A lot of my friends have a pretty bleak outlook on life. Gun massacres, polarizing politics, climate change… the list of horrors goes on. Given humanity’s bloody history, one may be excused for wondering why we haven’t figured out what’s good for us yet.
A possible answer may be found in a recently published paper and an upcoming book.
Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself
Promise Me You’ll Shoot Yourself, by Florian Huber, is a book to be published in March. It was reviewed by The Economist in July. The chilling title comes from the spate of suicides that occurred in Germany during and immediately after the Nazi regime’s collapse in 1945.
The best-known acts are those of the Nazi leaders. Adolf Hitler put an end to his life in a bunker below Berlin on April 30th 1945, together with Eva Braun. A day later, his propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels killed himself with his wife Magda, who procured cyanide pills for their six children.
But Mr. Huber, the book’s author, is more concerned with the ordinary people who succumbed to terror or despair, in particular as the Red Army approached Germany’s eastern lands. He focuses on the town of Demmin, where more than 1,000 people are thought to have perished—the numbers are still vague—out of a population of around 15,000.
Dozens of bodies were extracted from rivers and lakes in the vicinity, but East German propaganda generally covered up the story, just as it concealed the Soviet cruelties which pushed many to self-annihilation. Whatever the technique (poisoning, shooting, drowning), one striking feature of this suicide wave was that it was often based on a family decision. People who did not want to survive generally did not want their loved ones to live either.
The book’s very title comes from an incident in Berlin, when a middle-aged man gave a pistol to his 21-year-old daughter and implored:
Promise me you’ll shoot yourself when the Russians come, otherwise I won’t have a moment’s peace.
In the event, she threw the gun away.
Mr. Huber uses many such vignettes to portray the atmosphere of a nationwide epidemic that seems to have claimed at least 20,000 lives (and perhaps many more). An officer on leave from serving in a concentration camp burbled drunkenly about inmates who were electrocuting themselves: “I’ll end up running into those wires myself.” In smoldering Demmin, a doctor presented his maid with a parcel she assumed was poison; in fact, it was a parting gift of two wedding rings, offered hours before he and his wife and daughter ended their lives. The maid was left to write to the couple’s son, a prisoner of the British, recounting his family’s extinction.
Denial Leads to Despair… but not to Redemption
In the second half of his book, Mr. Huber switches tack to give a broad sweep of the Nazi era, tracing the dark exhilaration that overtook previously sane individuals as they came to feel that Hitler could solve all their problems. He describes the denial or glib justifications with which people reacted to the persecution of Jews.
Closer to his main theme, he pinpoints reactions to the assault on the Soviet Union in June 1941. Some had a bleak sense the invasion might fail, others still believed devoutly in the military and moral superiority of the Reich.
As news emerged of the atrocities the invaders were committing, and the titanic reverses they began to suffer, some Germans experienced cognitive dissonance. Their faith in Nazism’s ultimate triumph grew all the more fervent.
Thus the book hints at a deep truth about war at its dirtiest.
When people sense crimes are being committed in their name, they can become even more fanatical in their devotion to the cause, so that an all-out drive for victory, or else martyrdom, seem the only ways these sins can be redeemed.
The suicides were not simply driven by fear of the Red Army’s depredations. They reflected the implosion of a Nazi fantasy which had grown even more zealous as its evil became more obvious. Self-destruction did not signify a search for honor or redemption, but rather the collapse of a twisted idea of what honor meant.
An idea which is witnessing a surprising resurgence today. Have people learned nothing from history?
A similar point, that humanity fails to learn from its mistakes, is made in a recent paper published in Nature Communications. As The Economist reports, researchers at the Czech University of Life Sciences, in Prague, led by environmental historian Václav Fanta, recently investigated how memories of disasters shaped decisions over several generations.
The researchers analyzed data on almost 1,300 towns and villages in the Vltava river basin in central Europe—drawing both on historical records and on archaeological methods such as carbon dating—and compared them with the timings of floods in that basin over the course of nearly 900 years.
The floods studied were defined as extreme, meaning that the river’s run-off was in excess of 4,000 cubic meters per second, or almost 30 times its normal rate. Such mega-floods occur, on average, less than once a century, and the researchers recorded seven of them, the first in 1118 and the last in 1845.
In each case, new settlements appeared a significantly higher vertical distance above the river’s normal level than settlements built in the same area before the flood, and continued to do so for 25 years (about a generation) after the deluge.
By the subsequent generation, however—the grandchildren of the flood’s survivors—they started creeping downhill again, closer to the river, and encroaching on the zone of flood risk.
Sites close to watercourses have always been prized, and in calculating where to build their homes, people have necessarily weighed the risks of flood damage against the advantages of being close to a river. That memories of disaster weigh more heavily in this calculation immediately after the flood is not surprising. But that the memory is so short-lived is. Dr. Fanta had expected it to last for a century. Instead, it lasted for just a third of that.
This collective forgetfulness is even more puzzling in light of a central preoccupation of ancient chroniclers, the communication of risk. Writing to preserve their eras for posterity, they recounted harrowing tales of extreme climatic events, fires, famines, and plagues. Likewise, there is no shortage of written accounts of Hurricane Betsy or of historical floods in Prague—the maximum heights of many of which are marked along the Vltava’s banks.
Such distant secondhand accounts are not enough, Dr. Fanta concludes. To be deterred from placing themselves back in danger, people have to hear disaster tales from eye-witnesses who can convey the visceral emotion of having lived through them. The group’s findings thus suggest that one way of teaching history more effectively might be to bring eye-witnesses into the classroom. That approach will not work forever, of course. Over time, witnesses’ own memories fade, and then the witnesses themselves expire.
The forgetting that Dr. Fanta sees with respect to historical floods might also explain the recent rise of vaccine hesitancy and right-wing extremism, he suggests, as the survivors of now-preventable infectious diseases and Hitler, respectively, die of old age.
Having not experienced those realities, or heard about them first-hand, many people alive today have quite simply forgotten the horror. Until history repeats itself and the cycle continues.