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.