The desperate act of Ernst Kurt Lisso,Deputy Mayor of Leipzig.

Deputy Mayor Ernst Kurt Lisso and his family after committing suicide by cyanide to avoid capture by US troops, 1945 (1)

As the Red Army and the Western Allies pressed closer and closer to Berlin suicides grew. Thousands of Germans committed suicide in the spring of 1945, rather than face occupation and the expected abuse by their victors. 3,881 people were recorded as committing suicide during April in the Battle of Berlin, although the figure is probably an underestimate. Although the motives was widely explained as the “fear of the Russian invasion”, the suicides also happened in the areas liberated by the British and American troops.

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On the 18th April 1945 a number of officials of Leizig committed suicide in the New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus). The Deputy Mayor of Leipzig Ernst Lisso decided to end his life but also that of his wife and daughter as the Americans press towards the city hall. In the death tableaux his wife Renate Lisso sits across from her husband and most shockingly his daughter Regina sits on the bench. She has an armband on and presumably was part of the German Red Cross aiding German soldiers before her premature death. In another room, the mayor and his wife and daughter similarly killed themselves before the Allied forces could do their worst. In both cases they used cyanide capsules.

Deputy Mayor Ernst Kurt Lisso and his family after committing suicide by cyanide to avoid capture by US troops, 1945 (2)

Unlike in Japan–where many people also killed themselves at the end of the war–suicide is not embedded in German culture as a potential response to shame or dishonor. Yet thousands of people felt that life was no longer worth living if it wasn’t under the Nazi order. Perhaps the expected hardships and privations of defeat, coupled with family and personal losses during the war, drove many people over the edge.

Life Magazine reported that: “In the last days of the war the overwhelming realization of utter defeat was too much for many Germans. Stripped of the bayonets and bombast which had given them power, they could not face a reckoning with either their conquerors or their consciences. These found the quickest and surest escape in what Germans call selbstmord, self-murder.”

Deputy Mayor Ernst Kurt Lisso and his family after committing suicide by cyanide to avoid capture by US troops, 1945 (3)

There were several reasons why some Germans decided to end their lives in the last months of the war. First, by 1945 Nazi Propaganda had created fear among some sections of the population about the impending military invasion of their country by the Soviets or Western Allies. Information films from the Reichs Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda repeatedly chided audiences about why Germany must not surrender telling the people they faced the threat of torture, rape and death in defeat. Secondly, many Nazis – who had been indoctrinated in unquestioning loyalty to the party – also felt obliged to follow the example of Adolf Hitler when it was reported that the Führer had taken his own life. Finally others killed themselves because they did know what would happen to them following defeat.

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The picture of the last man to die

 

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Robert Capa (born Endre Friedmann;October 22, 1913 – May 25, 1954) was a Hungarian war photographer and photo journalist, arguably the greatest combat and adventure photographer in history. Capa was born into a Jewish family in Budapest, where his parents were tailors

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During his career he risked his life numerous times, most dramatically as the only photographer landing on Omaha Beach on D-Day. He documented the course of World War II in London, North Africa, Italy, and the liberation of Paris.

On April 18, 1945, Capa captured images of a fight to secure a bridge in Leipzig, Germany. These pictures included an image of Raymond J. Bowman’s death by sniper fire.

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This image became famous in a spread in Life magazine with the caption “The picture of the last man to die”

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Raymond_Bowman_robert_capa_3(Picture taken minutes before Raymond J. Bowman (on the right) was killed, the other soldier is Clarence Ridgeway (on the left)

Robert Capa climbed through a balcony window into the flat to photograph the dead man, who lay in the open door, a looted Luftwaffe sheepskin helmet on his head. The subsequent series of photographs show the rapid spread of the soldier’s blood across the parquet floor as other GIs attended to him and his fellow gunner took over his post at the machine gun.

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The Life magazine article did not identify the soldiers in the photographs by name, although Bowman’s family recognized him by the small pin (which bore his initials) that he always wore on his collar.

In the early 1950s, Capa traveled to Japan for an exhibition associated with Magnum Photos. While there, Life magazine asked him to go on assignment to Southeast Asia, where the French had been fighting for eight years in the First Indochina War,

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and was killed when he stepped on a land mine. He was 40 years old.

Bowman received many honors for his service, including the Bronze Star Medal, an Army Good Conduct Medal, and two Purple Hearts.

In July 2015, the city of Leipzig, Germany voted to name the street (previously called Jahnallee 61) in front of the apartment building where Bowman was killed “Bowmanstraße” after him. The renaming took place on April 17, 2016. The apartment building now contains a small memorial with Capa’s photographs and information about Bowman.

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