The Tragedy of Demmin – Past & Present
One of the biggest mass suicides ever happened in Demmin, a small town in the North East of Germany. It became known as the «Tragedy of Demmin» in which thousands 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.
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. They took this for us now unimaginable decision to escape the fast approaching Russian troops coming from the East and to flee from their dreaded and feared tortures and rapes. But that was not their only reason, as with the end of the German Reich and the death of Hitler, many people saw no reason to continue living with their family in a Germany governed by the French, Americans or Russians. Their world and future were destroyed.
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, particularly those strongly loyal to Hitler, 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 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 or even Hitler himself, may have contributed to their demise was mostly not part of their anger. For it should not be forgotten that it was the German soldiers, Hitler’s SS, who had brought these mothers and fathers into this hopeless situation.
The reason for their hopelessness lies in Demmins 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 from the advancing Russian troops, had destroyed all these bridges over the rivers, Demmin had basically become an island, that the Russians were not able to advance from easily and were forced to stay in, until they would eventually find a way to cross the rivers. So the SS did not only trap the Russians, also the local Demmin citizens, women, children and old people had no chance to escape.
The Red Army did burn the town to the ground when it arrived in May 1945, and it stood in flames for several days. They burgled everything they could, killed men and women in hundreds and mass raped women and teenagers.
The fears of those that had taken their lives to escape exactly this tragedy, were therefore mostly confirmed by those days in May 1945 and the atrocities Demmin’s population had to suffer were indescribable. Still, and even to this day there are also several stories told about kind and helpful Russians, however these were in the minority.
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 became only a shadow of their former self once the Russians had left.
The beginning of the processing of this trauma including a public debate on this mass suicide and the atrocities of the RedArmy should take more than 60 years. Demmin became part of the GDR and was from 1945 onwards governed by the Soviet Union.
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 RedArmy– 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» («Vertreibung aus dem Paradies»)– 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 «Überleben in Demmin» began, which made its way into the German cinemas in 2018, and became a huge success.
However, this culture of remembrance and processing of the past also meant that a different clientele appeared in the mix – neo-Nazis. Every year the Demmin population is perfidiously reminded of its own history. Radical right-wing groups are then marching through the streets of the town that suffered one of the biggest mass suicides ever registered.
These neo-Nazis exploit this tragedy, these dead children, women, and men every year on the Day of Liberation, May 8, for their own purposes. This so-called «grieve march « includes a torchlight procession of several hundreds of neo-Nazis through the city center of Demmin and ends with speeches on the banks of the Peene river that are bursting with patriotism and war rhetoric.
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 patriots with their sunglasses, their shaved heads, tattooed bodies sport prints of Volkstod (national death), Angriff (attack) Ostpreussen (Eastern Prussia) and Thor Steinar often in the Nazi Tannenberg font on their black sweaters. They are marching with their torches, Vorpommern and Germany flags past the survivors. They are marching along the few who know what it was like to have lived during this time and who now have to reluctantly watch these people and their 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. Also for me, 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.
Find out more about Demmin, me and a Norwegian novel that has this tragedy as its storyline on: https://www.mikkelstante.com/english/a-demmin-novel/