It’s horrific, but it’s not a new story. More than 20 years ago I visited Demmin and filmed an interview with an eyewitness to the suicides for Nazis: A Warning from History, a TV series I made for the BBC which was also shown in Germany. Nonetheless, Huber tells this terrible history with compassion and care. He writes with an ease that makes the book flow smoothly despite the bleak nature of the subject matter, aided by a fine translation from the German by Imogen Taylor. You would have to be heartless not to be moved as you read this litany of rape and suicide.
Illuminating yet haunting, Huber’s study offers an uncommon portrait of Hitler’s barbaric reach to manipulate and massacre, reminding us of the well-known and tragic conclusion — amid the days of the Third Reich, human suffering emerged the victor.
Huber retells the self-annihilation of May 1945 in dispassionate, vivid detail, but after a while the sheer repetition of “ordinary Germans” ending their lives begins to dull the senses. At around about halfway through the book, he shifts the narrative back to the early days of optimism, when Hitler first came to power. It’s a rather jarring turn in direction that revisits some well-trodden ground, although Huber seeks to find new paths by using the recollections of some of the diarists he introduces earlier in the book. But little new light is shed on what we already know.
Nonetheless, reading the testaments of people who’d come through a period of great uncertainty in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the liberal order seemingly spent, it’s hard not to hear faint echoes in our current plight. As they do now, people then craved simple, emotional answers to complex economic and political problems.
The author’s relatively brief bibliography suggests that he may have read less than many other European writers about 1945 Germany, because books on the war command so poor a sale in his country. Many foreigners have written more graphically and interestingly than he does, about those ghastly times.
Huber tells the shocking stories of ordinary German suicides with literary power and skill, making excellent use of unknown material in the admirable, privately run German Diary Archive at Emmendingen, in south-western Germany. But after the first 130 pages or so, the book comes badly unstuck. Instead of setting these stories more deeply in their context, and exploring the less immediate factors that lay behind Germans’ decision whether or not to kill themselves, such as religion, gender, age, generation, political beliefs and so on – factors that determined the widely varying incidence of suicide between different groups of people – he launches into more than 100 pages of a banal, unvarying narrative of the Nazi years.
Huber makes the point that the suicide epidemic of 1945 was “suppressed, like other distressing details of those times, by an unspoken pact governing what could and could not be said in the decades following the war”. That has changed as Germans carry on rediscovering their past. Two novels by Walter Kempowski, the German writer who died in 2007, have in recent years been translated into English. The excellent All For Nothing and Homeland evoke the terror and chaos that swallowed Germans in the east as the Third Reich collapsed. Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself makes a fascinating companion piece.