“The Suicide of a Nation”
(Part III of Dangerous Undercurrent: Death, Sacrifice and Ruin in Third Reich Germany)
by Meghan O’Donnell
“The Suicide of a Nation” appears below.
Click here to read the complete paper.
Meghan O'Donnell is a lecturer of history at California State Monterey Bay. Her research revolves around nationalism and collective identity. She has written on religious nationalism, cultural assimilation, secularizing of politics, political aesthetics, social activism and violence.

ALEXANDER CHIRILA, Webster University

Director, Library of Social Science’s YOUNG SCHOLARS INITIATIVE

Assistant Professor at Webster University, Thailand, Alexander Chirila heads up Library of Social Science’s YOUNG SCHOLARS INITIATIVE. “We are seeing a surge in new ways of presenting and assessing information,” Chirila says. Professor Chirila will be working with us—and with scholars around the world—to develop methods for disseminating significant research and writings to a wider audience.

The sacrificial ideology became increasingly more radicalized through the course of Hitler’s reign. By the end of World War II, a mythology steeped in heroic death and the volkish neo-romantic dogma of National Socialism reached its zenith through the final acts of suicide by Hitler and his followers in the Berlin bunker.

On the 28th of April 1945, Josef Goebbels’ wife Magda wrote a letter to her eldest son while inside Hitler’s bunker. In the letter she wrote, “The world that will come after the Führer and National Socialism will not be worth living in, and therefore I have taken my children away...We have now only one aim: loyalty unto death to the Führer.” When Magda wrote that she had taken her six children “away,” she actually referred to their murder by the forced ingestion of cyanide capsules.

Not long after, Magda and her husband committed suicide following in the footsteps of Hitler and his wife Eva Braun. This kind of suicide and murder goes far beyond what French sociologist Emile Durkheim calls, “emotional or social problems,” which is a possible explanation for the “epidemic” of other suicides that ravaged Germany at the end of the war. The fact that Magda Goebbels proudly described the martyring of both her children and herself, speaks to the psychology of the Nazi death cult and the belief in “heroic sacrifice” for both the Führer and Germany.

Joseph Goebbels also clung to the Totenkult rhetoric when he said “his death would set a heroic precedent for a new Germany which would survive this war, but only if it has precedents at hand on which it can lean itself.” Hitler himself called on the ideology of sacrificial death in his political testament written just before his suicide on the 30th of April 1945 when he wrote:

May it become, at some future time, part of the code of honour of the German officer that the surrender of a district or of a town is impossible, and that the leaders here, above all, must march ahead as shining examples, faithfully fulfilling their duty unto death.

Through the suicides of Eva Braun, and Joseph and Magda Goebbels, a connection can be drawn to the dangerous undercurrent of death, ruin and sacrifice which had been so masterfully constructed by their Führer. This undercurrent, developed and nurtured by Hitler and his multitudes of henchmen, managed to create possibly the greatest act of the Totenkult, the ideological “suicide of the nation.”

In The Holocaust and the German Elite: Genocide and National Suicide in Germany, 1871-1945, Rainer C. Baum argues that under the Third Reich, Hitler and his followers propelled Germany into a national suicide. With “institutionalized disorder” under the Führer, Hitler and his regime acted out what sociologist Robert Bellah argued was the distinctive mark of modernity, the realization that “the human condition itself has become a revisable entity” and that mankind can indeed define itself out of existence.

Through this willful act, those with power in the Third Reich “rather than continuing to define the human species as one that strives for comprehensive meaning,” decided instead to “redefine” the human condition into a state of irrational death as they moved their nation further into destruction.

When looking back on historians’ treatment of Hitler, George Mosse argued it was his use of aesthetics to paradoxically promote both creation and destruction, which has been most over-looked when attempting to understand the appeal of such a dictator. George Mosse wrote “We failed to see that the fascist aesthetic itself reflected the needs and hopes of contemporary society, that what we brushed aside as the so-called superstructure was in reality the means through which most people grasped the fascist message, transforming politics into a civil religion.”

This civil religion, with its mixture of volkish ideology, neo-Romanticism and art obsession, although not accepted by all, made it possible for a fanatical dilettante turned dictator, to fashion himself into Germany’s Rienzi. In Wagner’s great hero, Hitler “sought to create social order and restore the empire. But in the end he brought destruction upon his world and was consumed in the fiery ruins” of his own making.