Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans in 1945
When Utopias Fail
Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself is one of the best books about Nazi Germany I've read. The author is 55-year-old Nuremberg native Florian Huber, who wrote his PhD on British policy regarding the postwar occupation of Germany. The book was first published in Germany in 2015. It became a bestseller. Penguin published an English translation in 2019. Huber's writing is as crisp and gripping as prize-winning fiction. His style is a bit like Hemingway's. The main text of the book is 267 pages, followed by 20 pages of notes. Promise Me is a quick read that covers an astounding amount of history. It opens with the mass suicides prompted by Nazi Germany's defeat. It goes on to describe why so many Germans felt that suicide was the only possible response to that defeat.
Promise Me is a giant red flag, warning anyone who dreams of Utopia, and the rapid social engineering demanded by Utopians, about the dangers of such a path. Utopian attempts to change society rapidly tend to end badly. Of course Nazi Germany ended badly for Nazism's tens of millions of victims. But it also ended badly for the allegedly superior Germans promised a thousand-year Reich. Those bad consequences included not only a crushing military defeat, rape on an epidemic scale, and the loss of territory to the Soviet Union, but also mass suicide.
Huber makes extensive use of vignettes from accounts by average people, including schoolteachers, housewives, shopkeepers, and children. For the most part, these are not frontline soldiers or party bigwigs. Rather, these folks are the "grass" that gets trampled, as in the African proverb, "When elephants fight, the grass gets trampled." Huber's approach rendered Promise Me an immersive read. It's is one of the few works that prompted me to feel some empathy for Germans, and also to understand the atrocities that Germans committed during the war as "bad things that humans do," as opposed to "bad things that Germans do."
Relatives and friends of my immigrant parents lived through, and died during, the Nazi occupation of Poland and Czechoslovakia. Terror, rage, and a sense of injustice were inculcated in me from a young age. My mind and heart want to associate Nazi crimes with German identity. As a Christian I recognize that this approach is contrary to what I say I believe. Intellectually, I am all too aware that persons of every ethnicity have committed atrocities. In the post-Soviet era, Poles have had to do the hard work of confronting atrocities committed by Poles. I can acknowledge all this, and yet still recoil when I hear German spoken, or become newly enraged when new research uncovers previously obscure material.
In the immediate post-war era, the West very much wanted to recruit West Germany into the anti-Soviet camp of the Cold War. Also, the West did not want to punish Germany, as such an approach ended disastrously after the Versailles Treaty. More Americans descended from German stock than from any other, and Americans of German descent would not support a complete demonization of German identity. And Germany was an engine of the Western economy, an engine that needed restarting so that German prosperity could contribute to prosperity for the post-war West.
Germans and Germany had to be rehabilitated in the public mind. To that end, Hollywood produced movies like 1951's Decision Before Dawn. Handsome and sympathetic actor Oskar Werner starred in that film as a good German. The film's purpose is to cajole viewers into overcoming any suspicion of Germany and believing that most Germans were merely mislead by a remote and evil leadership.
The Good German continued to be a theme in movies, including 2016's The Exception, the 2006 film The Good German, the 2008 film Valkyrie, etc. The hugely successful 1981 West German film Das Boot presented German soldiers as just regular guys, not at all genocidal or fanatical, drafted into a war they aren’t much interested in. These German military men, like men fighting under any flag, wanted nothing more than to get home. One viewer described his experience. "It is odd that we should empathize with the Nazis, but you don't even think about that after a while, and just look at them as people. I suppose that was partly the aim, to humanize the characters, and show they are just like you and I." Watching these films, one might conclude that most Germans were nice folks who knew nothing about atrocities.
Historiography, as well as theatrical films, has offered various approaches. These various approaches are reflected in treatment of one man, Adolf Eichmann. Hannah Arendt's 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem depicted Eichmann as a mere functionary, an average bureaucrat not driven by ideology, but rather manipulated by evil superiors. At his Jerusalem trial, Eichmann wanted to be seen as a cog in a machine to which he was indifferent, a man "just following orders."
In 2022, the Israeli film The Devil’s Confession: The Lost Eichmann Tapes, brought new attention to previously obscure 1957 audiotapes. This film suggests that Arendt's "banality of evil" understanding does not apply to Eichmann after all. In these tapes, in his own words, Eichmann depicts himself as a zealous, murderous anti-Semite. He describes himself as "a fanatical fighter for the freedom of my blood lineage, my ancestry … I was blind but then came the inspiration that guided me. Whatever is to the benefit of my people is going to be for me holy order and holy law … Had we put 10.3 million Jews to death, I would have said, 'Good, we destroyed the enemy.'" Here Eichmann voices the Social Darwinism inspiration for Nazism explored by Richard Weikart in his books.
In 1996, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust became an international sensation. "What can be said about the Germans cannot be said about any other nationality … no Germans, no Holocaust," Goldhagen wrote. Conversely, Jan Tomasz Gross' 2002 book Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland drew attention, not to German Nazis, but to Eastern European collaborators. For some audiences, this attention came as a relief. Many could not believe that intelligent, sophisticated, modern Germans could commit so-called "primitive" crimes. For many modern persons, it was more comfortable to attribute those crimes to "backward, primitive" peasants. I address this phenomenon in my book Bieganski.
Gunther Grass' 2002 novel Im Krebsgang, or Crabwalk, highlighted the "Germans as victims" narrative. In the approach of Germans as Victims – the title of a 2006 scholarly anthology – the focus shifts from Nazi Germany's crimes to Germans as victims of the Allies. The Allied firebombing of Dresden, the mass rape of German women by Red Army soldiers, and the expulsion of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe are all cited as examples of Germans as victims.
As new research attends to previously obscure material, the person attempting to understand Nazi evil experiences whiplash. Just when the spotlight shifted away from German identity as tainted, toward Eastern European identity as the problem, the accusing spotlight shifted back again. In 2001, historian Sonke Neitzel began work on then recently declassified archival material. American and British intelligence had secretly recorded German POWs. Transcripts were saved. Soldiers: German POWs on Fighting, Killing, and Dying, a US edition of Neitzel's and his co-author Harald Welzer's research, was published in 2013.
Reading Neitzel's and Welzer's book is gut wrenching. The speakers who were secretly recorded are not Nazi bigwigs, not the SS, not Gestapo. They are simply German soldiers. They brag to each other about the atrocities they committed, atrocities they chose to commit without any higher-up ordering them to do so. As they brag, they explicitly invoke their superior German identity and the inferior "race" of their victims as justification for their crimes.
One reports purposely targeting mothers who are pushing strollers with babies in them. He views this as "sport." A Pole bumps into a German soldier emerging from a restaurant. The German "hit him between the eyes with my fist. 'You Polish swine,'" the German says to the Pole, now lying in the street. Afterward, "I was cleaning my hand. I was wearing chamois leather gloves." Another German approaches and asks why the "swine of a Pole" is still living. "It would have been better if … you'd run him through with your bayonet." The second German then shoots the Pole to death. The point of this story is to show how "decent" the first speaker is, because he did not immediately murder the Pole who bumped into him. The soldier states the moral of the story explicitly. "The German soldier himself … has been far too decent," he brags. The German listening to him responds, "That's true. One is often too decent." A different soldier says, "Who are the Poles? They're at such a low level of culture. You can't compare them with Germans at all." In another transcript, after describing sexually torturing and then gang raping a Russian woman, the soldiers toss grenades at her. "I can't even look at a Russian as a human being," one says.
"The soldiers' conversations make it clear that practically all German soldiers knew or suspected that Jews were being murdered en masse," Neitzel writes. A major general, who is not a member of the Einsatzgruppen and who does not himself take part in mass shootings of Jews, admires how "beautifully" "arranged" Jewish corpses are, "so not too much space was wasted." The soldiers, again, not members of the Einsatzgruppen but "ordinary" soldiers, talk about how hard it is for the killing squads to shoot children. Not because of the moral wrong, but because children tend to squirm; it's harder to hit a moving target. These soldiers ask permission to watch the killing and visit the sites of mass graves. One Einsatzgruppen commander schedules his killing to accommodate one such visitor. The German POWs similarly brag about killing innocent Italian, French, Danish, and Greek civilians. One shoots a Frenchman in the back in order to steal his bicycle.
I did not expect, when I opened Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself, that, while reading, I would cry over the deaths, not just of Germans, but of Nazi Party members. But I did.
Huber's chapters are out of chronological order. The opening 132 pages are an emotionally exhausting catalog of German suicides. In spring, 1945, defeated Germans shoot, hang, drown, poison, and cut themselves and their children to death. At the close of those briskly written, "just the facts," chapters, Huber inserts an editorial voice. "If ordinary people found it so hard to imagine living on after the collapse of the regime that they condemned themselves and their loved ones to death … it is important to find out what was going on in their minds during those twelve years from 1933 to 1945."
In the second half of the book, Huber rolls back the clock, from the spring, 1945 defeat to 1926, the year Mein Kampf Volume 2 was published. Huber enters the homes and minds of Germans during the rise of Nazism. In these chapters, he plumbs the psychology that paved the way, not just for atrocity, but for mass suicide two decades later.
Promise Me opens in medias res. The book forgoes an introduction, a prologue, or any explanation, and immediately plunges the reader into a slow-moving catastrophe. "At the end of the dead-straight avenue, a massive church tower was silhouetted against the dim light of dawn … the tip of the spire, needlelike, pointed into the soft, pink sky. A tissue-paper cut-out scored with a razor blade, at once slender and powerful, filagree and solid." The image is dreamlike, defiant of reality; it is both "filagree and solid." In just two, superficially innocuous sentences, Huber has injected subliminal dread into his readers' minds: an avenue is "dead-straight;" there are needles pointing into soft pink and razor blades cutting fragile membranes. Mere allusions to death will soon be replaced by the real thing.
We are following the escape of attractive, 23-year-old Irene Broker. Irene's husband is missing. She lost her parents and in-laws during an air raid. Holger, her two-year-old son, is all she has left. "On a string around her neck, Irene Broker carried a small, watertight pouch." Huber doesn’t say what is in the pouch. He doesn't have to. His laconic economy powers his writing.
It's normal for the reader to care about an attractive young mother who has lost her family in war and is attempting, alone, to protect her son. We care all the more because we know Broker is pursued by the Red Army and its avalanche of rapes, rapes that would result in the deaths of an estimated 240,000 German women. We want to know. Will Broker open the watertight pouch around her neck, force some of the contents down her son's throat, and then consume the rest? Cyanide capsules were said to kill in three seconds. Would Irene Broker immediately exit the stage, and the page?
Huber is no kinder to the reader than history was to Irene Broker. Huber moves on from Broker to others. In some cases, he introduces someone and sends that person to his death in a few sentences. In the case of others, like Irene Broker, the reader goes on for pages not knowing her fate. Not until page 64 does Broker decide to kill herself and her child. She removes the capsules and dissolves them in water. She tries to feed some to her son; he swallows a small amount. At that moment, a stranger with whom she is sharing lodgings enters the kitchen and tips the cup down the drain. Later Broker wonders if she wouldn't have been better off just dying.
Promise Me begins in Demmin. Demmin is a town in northeast Germany. It is the site of the confluence of three rivers, and waterways score the town. Three bridges carry traffic in and out of Demmin. Given that it is surrounded on three sides by rivers, Demmin is a sort of peninsula. As the war was ending, the retreating Wehrmacht blew up the bridges, trapping the Red Army but also the Germans left in Demmin. The invading Red Army looted the town, raped women, and set the town on fire. Perhaps a thousand people committed suicide in Demmin. It is said to be the largest recorded mass suicide in German history. After the war, Demmin was part of East Germany, and mention of the suicides was taboo.
Demmin was not alone, of course. Germany's defeat prompted suicides across Germany. Christian Goeschel's book Suicide in Nazi Germany includes the following suicide statistics: 8 out of 41 NSDAP regional leaders who held office between 1926 and 1945, 7 out of 47 higher SS and police leaders, 53 out of 554 Army generals, 14 out of 98 Luftwaffe generals, and 11 out of 53 admirals. Hitler, his wife, Goebbels and his wife, Himmler and Goring: I don't think any normal person has shed many tears over these suicides. But then you think about her six children that Magda Goebbels poisoned in their sleep. Those children were innocent victims of Nazism.
Huber records many acts of child murder. Fathers would shoot their wives and children and then themselves. Mothers put rocks into their children's pockets, tied the children's bodies to their own, and then walked into the Peene, a river that, Huber emphasizes, is difficult to drown in. "The current was weak … the river was shallow." To drown in the Peene took determination, a determination some lacked. Mothers, suddenly instinctively beginning to swim, might survive after they drowned their own children. A man shot his entire family and then realized he had no bullet for himself. A pastor tried to poison his family and himself but the amount was only strong enough to kill his four-year-old daughter. A mother poisoned and buried her three children then tried to hang herself, but Red Army soldiers cut her down, three times.
Seven-year-old Karl Schlosser looked up and saw his mother standing before him, holding a razor. "We're going to heaven now, to join your father!" she announced. She was going to kill Karl, his brother, his grandparents and great grandparents, and then herself. Karl's grandfather grabbed her arms and wrestled away the razor. Karl would later report, "We moved into a house next door where the family had hanged themselves. They were still dangling from the tree in the garden as we moved in."
"The meadows by the river, resplendent in their spring finery, were edged, like the borders of a dress, with about 2 meters of baby clothes and other garments." There was "money, too – a lot of money. Nobody stooped to pick it up. It seemed to us worthless."
Gerhard Moldenhauer had opposed Hitler. But he wanted a teaching job. He betrayed his beliefs, joined the Nazi Party, and got the job. On April 30, 1945, as "the grinding and clattering of Soviet tanks drew closer," Moldenhauer shot his wife and three children. Moldenhauer then shot at advancing Russians, and finally he shot himself.
Mothers were raped as children and grandparents watched helplessly, Russian guns pointed at them. A 64-year-old woman was raped in the street, in front of her daughter and grandson. A witness reports "with the smoke came hosts of raped women, some of them still heavily bleeding," trailing their children by the hand. "There was no stopping them. They went to their deaths in the water."
Buried dead were not allowed rest. Red Army soldiers poked the soil seeking buried valuables. Irene Broker was troubled when dead children's graves were thus violated. She reburied two children, making sure that their legs poked up out of the earth, as a warning to the soldiers to move on and search for buried valuables elsewhere.
Marie Dabs, wife of a furrier, reproaches herself constantly in her memoir. "How naïve I was," she would later write, to believe the promises of protection offered by top Nazis. In fact they all left town before the Red Army arrived, and they blew up the bridges, making it harder for the citizenry to escape. "She hadn't realized that she'd swallowed the lies fed to her by her party, government, and army officials – swallowed their words and made them her own," Huber writes. "Now here she was with what little was left to her, on a dank bed of moss in a dark wood." "In the distance," Dabs would later write, "we heard the screams of women being tortured and raped, and saw the first glow of fire above the burning town."
"Demmin is everywhere," Huber declares. Suicide was rampant across Germany. Vicar Gerhard Jacobi, head of the oppositional Confessing Church, was compelled to preach an anti-suicide sermon in March, 1945.
A dedicated Nazi in Berlin said, "I can't carry on. Everything I believed in is turning out to be madness and crime." One suicide's final diary entry asked "Do my words have any meaning?" A common phrase of the day, "Anyone still alive in 1945 has only himself to blame." Those Germans who still did not know of Nazi crimes learned of them from returning soldiers. "A friend of mine killed herself when she heard the truth … and she wasn't the only one." Soldiers began to commit suicide. One said, "Given my conduct throughout the war, I had no hope of survival, and felt that only death could mask my shame."
Huber makes clear that Germany had committed countless atrocities in the USSR and left tens of millions dead. He introduces this information to help the reader understand what fueled Red Army atrocities in Germany. He doesn't try to excuse the Red Army, but merely to aid understanding. Similarly, exactly halfway through his book, after his devastating accounts of suicide, Huber turns back the clock and enters a German home in 1926. Melita Maschmann's parents have wakened her from sleep and carried her into the dining room so that she can listen to the radio. Maschmann heard bells tolling. They were the bells of Cologne cathedral, tolling to mark the departure of British soldiers from the Rhineland. "Even before I knew the meaning of the word 'Germany,' I loved it as something mysteriously overshadowed by grief, something infinitely dear and vulnerable." "The injustice of Versailles was to blame for EVERYTHING" another German who was young at this time would later write. A little boy would later remember that before he learned to recite the times table, he was taught to feel "the will to devote himself to the duty whose fulfillment shall be the crowning of his life." That duty was to save Germany.
"Saviors appeared everywhere, with flowing locks, declaring that they had been sent by God to save the world." One founded the "Union of Serious Researchers from this World to the Next." "When Hitler finally appeared," one man wrote, "we sighed with relief and listened to his words as if to a revelation." A young girl reported that Nazism gave her life meaning. "I am no longer a pebble thrown into a pond encircled by rippling rings that vanish into uncertainty … only one ring encircles my life. Its name is Germany." But soon "fear became an ingredient of the collective frenzy."
Melita Maschmann was a good little Nazi. She went around saying that Jews were a threat to Germany. She also had a beloved Jewish friend, Marianne Schweitzer. Eventually Maschmann realized she was contradicting what she said she believed, and she broke off her friendship with Schweitzer. She felt terrible. She said to herself, "So being guilty is a part of life." Johann Radein, a member of the Hitler Youth, marched in formation with hundreds of other boys. They sang rousing songs. The experience was hypnotic. Even so, "the songs gave me a heavy, queasy feeling in my stomach that often took hours to subside, like a fit of depression."
Maschmann traveled with the Hitler Youth to Poland, where she witnessed Germans abuse Poles. She worked to quell her own natural aversion to sadism. Renate, a 13-year-old German girl, was told about Germans evicting Poles from their homes so that Germans could take them over. "Get out, pigs," The Germans could say. The Poles "mustn't be allowed to forget that Germans were members of the master race." "I remember shivering at the feeling of power that crept through me when I heard that," she would later say. Later, in Poland, Renate would be forcefully groped by a Nazi leader while a German woman looked on and laughed.
Huber writes that Germans, who had known military victories, began to change after Nazi Germany invaded the USSR on June 22, 1941. Soldiers coming home from the front clearly articulated Nazi crimes. Others came home demented. Renate's brother-in-law Werner "paced up and down in his room, holding his ears and shouting, to drown out the screams in his head." An SS man on a train is "drunk and keen to talk." He "had to drink to endure his job and get to sleep at night. He was stationed at Mauthausen … 'I have to go back to the camp tomorrow." He said he was thinking of throwing himself against the electrified wires around the camp to kill himself.
And yet Germans kept fighting, even after any hope of victory was gone. "They were driven by a fear of the void and by the loss of a sense of purpose." After defeat, Maschmann wrote, "There was only one way to protect myself. To stop thinking altogether."
In page after page, Huber invites the reader into the minds and hearts of Germans who were not Nazi leaders. One can see how these average people, vulnerable and desperate, strand by strand, got caught up in a spider web of evil, so caught up that, after their thousand-year Reich was defeated, they thought their only choice was suicide. In addition to every other gift this book offers the reader, it offers this: a stark warning to social engineers. Time and again in human history, people, usually young people, have decided that the way things are is flawed, and complete transformation is necessary. Once the flaws are eliminated, humanity can enter a Utopia. Nazism, Communism, and Woke are all Utopian. I want to grab my well-meaning bourgeois lady friends who think that you can redefine something as basic as human sexuality in a few short years without creating any problems. I want them to read this book. The more totalitarian a Utopian belief system is, the more devastating is its inevitable collapse, and the more likely it is that not just those the system defines as outsiders will suffer. True believers, too, will pay in the end, with their own lives. Those taking their lives are often the true believers themselves.
Danusha Goska is the author of God through Binoculars: A Hitchhiker at a Monastery