As Huber recounts, by this time, Soviet soldiers had been fighting for three years and 10 months in a war foisted on them by Nazi Germany on June 22, 1941. Under the slogan "Crusade agaianst Bolshevism", the Germans' eastern campaign was, from the outset, planned as a war of extermination against an inferior race, the Soviet untermensch. Even before the first shots were fired, the German command had issued to troops a series of orders in clear breach of international law – orders that not only encouraged but actually demanded that they commit crimes against enemy soldiers, prisoners and civilians.

It was hardly surprising, then, that the battle was fought from the start with unprecedented ruthlessness and brutality on both sides. Behind the 1600 kilometres of front line, SS (Schutzstaffel, or Protection Squads) units were organising systematic murder operations and the industrial extermination of the so-called enemies of the people. Some 14,000 Soviet soldiers and civilians had died at German hands every single day of the war. The average for the Germans was 2100 a day.

The Russian soldiers all knew that the Germans had set out to herd them into slave camps or throw their bodies into pits. Each one of them had cause for revenge and retribution, for feelings of hatred and triumph. Now they were on the point of victory, declaring that the time had come "to annihilate the fascist beast once and for all, so that it can never again threaten our homeland with a new war".

Huber opens his book in the small Pomeranian town of Demmin, some 200 kilometres due north of Berlin and so far, in late April 1945, an untouched island in the middle of the war, which the residents only knew of from newspapers, radio and weekly newsreels. Demmin had 15,000 townspeople and a few thousand refugees. A mood of nervous apprehension took hold of them as they awaited the full force of brutal revenge.

The advancing Red Army was driving along refugees like water before the bow of a ship. German towns and villages were being lost to the Soviet tanks and armoured personnel carriers. In Demmin in the days between April 30, which brought the first wave of invading troops, and May 2, 1945, the town became the scene of an unprecedented wave of suicides by people of all ages and professions.

Whole families drowned themselves – the most "popular" method – but they also resorted to poison, razor blades, hanging and guns. People killed themselves or each other, together or alone. In Demmin an estimated 700-1000 chose suicide in this span of scarcely longer than 72 hours. The town has become notorious for the suicide wave, as Dresden has for carpet bombing.

Even without Huber's book, it is general knowledge that their fear was real. Hardened by the war, whipped up by Soviet propaganda and stripped of their inhibitions by alcohol, the Red Army soldiers went on a massive crime spree, a frenzy of rape, looting, violence and wanton destruction.

The author goes deeper into the matter, using diaries, letters, journals and memoirs to examine why thousands of Germans took their own lives. Demmin wasn't alone. All over the eastern parts of Germany, people in countless other places killed themselves to avoid the rampaging Russians. The suicidal mood was widespread in western Germany too, where the occupying troops were largely British or American, but to a lesser extent. Nazi propaganda told of American soldiers sucking the blood out of little children and raping all women in their path.

But fear of the Soviet troops, or, for women, shame and despair after being raped, were not the only reasons Germans indulged in such mass suicide. It was not so much fear that drove them as despair and disorientation – the Nazi movement that had given their lives meaning and purpose was crashing into ruins around them. And like in a cult, the mass suicides were in part a response to the shock of seeing a massive, inextricable lie come crashing down. Even Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels changed his tune and began talking of suicide as a last resort.

His wife, Magda, poisoned their six children, methodically, one by one, in the Führerbunker as the Allies approached, crushing cyanide pills in their mouths. Before killing herself, she left a letter for her son from her first marriage: "Our glorious idea is ruined, and with it everything beautiful, admirable, noble and good that I have known in my life. The world that will come after the Führer and National Socialism won't be worth living in, so I have taken the children with me. They are too good for the life that will come after us."

The Christian belief was that suicide was incontrovertible. As one German priest told his congregation: "We have no right to it. As Christians, we must be prepared to endure yet greater woes than those inflicted on us thus far." But against the backdrop of the physical, emotional and mental horrors of Germany's downfall, social conventions classifying suicide as an extreme, almost incomprehensible act no longer seemed to apply.

Nazi propaganda encouraged suicide toward the end of the war and it became a national trend, exercised by over 10,000 people. The party newspaper Völkischer Beobachter extolled the "pleasure of sacrificing personal existence" for the Fatherland. After the last concert at the Berlin Philharmonic on April 12, 1945, members of the Hitler Youth held baskets from which they passed cyanide capsules to the audience.

As Huber explains it, for the Nazi elite it wasn't just a case of being unwilling to face a tribunal of their victims and enemies. A root cause was the loss of a framework of values that left people without any sense of a moral basis, however warped, for their lives.

Many people no longer saw a future for themselves, but instead felt frightened and helpless as they found themselves confronted with imminent defeat and the collapse of the social order. The well-ordered society that had once upheld the taboo of suicide was now in the process of destroying itself; people were coming to expect chaos and anarchy, terror, oppression, violence and humiliation. They felt a nameless fear of the future. Suicide was no longer a sin. The taboo was broken. In many German families, honour came before life, Huber tells us.

All this may not be entirely new but he tells the story well and in much more detail. His method follows the "flashback" fashion – first, the days leading up to the Red Army atrocities of April-May 1945 before going back to the end of the First World War, the rise of Hitler's evil Nazi Germany and the provocative events of 1933-1939. Finally, how after 1945 many Germans preferred to be seen as victims of the war and refused to face up to their country's actions.


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