Germany's biggest mass suicides ever happened in April / May 1945 in Demmin, a small town in the North East of Germany. It became known as the «Tragedy of Demmin» in which likely more than a thousand men and women took their own lives and that of their children — until this very day this dark history influences the people in Demmin and this town in a very special manner as neo nazis have taken to the streets to commemorate the dead.
Between April 30, 1945, the day Hitler committed suicide, and May 3, 1945, more than 1,000 people in Demmin (estimates reach up to 2,500) decided to take their own lives. They used poison or gas, hanged themselves and their children, or shot each other. Women tied their children around their bodies and walked, burdened by stones, into the nearby rivers of the Peene, the Tollense or the Schwanensee (Swan Lake) in the center of Demmin.
Most of them took this now unimaginable decision to escape the fast approaching Russian troops and their retaliating tortures and rapes, which Hitler's propaganda machine had been spreading stories about in the months before. But fear was not their only reason, especially not for the men, as with the end of the German Reich and the death of Hitler, many people saw no reason to live in a Germany soon to be governed by the French, Americans or Russians. Their ideals had been crushed and the idea of suicide was more honourable than capitulating to any of their former foes. Many of them also knew, that if the Russians would take revenge in a similar way Germans had treated men, women and children, their lives would not be worth living for.
Panic spread in this small town and became almost contagious. The Russian revenge and retaliation for the equally indescribable atrocities of the German army in the East was feared by everybody. As a result hundreds of Demmin citizens committed suicide, others were simply physically as well as psychologically not strong enough to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The fear of what they will soon have to endure, and how they themselves and their children would be treated when the Russians were to arrive, was too much for them to bear. The firm conviction to do the right thing, and deciding to end their own and the lives of their children, to spare them from shame and torment, made mothers and fathers become murderers.
The idea however that their own German army, Hitler himself, may have contributed to their demise, in fact was the reason for it, is an important thing to point out here. For it should not be forgotten that it was Hitler’s SS, who had brought these mothers and fathers into their hopeless situation in which they saw no other way out.
To understand this, one has to look into Demmin's geographical location. It is a town that can only be reached via bridges, given that it is surrounded by 3 rivers (Peene, Trebel and Tollense). When the SS, retreating and literally fleeing from Demmin and the advancing Russian troops, they destroyed all these bridges over the 3 rivers. Demmin basically became a peninsular surrounded by rivers, one way in, no way out.
As a result the Russians were not able to proceed. Their cars and tanks were cueing up and hundreds of them were forced to settle for a while in Demmin, until they would eventually find a way to build bridges and cross the rivers.
The SS had not evacuated the population and then destroyed the bridges, no. They left quietly, leaving children, women and men to their own demise. As a result there was neither a mayor nor any other public official being able to negotiate with the 65th Russian Army under Colonel General Batov. So basically Demmin was not even able to capitulate.
The SS therefore did not only trap the Russian army in Demmin, but they also had no worries to leave their own, all Demmin citizens, women, children, with this army that they knew seeked revenge for their own atrocities.
The Red Army did as was to be expected.
They arrived in Demmin around the 30th April, and while not immediately, their anger grew, as they were not able to proceed. More and more of them arrived, while the locals hid wherever they could. Combined with a lot of alcohol that was consumed as part of the traditional 1st May celebrations, they burned the town to the ground. It stood literally in flames for several days. They burgled everything they could from the houses that stood empty, and those that were inhabited. All those that objected they killed, men, women and children. And, just as in many other cities, across Germany they raped women and many young girls. Some of them over days, repeatedly in groups and often until they died a tragic death, or until they chose to end their own life.
The fears of those that had taken their lives a few hours or days before to escape exactly this tragedy, were therefore mostly confirmed by those days in May 1945. The atrocities Demmin’s population had to suffer were indescribable. Had the war until then mainly passed them by, it hit this town even harder now. Still, it is important to have in mind that Demmin was a NSDAP stronghold, and a majority of the people in Demmin had voted for the party in 1933.
But, apart from those horror stories and still, and even to this day there are also many stories told about kind and helpful Russians, that did not act to these levels, however these were unfortunately in the minority.
As a result Demmin should never be the same place it used to be, after May 1945.
Like the city itself, the women, men and children who survived May 1945 had to quickly adapt to a new era. That era of the GDR. Not long until public money was used to build a huge commemorating monument in the middle of Demmin. A monument commemorating the liberation from fascism through the glorious Russian army.
The women, children and men that died in those days due to suicide. Those women that died due to the rape of the Russian soldiers however were not talked about. This event never happened. It ceased to exist.
The beginning of the processing of this trauma including a public debate on this mass suicide and the atrocities of the Red Army should take more than 60 years. Demmin remained part of the GDR and was therefore governed by the Soviet Union - atrocities of their army were never part of any history lesson.
This Soviet Union, whose wartime past was only referred to as the heroic liberation of Germany from the clutches of fascism, did not allow for anything that would have compromised the idealistic Red Army– these Russian atrocities simply never happened.
Those, more than a thousand dead Demmin citizens were non-existent in the GDR society. Nobody talked about them, there was no tombstone for them, no stories written about them. The only places where these people existed, were in the hearts and memories of the people. These people, the survivors, knew about the mass grave in the cemetery. They had seen the dead children, women and men on the benches and in the rivers. They had cut them from trees, fished them out of the lakes, put them on waggons. They brought them to their last resting place. They were the ones who had lost their aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers and who later even moved into the empty houses of those that were no longer there.
Their life in the newly established GDR had to continue, Demmin needed to be rebuild. The past had to be forgotten.
Then 1989 the Wall fell, and slowly people, now allowed to speak freely, began to talk more about the topic here and there, journalists hesitantly touched the subject and interviewed local people.
However not before 2015/2016 , the real exchange on the topic began. The book "Promise Me You'll Shoot Yourself: The Downfall of Ordinary Germans, 1945" by Florian Huber came to the bookstores in 2016, later in 2017 "Expulsion from Paradise" - a novel by Demmin artist Karl Schlösser. Suddenly there were articles in all the big magazines, newspapers and many TV channels. At the same time the shooting for the movie "About Life in Demmin" began, which made its way into the German cinemas in 2018, and became a huge success.
The problem with this was, that this culture of remembrance and processing of the past also meant that a different clientele appeared in the mix – neo-Nazis and their idea that the 8th of May is a day to mourn, not a day of liberation. Every year on the 8th of May Demmin is therefore perfidiously reminded of its own history.
Radical right-wing groups are marching through the streets of the town that suffered one of the biggest mass suicides ever registered. And that was a direct result of the nazis crimes perpetrated initially in the East. While one can argue if the extent to which the Russian army took revenge is the way a liberator should act, there is simply no doubt in anybody's mind that the far greater atrocities were done by those initiating the war - the German army.
These neo-Nazis however now exploit this tragedy, these dead children, women, and men every year on the Day of Liberation, May 8, for their own sickening purposes. They are twisting history with a so-called «grieve march « in which a procession of several hundreds of neo-Nazis, holding torches maches through the city center of Demmin and finishes their apparent devotion with speeches on the banks of the Peene river - full of the typical patriotism and war rhetoric that you know from those NS speeches in the 1930s.
The fewest of these participants are from Demmin, but the event is orchestrated and organised by the right wing parties and groups every year.
These are the apparent guardians of the dead with sunglasses, shaved heads, tattooed bodies who wear Volkstod (national death), Angriff (attack) Ostpreussen (Eastern Prussia) and Thor Steinar shirts often in the Nazi Tannenberg fonts. They are marching with their torches, Vorpommern and Germany flags past the survivors these days. They are marching along the houses of the few who know what it was like to have lived in Nazi times, those who do not want it ever to happen again. Those who now have to reluctantly watch these people lit torches and who can do nothing to stop this fake remembrance.
With their black boots they trample on the memory of those who they pretend to commemorate.
But, and more importantly, people are more and more seeing how many locals oppose this kind of memory. Because, Demmin can and wants to be more.
In recent years, the counter-demonstrations of the neutral and left wing have grown to considerable size. A very poignant documentary has been made on this delicate topic called «Über Leben in Demmin» by Martin Farkas.
Peace festivals were celebrated by the river Peene and in particular the many volunteers behind the action alliance 8.May / Demmin Nazifrei together with the influence of the local band «Feine Sahne Fischfilet» have turned this once brown mob, into a colourful pink confetti day.
This effort, the organisation of these counter-demonstrations and the general aim to make Demmin «colourful» and friendly, were finally rewarded in 2019 by winning the audience award for volunteering in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.
Demmin and its citizens are on the right path. Still, it has a lot to do to come to terms with its past and handle the present.
What is important is that finally the Demmin story is discussed openly, as many survivors are still alive. There is a chance to learn from the past and the failures of not being able to properly discuss the trauma of World War 2, also on the perpetrator side.
The confrontation with the history of Demmin and those suicides is therefore special and also and always has to be seen in a context. For me it is even more special, as my grandma and great-grandma survived this time. It it is a history that forces you to understand the macabre situation of German citizens at the end of World War 2, that were on one side victims of a totalitarian state, but at the same time also murderers.
Finding a way to commemorate these deaths respectfully and appropriately therefore is not easy.
However, letting the neo-Nazis instrumentalise these deaths for their own sickening agenda is certainly one thing we all have to strongly condemn and stand up for. This can only be done by understanding the whole history as it is too complex to simplify it into victim and perpetrator.
War never has any winner and should never be the answer.