The Tragedy of Demmin - Past & Present

The Present

Germany's biggest mass suicides happened in Demmin. It became known as the "Tragedy of Demmin"

 

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. Poison or gas was used, people hanged themselves and their children, they 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 that decision to escape the approaching Russian troops and their dreaded tortures and rapes. Also, after 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 and Russians.

 

Panic spread and became almost contagious. The revenge and retaliation especially by the Russians for the indescribable atrocities of the German army, was feared by everybody. As a result hundreds of Demmin citizens, particularly those strongly loyal to Hitler, committed suicide, others that were less loyal were simply physically and psychologically not strong enough to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The fear of what might come, and how they themselves and their children would be treated when the Russians arrived, was too much for them to bear. The firm conviction to do the right thing, deciding to end their own and the lives of their children, to spare them shame and torment, made mothers and fathers become murderers.

 

The discontent against their own army or against Hitler and their actions was however less present. 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 lies in Demmins location as it is a city that can only be reached via bridges, given that it is surrounded by 3 rivers (Peene, Trebel and Tollense). When the SS, in retreat from the advancing Russian troops, had destroyed all the bridges over these rivers, Demmin had basically become an island. The Russians were therefore not able to advance and were forced to stay in Demmin until they would eventually find a way to cross the Peene, Trebel and Tollense. But it were not only the Russians that were stranded , also the Demmin citizens had no chance to escape.

 

A situation that in the end lead to the burning down of the whole city, which stood in flames for several days, killing, and mass rapes of many of the women in Demmin.

 

The fears of those that had taken their lives to escape exactly this tragedy, were mostly confirmed by those days and the atrocities Demmin's population had to suffer under the reign of the Russian soldiers, although there are also several stories told about kind and helpful Russians. 


Still, Demmin should never be the same place it used to be, after May 1945. And, like the city itself, also the women, men and children who survived May 1945 were more often than not, only a shadow of their former self once the Russians had left.

The Present

 

A real processing of this trauma and a public debate should take more than 50 years. The GDR and the influence of the 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 else. 

 

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 wagons. They brought them to their last resting place. They were the ones who had lost their aunts, uncles, sisters, brothers, mothers and fathers. Later they even moved into the empty houses of those that were no longer there .

 

Their life continued. Demmin needed to and would be rebuilt.

     


Then 1989 the Wall fell and slowly people began to hear more about the topic here and there, journalists hesitantly touched the subject and interviewed local people.  Not before 2015/2016 however, 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" - 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 "About Life 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.

 

Karl Schlössers Book
Karl Schlössers Book
Florian Hubers Book
Florian Hubers Book

 

This macabre clientele are neo-Nazis who perfidiously exploit this tragedy, these dead children, women, and men every year on the Day of the 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.

 

These patriots with their sunglasses,  their shaved heads, tattooed bodies and black sweaters sporting prints of Volkstod, Ostpreussen and Thor Steinar in Tannenberg font, marching with their torches, Vorpommern and Germany flags past the survivors. Marching along the few who know what it was like to have lived during this time and who now have to relcutantly bear these people and their fake remembrance.

 

With their black boots they trample on the memory of those who they pretend to commemorate.

 

 

The end of the "grieve march" by the river Peene in Demmin
The end of the "grieve march" by the river Peene in Demmin

 

This May 8 grieve march is also picked up in Martin Farka's "About Living in Demmin". A disturbing documentary which is very poignant in portraying this difficult situation.

 

Every year the Demmin population is therefore perfidiously reminded of its own history by people with radical right-wing thinking marching through their streets.

 


But, and more importantly, people also see how many 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. Peace festivals were celebrated 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, into a colorful pink confetti day.

 

This effort, the organisation of these counter-demonstrations and the general aim to make Demmin "colourful" and friendly, were finally rewarded this year by winning the audience award  for volunteering in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern.

 

Still, Demmin has a lot to do to come to terms with its past and handle the present, but it's on the right path. The Demminer story is finally being used to discuss openly and in forums, to change attitudes. The confrontation with the history of Demmin is, however, intended to do the following: commemorate the dead, but also the last survivors respectfully and appropriately.


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