In the closing days of World War II, with the German military collapsing on every front, U.S. forces reached the city of Leipzig. The 2nd Infantry, 69th Infantry and 9th Armored Divisions entered the city on April 18th and, after house-by-house combat, they secured it on April 19th. The next day, war correspondents and photographers followed; one of the first was Margaret Bourke-White. She later wrote:
“On Friday morning, April 20, Life‘s Bill Walton hunted me out, his hair standing up from excitement in little fire-coloured whorls. ‘Hurry to the Rathaus before they clean it out,’ he said. ‘The place is like Madam Tussaud’s waxworks!’
“We rushed in the jeep over the Zeppelin Bridge and… drew up before the Leipzig City Hall. Here the siege had been intense, and the deeper carvings of artillery were added to the outlines of the fine old Rathaus. Bill and I raced up three flights of stone steps, climbed over a tumbled bust of Frederick the Great and a scattering of other fallen Prussians, and burst through a pair of padded, sound-proof doors.”
“Inside was a Baroque office, hung with sentimental landscapes and furnished in the heavy style which represented the nineteenth-century German’s idea of luxury. Reclining on the ponderous leather furniture was a family group, so intimate, so lifelike, that it was hard to realize that these people were no longer living. Seated at the desk, head bowed on his hands as though he was resting, was Dr. Kurt Lisso. On the sofa was his daughter [Regina, still wearing her German Red Cross armband], and in the overstuffed armchair sat his wife [Renata]. The documents for the whole family were laid out neatly on the desk, beside a bottle of Pyrimal by which they had evidently chosen to die. Dr. Lisso had been Stadkammerer, Leipzig City Treasurer, with one of those low Party numbers which indicated that he was among the early faithful.
“In nearby rooms, seated in an equally lifelike circle, was Mayor Alfred Freiberg, Ober-burgermeister, with his wife and pretty daughter, Magdalena. Adjoining rooms held similarly peaceful and silent characters, of whom the most striking was the Commander of the Volkssturm in his fine uniform, with a portrait of Hitler beside him.”
Waves of such suicides accompanied the last days of the Nazi regime, prompted by many factors: Nazi propaganda promising horrors should Germany be defeated, attachment to the ideals of the Nazi Party, anticipated imprisonment, and executions of those held responsible. Life magazine (May 14, 1945) noted:
“In the last days of the war the overwhelming realization of utter defeat was too much for many Germans. Stripped of the bayonets and bombast which had given them power, they could not face a reckoning with either their conquerors or their consciences. These found the quickest and surest escape in what Germans call selbstmord, self-murder.”
One account claimed that cyanide pills were distributed by Hitler Youth during the last concert of the Berlin Philharmonic on April 12, 1945. During the Battle of Berlin, almost 4,000 Berliners killed themselves. And yet, there are still people in the world who think a war can turn out well.
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Photograph by Margaret Bourke-White from Bourke-White (1988), a catalog of a traveling exhibition of her work. Her quote is from Swansong 1945: A Collective Diary of the Last Days of the Third Reich by Walter Kempowski.