On May 1, 1945, hundreds of people committed mass suicide in the town of Demmin, in the Province of Pomerania(now in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern), Germany. The suicides occurred during a mass panic that was provoked by atrocities committed by soldiers of the Soviet Red Army, who had sacked the town the day before. Although death toll estimates vary, it is acknowledged to be the largest mass suicide ever recorded in Germany. The suicide was part of a mass suicide wave among the population of Nazi Germany.
Nazi officials, the police, the Wehrmacht and a number of citizens had left the town before the arrival of the Red Army, while thousands of refugees from the East had also taken refuge in Demmin. Three Soviet negotiators were shot prior to the Soviet advance into Demmin and Hitler Youth, amongst others, fired on Soviet soldiers once inside the town. The retreating Wehrmacht had blown up the bridges over the Peene and Tollense rivers, which enclosed the town to the north, west and south, thus blocking the Red Army’s advance and trapping the remaining civilians. The Soviet units looted and burned down the town, and committed rapes and executions.
Numerous inhabitants and refugees then committed suicide, with many families committing suicide together. Methods of suicides included drowning in the rivers, hanging, wrist-cutting, and use of firearms. Most bodies were buried in mass graves, and after the war, discussion of the mass suicide was tabooed by the East German Communist government.
Demmin was a stronghold of the nationalistic organisations DNVP and the Stahlhelm in the Weimar Republic.
Before 1933 there were boycotts of Jewish businesses, which drove away most of the Jews and the synagogue was sold in June 1938 to a furniture company, which is why it survived as a building today. In the riots of November 1938 thousands gathered in the square in anti-Semitic demonstration. In the last national elections to the Reichstag on 5 March 1933 the National Socialist Party won 53.7 percent of votes in Demmin.
During the last weeks of World War II, tens of thousands of Germans committed suicide, especially in territories occupied by the Red Army.The German historian Udo Grashhoff and the German author Kurt Bauer write that the suicides occurred in two stages: in a first wave before the Red Army’s arrival, in part due to a “fear of the Russians” spread by Nazi propaganda, and – as in Demmin – in a second wave after the Red Army’s arrival, triggered by executions, looting and mass rapes committed by Soviet soldiers.
In 1945, Demmin had between 15,000 and 16,000 inhabitants. Thousands of refugees from the East were also in town, roughly doubling its population.In late April, when the Eastern Front drew closer (Battle of Berlin), women, children and elderly men were forced to dig a 5 kilometres (3.1 mi)-long anti-tank ditch east of the town. On April 28, the German flight from the town began: the Nazi party functionaries left on confiscated fire engines, the hospital was evacuated, all the police departed, and a number of civilians fled.
Demmin was reached by spearheads of the Soviet 65th Army and the 1st Guards Tank Corps at noon on April 30, 1945.
At the tower of the church, a white banner was hoisted.According to an eyewitness, three Soviet negotiators, one of them a German officer, approached the anti-tank ditch and promised to spare Demmin’s civilian population from “harassment” and looting in the case of a surrender without fight. The eyewitness was then 19 years old, serving as a German soldier, and laid in the anti-tank ditch.According to him, three shots were fired at the negotiators, who sank to the ground.The remaining Wehrmacht units,belonging to Army Group Weichsel, and some Waffen-SS,retreated through Demmin, and roughly about half an hour after the incident,blew up all bridges leading out of town behind them.By that time, Soviet units were already advancing through Demmin.
The destruction of the bridges prevented the Soviet from advancing westward toward Rostock, which they had planned to reach the same day.It also prevented the flight of the civilian population, who were trapped by the rivers surrounding the town.According to eyewitnesses, some “fanatics,” primarily Hitler Youth,shot at the Soviet soldiers,despite several white flags being hoisted on Demmin’s buildings.
Memorably, a Nazi loyalist schoolteacher, having slain his wife and children, launched a grenade from a panzerfaust on Soviet soldiers, before finally hanging himself.
One of the remaining witnesses to the largest mass suicide in German history has revealed how women killed themselves and their children, shortly before the Nazis admitted defeat in the Second World War.
Manfred Schuster was only 10 years-old when he witnessed women tying children to their bodies with rope or clothes lines, and jumping into a river in a town north of Berlin as Soviet forces entered the town.
Schuster, now 81, described how he had traveled with his friend into town to see if they could find anything that was edible in the stores. They found a heavy bag of sugar and as they attempted to carry it home, they heard “bloodcurdling” screams coming from the nearby river.
He remembered seeing around 50 women with up to four children jumping into the river Peene in the small town of Demmin
Speaking to the Times, Schuster, said: “I shall never forget the cries of ‘mum, mum’.”
“The most horrible part was when a couple of children broke free and made it back to the bank, from where they looked on helplessly, screaming back at the water where their mothers and siblings had drowned, ” he said. “In absolute horror we dropped our bag of sugar, which exploded in a cloud of white dust, and we ran home as fast as we could.”
The Soviet soldiers in turn were allowed to loot the town for a period of three days. They committed mass rapes of local women,according to eyewitnesses, “regardless of age”, and shot German men who spoke up against this practice.
Furthermore, large areas of the town were set on fire, with nearly all of the center burning down completely. 80% of the town was destroyed within three days. Reportedly, Soviet soldiers had brushed the houses’ walls with gasoline before setting them on fire, and stood guard three days to prevent extinguishing.Many of the soldiers committing the mass rapes, executions, and pillaging were reportedly drunk.Already on April 30, when the atrocities started in the evening, Soviet soldiers had looted both Demmin’s cereal distilleries and several alcohol stores.
These events, along with the fear of atrocities stirred up by the Nazi propaganda before, caused a mass panic among the population.Many families committed suicide together, locals as well as refugees. The suicides were either carried out with guns, razor blades or poison, others hanged or drowned themselves in the Peene and Tollense rivers.Several mothers killed their children before killing themselves, or walked into one of the rivers with a rock in a backpack and their babies in their arms. Some families committed suicide by walking into the rivers, tied together. A local forester first shot three young children, then their mothers, then his wife and then himself, surviving as a blind man.In another recorded case, a daughter cut the wrists of her parents.
Not in every case were the suicides successful.Some mothers who had drowned their children were unable to drown themselves thereafter.In other cases, the dose of poison used was lethal for the children, but not for their mothers.There were also cases where children survived the drowning. After a failed suicide, some committed suicide by another method. For example, a mother and her repeatedly raped daughter, who had repeatedly failed to drown themselves in the Peene river, committed suicide by hanging themselves in an attic. Another mother who before had poisoned and buried three of her four children tried to hang herself on an oak three times, but the rope was cut each time by Soviet soldiers.There are further records of Soviet soldiers preventing suicides by retrieving people from the river and nursing cut wrists.In another case, a grandfather forcibly took away a razor blade from a mother who was about to kill her children and herself after being raped by Soviet soldiers and hearing of the death of her husband.After Soviet soldiers had raped a girl’s cousin to death and shot her uncle, her mother cut her wrist and the wrists of her brother and her own, likewise all other women of the family committed suicide, of whom the aunt was able to also save a grandmother of the said girl. One family survived because the 15-year-old son managed to persuade the raped mother to abort the suicide on their way down to the Tollense river.
Demmin’s current chronicler, then 14 years old, recalls:
“My mother was also raped. And then, together with us and with neighbors, she hurried towards the Tollense river, resolutely prepared to jump into it. […] My siblings […] realized only much later that I had held her back, that I had pulled her out of what may be called a state of trance, to prevent her from jumping into the water. There were people. There was screaming. The people were prepared to die. Children were told: ‘Do you want to live on? The town is burning. These and those are dead already. No, we do not want to live any more.’ And so, people went mostly into the rivers. […] That made even the Russians feel creepy. There are examples where Russians, too, tried to pull people out or hinder them. But these hundreds of people, they were unable to withhold. And the population here was extremely panicked.”
Gisela Zimmer writes that many of the dead were buried in mass graveson the Bartholomäi graveyard.Some were buried in orderly graves on the initiative of relatives.Others were not buried, as their bodies were not retrieved from the rivers.More than 900 bodies were buried in the mass graves.500 of them were recorded on sheets of a warehouse accountant’s book converted into a death register. Weeks after the mass suicide, bodies still floated in the rivers.Clothes and other belongings of the drowned formed a border along the rivers’ banks,up to 2 metres (6.6 ft) wide.
Focus magazine (1995) quoted Norbert Buske as saying,
“We will have to assume more than 1,000 deaths.”According to Goeschel (2009), with reference to Buske (1995), “Some 700 to 1,000 people are said to have committed suicide directly after the arrival of the Red Army;”Grashoff (2006), using the same reference, stated that “estimates of the number of suicides range from 700 to 1,200.”Der Spiegel (2005) put the death toll at “more than 1,000.”The NDR (German TV)stated that “nearly a thousand women and children committed suicide.” Bauer (2008) wrote that “some thousand people committed suicide, mostly by drowning.”According to psychologist Bscheid (2009) and jurist and sociologist Volkersen (2005), it was the largest recorded mass suicide in Germany. Both mentioned 900 suicides.Rostock historian Fred Mrotzek estimated that the death toll was 1,200 to 2,500 people
Under the Communist East German government, the mass suicide became a taboo subject.The mass graves’ site was not cared for deliberately, overgrew, and was at times tilled with sugar beets. The only visible hint of the mass grave was a solitary monument, soon overgrown, too, with the engraved date “1945”.
In contrast, a 20 metres (66 ft) obelisk was erected in Demmin’s burned down center to commemorate Soviet soldiers who had died in the area. The local museum listed “2,300 deaths due to warfare and famine” for the years of 1945 and 1946.As late as 1989, the chronicle of the district’s Communist party blamed the destruction of the town on Werwolf and Hitler Youth activities.The atrocities were blamed on Germans disguised as Soviets by a document found in the local Soviet military administration in Neubrandenburg. As Der Spiegel puts it:
“Arbitrary executions, the rapes, the torching of towns – the atrocities of the Red Army were a taboo in the GDR, the mass suicides as well. Those who had witnessed it all or even survived a failed suicide – children, elderly, raped women – were ashamed and kept quiet. Somehow, life had to go on in the system of the liberators. Today, many do not want to remember, for too long they had struggled to find a balance between what they had suffered and what they had learned.”
Only a few East German documents mentioned the events. The first post-war district official (Landrat) of Demmin, who was confirmed in this position by the Soviet authorities on May 15, 1945, briefly mentioned the events in an internal “activity report” of November 21, speaking of more than 700 suicide victims.Dieter Krüger, eyewitness of the events, son of a raped mother and survivor of a failed family suicide, started recording the mass suicide when working for the local museum in the 1980s, but his works were confiscated.Historian Erla Vensky managed to “smuggle” a line about a “panic, in the course of which 700 people committed suicide” into the “History of the local workers’ movement”.
After the collapse of the East German government, some of the eyewitnesses, including Demmin’s current chronicler, “broke the silence” and made their account of the mass suicide public.A new memorial was dedicated at the site of the mass graves. A dedicated issue of a journal published by the state of Mecklenburg-Vorpommern was released in 1995. Since, accounts of the event were published by German media. In 2008, the mass suicide was thematized in a novel