The End of the Thousand-Year Reich

As the Second World War came to a close, a wave of suicides swept Berlin and other parts of Germany. Hitler was a lifelong admirer of Wagner and his climatic opera, Götterdämmerung (“Twilight of the Gods”) where the heroine Brünnhilde returns the stolen cursed ring to the River Rhine and hurls herself onto her dead lover Siegfried’s funeral pyre. This immolation unleashes a fiery conflagration that topples the stronghold of the gods, Valhalla. According to a dispatch from a Japanese diplomat in Berlin, Hitler initially planned “to embark alone in a plane carrying bombs and blow himself up in the air somewhere over the Baltic” if the Allies enter Berlin. His motive was to suggest to his supporters “that he had become a god and was dwelling in heaven” — a Brünnhildean self-sacrifice, in a Messerschmitt.

In the end, his suicide was less grandiose and ignominious — although it didn’t stop some of his fervent followers from believing that Hitler had escaped unharmed from the wreckage of his 1000-year Reich. But Hitler was not the only Nazi to follow Brünnhilde’s example. Goebbels, Bormann and Himmler all committed suicide, as did Justice Minister Otto-Georg Thierack and Culture Minister Bernhard Rust. Eight out of 41 regional party leaders, seven out of 47 senior SS and police chiefs, fifty-three out of 553 army generals, fourteen out of 98 Luftwaffe generals and eleven out of 53 admirals killed themselves. Housing Commissar Robert Ley strangled himself awaiting trial at Nuremberg. Goering would follow him when the Nuremberg judges denied him the firing squad he requested.

This suicidal impulse was not confined to the Nazi elite. Ordinary Germans in untold numbers responded to the prospect of defeat in the same way. At the Berlin Philharmonic’s last performance, which coincidentally but not too surprisingly was Götterdämmerung, the audience was given potassium cyanide pills. In April 1945 there were 3,881 recorded suicides in Berlin, nearly twenty times the figure for March. Untold numbers of victims of rape by the Soviet Red Army also committed suicide, and news of violence and rape further propelled mass suicides in villages all over Germany. Although the motives was widely explained as the “fear of the Russian invasion”, the suicides also happened in the areas liberated by the British and American troops.

Mass suicides that created a sensation were those of Leipzig burgomaster’s family, that was captured by Margaret Bourke-White and Lee Miller. The photos showed a different approach between this two great female war-photographers. Bourke-White, a meticulous observer as always, kept her distance from the tragedy, even taking photos from the gallery above. Miller moved in closer; a fashion photographer covering the war for Vogue, Miller’s photo of the body of burgomaster’s daughter was almost a fashion shoot of a wax mannequin — her Nazi armband immaculately displayed, her lips parted as if waiting for a true love’s kiss that would revive her.

Bourke-White's pictures are on the left, and Miller's on the right.


15 thoughts on “The End of the Thousand-Year Reich”

  1. That is not a nazi arm band she is wearing but one of the Deutsches Rote Kreuz: The German Red Cross.


  2. Compare the upper left picture to the upper right. The burgomaster’s body is in a different position in the two photos. In the picture on the right, his right arm is on the desk. In the picture on the left, his body is rotated somewhat so his head is at the edge of the desk and the right arm is not seen, presumably dangling.

    I would be curious to learn more of these photos. I’m not saying it was staged, but there is more to the story. Who photographed it first? Who else was there? Were the bodies disturbed and then put back into place, and if so, why?

    1. You are correct. He did escape. However, his body was found and decades later identifed through DNA. I think it is “believed” he was shot and killed while on the run, though there is no definite evidence.

  3. The defeat of the third reich has a maximum of dramatic and pathetic moments in it. The mental imprisonment of so many people than confronted with reality – unthinkable.

    The theory of war and heroic soldier-like fighting confronted with the grief and damage in reality. Followed by a long-lasting retreat and the slowly-rising insight that the “über-mescch” is not unconquerably.

    The extreme overload of absurd propaganda, the mix of hope for “wonder-weapons” and desperation by sight of more and more cities being destroyed.

    The loyal faith and trust into the Führer which was in fact a seducer and mis-leader. The hard and difficult recognition of the many many lies of nazi-propaganda.

    The complete desaster towards the end of the war with the anticipation of a totally loss of all. The enemy not only at the gates but inside the houses!!

    People couldn’t believe even if they saw it with there very eyes. It happened and the masses had to adapt to it. The overcoming of the old and ancient ideology was a bitter and hard, yet unavoidable necessity. (Noew it has swung onto the other side, seemingly).

    And for now on they knew that their regime wasn’t the slightest way heroic but criminal and rotten to the ground.

    For sure enough reasons to blow oneself away after sending all the relatives into hades. The Fuhrer had shown the way. The peoples suffer and battle with it until now, here in germany – my home country.

  4. How cruel and evil …white we’ll educated people!,,,, How could that happened to them.
    To become so evil and do what they did ….must be Mental illness…killing children and burn people …no words….

  5. The upper right picture was shot by J. Malan Heslop, from the United States Army Signal Corps. At least four photographers took pictures of the scene: M. Bourke-White, Lee Miller, J. Malan Heslop and also David E. Scherman, the Life Magazine photographer who took the pictures of Lee Miller in Hitler’s bathtub.

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