970 The dark secret of Demmin



This is one of the most horrific stories you will ever hear about. It happened at the end of Nazi Germany. At that time, in 1945, Germans were grappling with what had happened in their Vaterland and how to react to, and deal with, these greatest of atrocities.


Most Germans throughout the Nazi's Third Reich had an inkling as to what happened to Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other minorities, when people suddenly disappeared. 


When I spoke to my mother about it, she said, "we all knew something was wrong, but we were too afraid to inquire, because those who did, would also disappear."


In my book en.light.en.ment I have an essay THE WHITE ROSE, about a resistance movement that tried to bring to the attention of the public the horrific ongoings. They were crushed.


This story is about what happened - not only in this small town of Demmin, but apparently all over Germany - with thousands of those Germans who couldn't face the shocking reality of what had occurred over the past few years.


Letter to the SMH, 3 July 2019:


Your report of widespread suicides in Germany at the end of WWII is one of the most horrific stories I ever read (‘‘The dark secret of Demmin’’, July 2). Most Germans throughout the Third Reich had an inkling as to what happened to Jews, Gypsies, homosexuals and other minorities, when people suddenly disappeared.


When I spoke to my mother about it, she said, ‘‘we all knew something was wrong, but we were too afraid to inquire, because those who did, would also disappear’’.  I (born in 1947 in Germany) always do my best to inform myself about what happened in that dark period of history ... but I had no idea this occurred. 


Carsten Burmeister


Anybody with German ancestry - or indeed with any connection to Germans or Germany - must read this story. Myself, I always do my best to inform myself about what had happened in that dark period of German history, but I had no idea this had occurred. German authorities swept the incident(s) under the carpet.






The suicide epidemic that Germany hushed up

SMH

 


WARNING: CONTAINS GRAPHIC CONTENT

 

On warm afternoons, residents of Demmin head down to the three rivers that flow through the north-east German town. By the banks of the River Peene, a lone fisherman casts into the sparkling water. Downstream, a young couple in a motorboat putter past the reed beds.


This idyllic location in an otherwise unremarkable town bore witness to what is now described as the largest mass suicide in German history. 

 

Between April 30 and May 3 1945, hundreds of families - young and old, rich and poor - drowned themselves in these shallow waterways. Such was the determination to die, people carried backpacks filled with rocks and roped their children together.

 

The horror was replicated all over town: in the nearby Swan's Pond (now at the back of an Aldi supermarket) parents drowned their children in waist-deep water, and in surrounding woodland entire families hung themselves from the bows of beech trees and old oaks.

 

It was the epicentre of an epidemic that seized the entire country. As the Third Reich toppled, tens of thousands of suicides occurred. In Demmin alone, an estimated 1000 took their own lives out of a population of just 15,000, albeit swollen by a few thousand refugees.

 

The suicides at the top of the Nazi regime are well-documented. Hitler took a cyanide pill and shot himself alongside his new wife Eva Braun in his bunker on April 30 - the same day Soviet troops marched into Demmin. The following day, Magda Goebbels, wife of propaganda chief Joseph, poisoned each of their six children before the couple killed themselves. 


Heinrich Himmler took cyanide on May 23 after being captured by the British, in 1946, Herman Goring cheated the gallows at the Nuremberg trials by taking smuggled poison. Of the German army's 554 generals, 53 took their own lives rather than face justice.

 

What drove so many ordinary men and women to follow the lead of the Nazi top brass is the subject of a book, Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself, by German historian and documentary maker Florian Huber. The  book is a bestseller in his home country, and newly published in Australia by Text.

 

In particular, Huber concentrates on Demmin, where he has uncovered the staggering death toll. "These were not heroes or villains but ordinary people," says Huber. "I didn't want them simply to fall into oblivion without asking why."

 

We are standing in the town cemetery, surrounded by a neat wall of medieval brickwork, where in May 1945, a teenage girl and her mother were left with the grisly task of counting the dead.

 

Huber, 51, has retrieved the records which the girl, Marga Behnke, wrote on paper normally used as order forms for flowers. She recorded 612 suicide victims buried in a mass grave in the cemetery. Many more were buried in private graves elsewhere.


Among the dead was a six-month-old baby strangled by his grandfather. 

 

Hundreds of others could not be identified and were logged simply as unbekannt, unknown. Of these, almost a third were children and babies. To preserve their memories, Huber points out, Marga noted any potential identifying factors: the initials on a handkerchief, a red blouse, a missing index finger.

 

Demmin - rebuilt after the war in utilitarian blocks common throughout East Germany - is a town reluctant to recall such painful memories.

 

"There is a wall of silence here," says Barbel Schreiner, who was six in 1945 and ended up in Demmin with her mother and brother after their hometown of Szczecin (now in Poland) was evacuated. "Many people just want to forget everything."

 

On the day the Russians invaded Demmin, she and her family hid in a cellar and made their escape the next morning. "We found an indescribable inferno in the street," she says. "Corpses everywhere, the river red with blood. We saw people hanging from trees. I still don't know how we made it out."

 

The irony was that until April 30 1945, Demmin had been untouched by war. A provincial capital, the population enthusiastically embraced Nazism, although due to its lack of strategic importance, it was never bombed. National events occurred here in miniature: torch-lit parades, rallies, purges of Jewish residents and Communists. 


When Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, party members formed a living swastika outside the town hall, while the main drag was renamed Adolf Hitler-Strasse.

 

It was along that very street the Russian troops marched into town on April 30, after storming through the east of Germany. They had left utter devastation in their wake, enacting revenge for the brutal fighting on the Eastern Front through the mass rape of civilians (it is estimated 2 million women were victims), indiscriminate killing and looting. 


As Huber points out, such brutality was the realisation of 12 years of Nazi propaganda warning of the terror that awaited at the Russians' hands. "They learnt to see them as monsters," he says.

 

Fear of retribution played its part in the mass suicides. After the Soviets arrived in Demmin and were temporarily halted - the bridges leading out of town were blown up by retreating German troops - they responded to a few potshots fired by local Hitler Youth with an orgy of mass rape and bloodletting, burning much of the town to the ground. 


But Huber argues that blaming the horrors of temporary occupation alone for the suicides disregards the growing sense of complicity and guilt gnawing at so many of his countrymen and women for having been part of the Nazi regime.

 

Even in the days before the Russians arrived, 21 suicides were recorded in the town register; including the wife of the police chief constable, who hanged herself alongside two grown daughters, and the 71-year-old director of Demmin's health insurance fund, who was found hanging with his wife, daughter and two grandchildren, aged eight and nine. 


As the Soviets marched in, George Moldenhauer, a school teacher, executed his wife and three children, then attempted to shoot at the enemy troops, but was instantly shot dead.

 

How much did ordinary Germans know about the true horror of the Fatherland? Huber cites the diary of a Demmin woman, who ran a shop selling furs and medals and whose Jewish apprentice was one day sent away. "She knew it," he says. "Everybody knew it. Hardly anyone knew about the concentration camps, but everyone had a sense that it was happening. If so much of a population disappears in a few short years, you must ask questions - even of yourself."


Such was the guilt, Huber says, that even in his home village in Bavaria (occupied by American troops) people killed themselves. In Berlin, there were 3881 suicides recorded in April 1945. "It was an epidemic," says Huber. "People openly discussed how they would do it."

 

It is only in recent years that Germany has started to delve into the end of the darkest chapter in its history. Since Huber's book has been published, he has been contacted by people all over the country whose relatives took their own lives at the end of the war - many of whom have never previously spoken.

 

On a visit to Demmin, he was approached by an elderly woman, who showed him the scars from where her mother had tried to slash her wrists with a razor blade in 1945. "She just briefly told me what happened, then said goodbye and walked away," he recalls. "No emotion, no context, just simply wanting to finally let it go."

 

The Telegraph, London

 

 

 

 







 

 

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