Recently published in English, the German historian Florian Huber’s Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself examines the wave of suicides that swept through the Third Reich immediately before and after its defeat in 1945. Tom Rice writes in his review:
Through diaries, memoirs, and public records, Huber follows ordinary Germans through the Reich’s last days, which were, for many, the last days of their lives. We meet the elderly couples who hung themselves together, the fathers who shot their families before taking their own lives, and the mothers who marched to their fate in icy rivers, dragging their children behind them.
[But] Huber ultimately understates the significance of the German mass suicides. For him, Germans who killed themselves in 1945 did so either to avoid the fate that awaited them at the hands of the Allies—like the citizens fearful of the brutality of Russian soldiers, as was Hitler himself—or to escape the guilt that would overwhelm them once imminent defeat revived their dormant consciences. Whatever the reasons, the sheer number of Germans who chose to take their own lives is remarkable.
To answer the question of why they did it, Rice turns to Hannah Arendt’s observation that “just as the law in civilized countries assumes that the voice of conscience tells everybody ‘Thou shalt not kill,’ . . . so the law of Hitler’s land demanded that the voice of conscience tell everybody: ‘Thou shalt kill.’”
Mass suicide sprang from [an] inversion of moral imperatives, one that transformed self-harm from a sin into a necessity. In a sense, it was the logical conclusion of the twisted morality that Arendt described: standing face-to-face with the abyss, thousands of Germans followed Nazism’s commandment to kill—one last time. Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself offers important historical insight for any theoretical analysis of Nazism. By cataloguing the self-inflicted carnage of 1945, Huber offers another way of understanding the human cost of political evil.