During World War II the population of the small town of Demmin, Germany doubled due to an influx of refugees from the east. By 1945, 15,000-16,000 people were inhabiting the town, located just north of Berlin in the German province of Pomerania (modern-day MecKlenburg-Vorpommern). Demmin sat on a small peninsula with three sides of the town surrounded by the Peene and Tollense Rivers.
In April of 1945, following the Battle of Berlin, the Eastern Front grew ever closer to Demmin. Women, children and the elderly were forced by German troops to dig a 5 kilometer (3.1 mile) long tank ditch east of the town in preparation for the arrival of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Red Army.
On April 28th Nazi Party officials, police, and many members of the Wehrmacht confiscated fire engines and rode them out of Demmin before the Soviets could arrive. The hospital was evacuated and some citizens, fearing the worst, managed to escape before the invasion as well. Prior to the Red Army’s arrival, there was a rash of civilian suicides; Many of those who took their life were believed to be members of the Nazi Party who had committed war crimes and were aware when Soviet Soldiers arrived, they would have to answer for them.
At noon on April 30, 1945, the Soviet 65th army and 1st Guard Tank Corps arrived outside the town of Demmin. A white flag was raised at the church tower in the town, signifying the Germans did not wish to fight. A nineteen-year-old German soldier lying in the tank ditch on the eastern outskirts of the town witnessed three Soviet negotiators and one German officer approach the ditch. The Soviets promised to spare citizens “harassment” and looting if the town surrendered. At that point, three shots were fired at the negotiators, killing at least one. It is believed the shots had been fired by a teacher who was on a killing spree; Earlier in the day, he had admitted to his neighbor that he had shot his wife and their three children in anticipation of the Soviet’s arrival.
After this, seeing there was no chance of a peaceful surrender, the remaining Wehrmacht retreated through the town, blowing up the bridges leading out of Demmin as they left to prevent the Soviets from advancing westward to Rostock. This also prevented citizens from escaping; The town was inescapable on the north, west, and south with the east being blocked by Soviet troops. Within half an hour, the Red Army invaded the town.
The first evening the Soviets were in Demmin, they came upon a warehouse full of booze and became intoxicated on vodka. The Russian army fell into a drunken rage that evening and went on a rampage, pillaging the town, raping women “from [age] eight to eighty” and shooting anyone who tried to intervene. With all German soldiers and police having deserted Demmin, some members of The Hitler Youth and citizens who owned weapons tried fighting back, but it was in vain. The rogue teacher, who is believed to have fired the first shots setting off the invasion, went on to fight and kill many Soviet soldiers before ultimately committing suicide.
German propaganda had referred to the Soviet Army as “Mongol Hordes” and told citizens they cut off tongues and stabbed out the eyes of children. The thousands of refugees who had come to Demmin had witnessed the atrocities committed by the Red Army before and told stories of how they had committed brutal murder and rape; In fact, rape was endorsed by Joseph Stalin who told his soldiers it was a “prize of war”. This only added to the population’s panic. After being in the city for only a few hours, the Red Army had more than lived up to their reputation.
On May 1, 1945, just eight days before German General Jodl signed an unconditional surrender document formally ending the Second World War, the largest mass suicide in Germany took place in the town of Demmin when approximately 1 out of every 17 citizens took their own lives. Some turned to suicide to avoid rape, others simply could not bear to live in a world void of Nazi ideology and knew these were the final days of the Third Reich.
Families killed their children, then themselves; Some methods used were poison, shooting, hanging, wrist or throat-slitting and many chose to drown in the Peene River which ran through Demmin. With suicide being such a popular option on this day, bodies could be found everywhere throughout the town. Some gathered in groups, committing suicide in public places such as park benches.
Karl Schlosser, who not only survived the Demmin Suicides but also outlived all the other survivors recalls how he nearly died on May 1, 1945. Karl, whose father had been killed in the war, was only seven years old at the time; He vividly remembers his mother holding a razor to his throat. She had planned to kill Karl, his brother, their grandfather and then herself. His grandfather managed to convince Karl’s mother otherwise and instead they fled to the woods. While making their escape from the city, Karl recalls seeing bodies floating in the river and more hanging from trees. Karl and his family made camp in a field near the woods, just outside the city.
Another survivor, Manfred Schuster, who was ten at the time had arrived in Demmin with his family only a few weeks prior. They had come as refugees from Stettin (modern day Szcsecin, Poland). Schuster recalls a harrowing experience he had with his mother when she cleverly escaped rape by Soviet soldiers. The two were being chased by members of the Red Army when they came upon a farm and a “cesspool” which Manfred and his mother jumped into. Schuster remembers wading up to his neck in manure, but when the soldiers caught up to them they were repulsed by Manfred’s mother who was covered in manure. Due to Mrs. Schuster’s quick thinking, soldiers left the two unscathed.
Schuster remembers another instance when he and a friend had been sent out to search for something edible after the Red Army had looted the city of supplies. The two boys managed to find a large bag of sugar; On the way home, they came upon the Peene river and witnessed approximately fifty women jump into the water. They were weighed down by stones and had their children tethered to them with rope and clothesline. A couple of children managed to break free of their mothers and swam ashore, emitting bloodcurdling screams and shouting, “Mum, mum!” as their mothers and siblings remained underwater, drowning. Schuster and his friend were so stunned they dropped the bag of sugar which exploded after hitting the hard, stone street and they sprinted home, empty-handed, as quickly as they could.
The Soviet Army remained for three days, looting the town and burning 2/3 of the homes in Demmin. After looting a home, soldiers would brush the walls with gasoline before setting it on fire then stood guard to ensure no one could extinguish it.
When Karl Schlosser and his family returned to Demmin one week after they had escaped, they found their home had been burned but their neighbors’ was still standing; The Schlosser’s neighbors had committed suicide and their bodies were still hanging from the trees in the garden as the Schlosser family moved into their deceased neighbor’s former home.
At least 900 citizens, but as many as 1,200-1,500 were killed by family members or committed suicide during the Red Army’s invasion of Demmin. Victims of The Demmin Suicides were buried in a mass grave in a local cemetery. For years, the people in the GDR (former East Germany) were forbidden to speak of the event as the government feared it would show the Soviets in a negative light.
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