chaos.

The book shows that it was not only out of fear for the Soviets, that people committed suicide. Many in Germany felt a sense of hopelessness and sometimes even a sense of guilt, and therefore saw suicide as their only way out. It also shows that these cases of collective suicide not only took place in the areas, which were occupied by the Soviet Army, but that all over Germany complete families committed suicide.

People had the feeling that there was no future after twelve years of Nazi rule, it was the end of times. Huber's book builds an interesting narrative about the changing collective emotions over time. It starts with the desperation about the lost First World War and the difficulties of the Germans to rebuild their society and economy afterwards. The misery caused by the Depression allowed Hitler to come in as a savior, who brings prosperity and self-consciousness. And although there is a general anti-war feeling, the narrative illustrates how the many military successes in the beginning of the Second World War initially abate deep concerns about new war sufferings. The attack on the Soviet Union brings about change, and from there people lose hope and become more and more aware of reality. However, as the many fragments from diaries in the book reveal, many shelter themselves from the truth and simply carry on, until it is no longer possible to deny or ignore reality. And at that point so many saw no other solution than to commit suicide.

Why should you not read this book?

Unfortunately Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 is only available in its original German language and in Dutch, Finnish and Norwegian translations. Quite amazing as the press coverage on its release was much wider, I noticed also English, Israeli and Spanish articles on the release of this publication.

Why should you read this book?

I hope that Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 will be translated into English, as it gives new perspectives on a period of German history, which is generally taught in European school classes. Where many teaching resources end with the capitulation of Germany, this publication demonstrates that it is high time to acknowledge that the post war fate of the country is important for understanding European Post War developments. This flood of suicides makes us contemplate about the way our European narratives are built. The taboo on committing suicide made it easy to silence talking about it in Western Europe. In the German Democratic Republic, former East Germany, it was obviously also not allowed to talk about what had happened as it would shed an unfavorable light on the doings of the Red Army. Consequently these events did enter neither into the collective memory nor in the Post War narratives.

How can history, citizenship and heritage education benefit?

Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 offers a fitting opportunity also to address with students the rather rigid model of perpetrators, victims and bystanders, which is used in many narratives related to World War II. It shows again the complexity of the past. The diary fragments also give good insight in the psychological way people handle grueling information, not fitting into their own conviction: they just dissociate themselves. And even long after evidence became abundantly available, many were still not able to accept reality.

Child promise me that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945 gives good insight into how difficult it is to establish reliable numbers about events in the past. I am often amazed how easily historians use numbers, without referring to reliable sources. In the chapter In the Mist of the Numbers, Huber carefully analyses the available sources and other circumstantial evidence about this tidal waves of suicides. His conclusion is that a trustworthy estimation is not possible, but that it is a number of five figures. His described method to approach the truth is a useful tool to make students understand what tremendous obstacles there are for historians to uncover truthfully the past.

Child promise that you will shoot yourself, the Demise of ordinary People in Germany in 1945

Author Florian Huber
Original title Kind, versprich mir, dass du dich erschießt: Der Untergang der kleinen Leute 1945
Original language German
Available in Dutch, Finnish, Norwegian
Language read Dutch
No. of pages Approx. 300
Genre History