Notes on “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”

Fenster writes:

That’s a new book garnering a lot of praise for what the author claims to be groundbreaking work in a neglected aspect of Germany at the time of its defeat in WW2: a suicide epidemic.

It is an odd book given its aspiration to be straightforward about a topic the author claims has been cloaked in denial and confusion. It leaves me more confused than when I started, and not in a good way.

The first third of the book relies on a lot of documentary detail relative to one town in Germany: Demmin, where the suicides were known to be large in number and where a good deal of documentation exists from the Germans who survived and the Germans who later ended up taking their own lives.

The second third of the book seems to be a high-gloss socio-psychological portrait of the German people from the end of WW1 to the end of WW2. All the usual suspects: the anger at and humiliation from Versailles, the Weimar years decadence and all, the exhaustion at the time of Hitler’s arrival and the initial suspicion, the elation during the go-go 30s, the growth of the Hitler cult, the high spirits at the beginning of the war, the slow disillusionment leading to despair by the end. Nothing about this is new and no new ground is broken.

Then the final piece tries to sum things up. But I am left with a lot more questions than answers.

Huber seems to step too gingerly around the horrors faced at war’s end, especially at the hands of the Soviet army. He spends quite a bit of ink on “well, wouldn’t you be mighty pissed off if you were a Soviet soldier, given Hitler’s perfidy, the evil things the Nazis did en route, and the fact you had been at the end in state of constant war with no respite for years?”

And he spends precious little ink on anything the Soviets actually did. A lot of the suicides just seemed to happen. One minute Gramps went down to the river. Then he went in.

First person accounts are essential and can be a good antidote to too much philosophizin’. What actually happened? What did Gramps actually do? What was he thinking? What were you feeling?

But this seems to be an example of phenomenological overkill, if I may use that word in this context. You can get lost in the weeds at the river’s edge, and Huber seems to be stuck there.

Is it intentional or just lazy methodology? Dunno. May have to ask Huber. But I have my suspicions there are axen being grinded and oxes being gorded.

There’s a lot of ink spilled describing Nazi propaganda, “with its terrifying slogans about ‘Bolshevik Mongol Hordes.’” When the Soviets first started rolling across German territory the Wehrmacht sent its propaganda machine to mount a “sensationalist campaign.” No wonder they killed themselves! They had heard so much propaganda about what the Soviet troops would do!

At one point Huber is recapping the thoughts of a German woman just before the Soviets arrived. She noted that Demmin had been spared so far but she wasn’t stupid. “She knew what she’d seen in Hamburg. She’d heard the reports from soldiers home on leave or billeted in Demmin. She knew what had happened to the refugees who had lost their towns to the Russians and were now flooding west in even larger numbers than before–”

Rapes? Murders? Pillaging? Hell on Earth?

Er . . . no.

“–stubbly-whiskered old men in battered hats, stooped grannies, hollow-eyed young women in headscarves with harassed looks on their faces, snotty-nosed children with stinking pants.”

Those Russians–always mit der harassment!

The very first account in the book of an encounter between a scared German and a Soviet soldier is a heart-warming tale of a soldier who rousts a woman and her child from her hiding place. He didn’t turn them in, let them stay in hiding, checked in on the kid from time to time, and warned her that not all Soviet solders were as nice.

Huber builds a huge case around how the suicides were the direct result of the failure of Nazi ideology. Why is this a special Nazi problem and not a more general problem related to the loss of identity, as with Japan after World War 2 or the Jews at Masada? And why the much larger prevalence on the East rather than the West? Huber hints here and there about the geographic disparity but, as this Guardian article notes, he doesn’t say much about it.

The Guardian piece also notes that there were two waves of suicides in Demmin: a first wave, driven by fear of the Soviets, and a second, in the bloody and rapey aftermath. You have to squint to find this distinction in the book. I went back and re-read the Demmin sections to see if I had missed anything. As far as I can see Huber mostly just sees these suicides as something that just happened out of fear of what was to come. Too bad about that Nazi propaganda and death cult ideology. Lots of lives could have been saved.

About Fenster

Gainfully employed for thirty years, including as one of those high paid college administrators faculty complain about. Earned Ph.D. late in life and converted to the faculty side. Those damn administrators are ruining everything.
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