On August 30, 1939, Franciszek Honiok, a Pole living in the village of Hohenlieben in what was then the German province of Silesia, was picked up off the street by the Gestapo. He was held in solitary confinement until the following day when he was taken to Gleiwitz, near the Polish border. That evening, on the coded order “Grossmutter gestorben” (Grandmother dead) from Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Gestapo, Honiok was injected with a sedative, driven to the nearby radio transmitter station, dumped there, and shot. SS Major Helmut Naujocks, who was in charge of the operation, forced one of the station’s staff to broadcast in Polish: “Attention! Here is Gleiwitz! The radio station is in Polish hands!”
The murder of Honiok was one of a number of crude false flag incidents staged to suggest that Germany had been attacked. Inmates were taken from a concentration camp, dressed in Polish uniforms, shot, and their bodies left at the German customs post in Hochlinden to appear as a Polish incursion. By the next morning, as German radio and newspapers blared news of the “attacks,” Wehrmacht tanks were already advancing into Poland.
On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler shot himself in his Berlin bunker. That day in the small Pomeranian town of Demmin, a number of people killed themselves, then scores within a few days. They were among a wave of suicides across Germany that spring. Hitler was followed by Joseph Goebbels and his wife, who first poisoned their six children; Martin Bormann; Heinrich Himmler, who bit a cyanide capsule after he was arrested by British soldiers; 53 out of 554 German generals; and tens of thousands of other Germans.
Between those two dates Europe experienced the most terrible years in its history, years that were worse in Poland than in any other country. As Roger Moorhouse relates in Poland 1939: The Outbreak of World War II, the short, savage campaign to crush the Poles, who fought against hopeless odds, proved to be “a five-week struggle that prefaced nearly 300 weeks of slaughter.” Not only would almost all of the three million Polish Jews be methodically exterminated by the Germans, but as many Catholic Poles died as well. Warsaw was destroyed, and once Germany was at last defeated, the independence and integrity of Poland—the ostensible purpose for which Great Britain and France had gone to war—were conspicuously not restored.
Amid the horror, desolation, and bitterness with which the war ended, the story that Florian Huber tells in “Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself”: The Mass Suicide of Ordinary Germans in 1945 attracted little notice at the time. To the extent that it did, the reaction of the outside world—as to other German woes at that time, from the Allied firebombing of cities to the rape of millions of women by Russian soldiers to the expulsion of millions of Germans from Central Europe—tended to range from indifference to a vengeful sense that the Germans were the architects of their own misfortune or, more bluntly, that they had it coming. After so many years, those feelings of vengeance have faded, but looking at the way the war began helps to explain them.
By the fifteenth century the kingdom of Poland, united with the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, was the largest country in Europe, stretching from close to the Baltic to the Black Sea. Poland still ranked as a great power at the Peace of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War in 1648, but it then suffered such a catastrophic decline, hastened by internal strife, that by the end of the eighteenth century the country had ceased to exist, gobbled up by Russia, Austria, and Prussia in three cynical partitions. Nor was Poland restored after the Napoleonic Wars: the Congress of Vienna left an attenuated Grand Duchy of Warsaw as a Russian vassal, and Prussia and Austria kept their spoils.
Over the next century intermittent patriotic rebellions were brutally suppressed, while the Polish cause excited such sympathy in the West that when World War I ended, Poland found itself in effect on the winning side. One of President Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points promised “an independent Polish state,” which was created at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919; it forthwith won a crushing military victory over Bolshevik Russia and acquired much land to the east. Wilson had supposed that this reborn country would include “the territories inhabited by indisputably Polish populations,” but barely two thirds of its inhabitants were ethnically and linguistically Polish.
The new Polish republic might have ended up with as many as two million Germans, but after much wrangling in Paris, the borders were arranged so as to leave around 600,000 under Polish rule. Wilson had also promised that Poland would have “a free and secure access to the sea,” which the Versailles Treaty granted by way of the so-called Polish corridor between Pomerania and East Prussia. The Poles wanted it to include Danzig, the ancient Hanseatic port at the mouth of the Vistula, which would have made economic sense for Poland, and indeed for the city’s German inhabitants, but they resisted being under Polish rule. David Lloyd George, the British prime minister, came up with the compromise of making Danzig a Free City, belonging to neither Poland nor Germany, although Poland was granted an extraterritorial post office there.
For a hundred years now the Versailles Treaty has been endlessly condemned as unjust, even “Carthaginian.” J.M. Keynes set the tone with his entertaining but highly tendentious philippic The Economic Consequences of the Peace (1919). What concerned Keynes most was the reparations imposed on Germany, although Bismarck had demanded reparations from France after the Franco-Prussian War, and Versailles was generosity itself compared with the ferociously punitive Brest-Litovsk Treaty forced on Russia by Germany in 1918, accepted by Lenin and Trotsky in a spirit of revolutionary defeatism, and then conveniently forgotten after the war by the Germans, who thought only of their own misfortunes and what they saw as Versailles’s unjust territorial settlement. Huber takes his story back to the Weimar years, the rise of Hitler, and the Third Reich. He cites Gerhard Starcke, who had been a student at the University of Berlin in the late 1920s and who wrote a memoir forty years later of those days when “one belief was widespread on both the right and the left: that the injustice of Versailles was to blame for EVERYTHING.” However unfounded, this obsession helped bring Hitler to power, whereupon he began to undo that “injustice,” with catastrophic consequences.
Having shown astonishing audacity when he became chancellor, Hitler defied the Western democracies in 1935 by reintroducing conscription; the following year German forces reoccupied the Rhineland, which had been demilitarized by the terms of the Versailles Treaty. In March 1938 Austria was incorporated into the Reich, which was what most Austrians had wanted since World War I ended, and six months later the British prime minister Neville Chamberlain tried to conciliate Hitler further by agreeing to German annexation of the Sudetenland, the German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia.
However often Chamberlain, appeasement, and the Munich agreement are damned, German absorption of Austria and the Sudetenland was plainly congruent with the principle of Wilsonian self-determination, although that might raise questions about the principle itself. The former law professor knew little about the lands he was trying to dispose of, and he had innocently, or ignorantly, supposed that nationalities in Europe were arranged in a way that would provide neat borders between states, when in reality peoples were inextricably mixed up. There could be no “national justice” that made complete sense, either historically or ethnically. Wilson assumed, for example, that a “wrong” had been done to France when the new German empire acquired Alsace and Lorraine in 1871, although at the time of Westphalia, before Louis XIV’s rapacious wars of conquest, both provinces had been within the borders of the Holy Roman Empire of the German Nation, and Alsace—or rather Elsass—was historically, geographically, and linguistically German. History apart, any possible western border for Poland was bound to leave some Germans under Polish rule and some Poles under German rule.
In March 1939 what was left of Czechoslovakia fell apart, and Hitler entered Prague, with Poland as his next target. Angered and humiliated by this betrayal, Chamberlain promised that “in the event of any action which clearly threatened Polish independence,” the British would “lend Poland all support.” General Maurice Gamelin, commander of the French army, visited Warsaw in May and promised military action in the west in the event of a German attack on Poland. Over the next three months tension mounted. The Russians had no more love than the Germans for Poland, “the monstrous bastard of the Treaty of Versailles,” as the Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov called it, and he effectively pronounced a death sentence on that “bastard” when he signed a nonaggression pact with German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop on August 23, including a secret protocol for the partition of Poland between Germany and Russia. Moorhouse’s The Devils’ Alliance: Hitler’s Pact with Stalin 1939–1941 (2014) describes those years when National Socialist Germany and Soviet Socialist Russia became not only the spiritual kin they always were but practical allies.
In Poland 1939, he tells a tale of Polish gallantry, German brutality, and what he sees as Anglo-French perfidy. Given the disparity of forces, the outcome was foregone even before the Red Army entered Poland from the east on September 17. Polish cavalrymen charging German guns have entered legend, but a graver error was the Polish generals’ decision to fight on their western frontier, flat country for which German tanks were well suited. And the Poles effectively fought alone. Moorhouse concedes that Chamberlain had been ready, however reluctantly, to honor his commitment: “Never,” said Count Edward Raczyński, the Polish ambassador to London, “were we given the slightest reason to doubt British determination to stand by Poland.” Chamberlain did declare war on September 3, dragging an even more reluctant France behind him.
But after that it was all quiet on the western front, as the Anglo-French armies took no action, and the French air force didn’t bomb Germany, “shamefully leaving Poland to its fate,” in Moorhouse’s view. But while it’s possible that Anglo-French military action would have saved Poland, it seems unlikely. The British Expeditionary Force was modest in numbers, and the French army wasn’t designed for offensive war—or defensive war either, as the German invasion the following May made all too clear.
The invasion of Poland was carried out with atrocious cruelty wherever the Wehrmacht advanced. When they took Kłecko, west of Warsaw, on September 11, the Germans rounded up the men of the town to sort out those who were, Moorhouse writes, “racially or politically suspect, meaning Jews and anyone who put up resistance.” More than three hundred men and boys were then led off to the sports stadium in batches and shot, which was followed by another massacre at Końskie, south of Warsaw. The Polish post office at Danzig had a small garrison who fought bravely and honorably before they surrendered. Most of them were then shot by the Germans. And well before any extermination camp was built, Jews were always likely to be killed wherever the Wehrmacht went.
If that was how the German war began, might it have had a bearing on how it ended, with so many suicides, amid the physical and moral desolation into which the Germans had followed Hitler? Huber draws on Christian Goeschel’s more scholarly Suicide in Nazi Germany (2009). But Goeschel’s book wasn’t a best seller in Germany, as Huber’s book has been, and as was Der Brand (The Fire) by Jörg Friedrich in 2002, which described the destruction of German cites by British and American bombing that killed 400,000 people. Maybe it would be unfair to categorize these books as tales of suffering in which Germans are victims, but there has undoubtedly been a turn over the past quarter-century, almost a case of rediscovered memory.
In 1945 there were plenty of reasons why Germans might have wanted to end their lives: fear, shame, despair. In the east, fear was well founded. Huber takes his title from a father setting out, on the day of Hitler’s death, to fight to the end with the Volkssturm, a ragbag of old men and young boys, and handing his daughter a pistol with the words, “Promise me you’ll shoot yourself when the Russians come, otherwise I won’t have another moment’s peace.” She never saw him again and threw the gun away, but she avoided the fate of many like her. American and British soldiers in the West were far from blameless in their treatment of women, but they were chevaliers sans reproche compared with the Red Army, which marked its final conquest of Germany with an unprecedented orgy of killing, looting, and, above all, gang rape. An estimated two million women were raped by Russian soldiers, more than 10,000 women killed themselves in Berlin alone after they were raped, and thousands more did so before they could be.
Then again, many Germans had found that National Socialism gave meaning to their lives, and some couldn’t live with its collapse. That might explain a haunting tableau of death in Leipzig captured by the American photographer Margaret Bourke-White. Dr. Kurt Lisso, the city treasurer, is collapsed on his office desk, and his wife and daughter are sprawled on chairs, all having poisoned themselves. They may also have feared retribution, although after the Nuremberg Trials and the trials of some other war criminals, the period of lustration was brief, partly because of the exigencies of the cold war. Some of the worst criminals escaped, too often with the complicity of the Roman Catholic Church and its priests, as Philippe Sands describes in The Ratline: Love, Lies and Justice on the Trail of a Nazi Fugitive (2020), and some were let off scot-free. The SS officer and rocket scientist Wernher von Braun, who designed the V2 rockets that killed thousands in London and other European cities in the last months of the war, was spirited away by the Americans to work on their missile program.
In a recent review in these pages, Christopher R. Browning quoted Gordon Thomas and Greg Lewis, who want “to overturn a popular myth: that the German people followed Hitler as if as one mass.”* Any such myth would obviously be far too simple, but then there are other myths as well. On April 23, 1945, a week before the Demmin suicides, Time magazine carried a report from Ohrdruf, a small town in Thuringia. Nearby was a concentration camp, of which the townspeople claimed to be unaware until American soldiers took them to see it. “It’s the work of beasts,” one German said. “That night,” the Time report added, “the Burgermeister and his wife hanged themselves.” That was quoted soon after by Dwight Macdonald to confirm his belief that “the atrocities…were not in any sense actions of the German people.” And yet that won’t quite do either.
When Bourke-White reached the liberated concentration camp at Buchenwald, Huber writes, “she heard the refrain ‘We didn’t know! We didn’t know!’ from German citizens who were shown around the camp.” But of course they said that, and of course they had known. Only a minority actively participated in the worst crimes of the Third Reich, just as only a small minority actively opposed them, but most were in some measure aware of them. Those massacres at Kłecko, Końksie, and Danzig weren’t a secret; they were committed in plain sight, and so were worse horrors when Germany invaded Russia in June 1941, as every German soldier on the eastern front knew. In The German War: A Nation Under Arms, 1939–45 (2015), Nicholas Stargardt quotes a corporal writing from Russia to his wife in Bremen on August 7, less than seven weeks after the invasion began: “150 Jews from this place were shot, men, women and children, all bumped off. The Jews are being completely exterminated. Dear H., please don’t think about it, that’s how it has to be.” How many like him were there?
All this may help explain the German reaction to defeat. “Many people no longer saw a future for themselves,” Huber writes; “they sensed guilt closing in on them.” Not only was Hitler himself “in blood stepped in so far,” he had dipped the German people’s hands in it as well. “There are no ‘innocents’ in Germany,” boasted Das Schwarze Korps, the journal of the SS, as cataclysmic defeat approached:
They grew fat and stout under the prosperity of National Socialism…. They shouted “Hurrah” to our victories…. Nobody, after all, has preferred a democratic death to a National Socialist life.
Some brave resisters had in fact chosen just that, though too late, while others chose a “National Socialist death” through suicide at the bitter end.
And bitter it was, a national punishment incomparably more severe than “the slave treaty of Versailles.” Not only were four million soldiers and 400,000 civilians dead, the “nationalities question” in Central Europe was resolved by the largest ethnic cleansing in history, with up to 14 million Germans driven from their homes. Hitler’s gains at Munich and his pretext for attacking Poland were drastically reversed, as the Sudeten Germans were expelled from what is now the Czech Republic, and not only the Polish corridor but all the German lands east of the Oder—including Silesia, eastern Pomerania, and East Prussia—were taken by Poland, whose borders shifted to the west. Hohenlieben is now Łubie; German Danzig is Polish Gdańsk. And Germany itself, seventy-five years later, is a peaceable and prosperous model democracy, in many ways an example to the rest of Europe, not to say America. What “lessons of history” does that teach?