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I have read nothing of German officers and/or political leaders committing suicide after WWI and it is my sense that WW2 might have been the first time that so many people planned or actually went through with suicide.

Why was this and was it unprecedented?

Edit to add:
According to this list, there were about 175-180 suicides of leading Nazis between 11.9.1944 (Allies enter Germany) and 20.11.1945 (start of the Nürnberger Prozesse).

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    Within history itself, or within European history, in particular ? If so, since the dawn of time, or since recorded history began, or in the last few centuries, or in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries alone ? – Lucian Sep 30 '20 at 8:47
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    Honor suicide was common place in Japan (Seppuku), Roman history and also occurred later in Europe after a defeat in battle. In Germany, 1945, you would have to also distinguish between those who do so out of honor (old traditional) and those who's motive was to avoid the responsibility and humiliation (Himmler). – Mark Johnson Sep 30 '20 at 9:26
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    There was a mass wave of suicided in the general german population immediatly following WWII, are you sure the numbers of suicides by leaders are so extraordinary? I don't think the question is bad but I think you should buttress the claim that multiple leaders commited suicide with names and numbers so we get a sense of the proportions. Then one can decide what would be a precedent. – mart Sep 30 '20 at 10:02
  • Also, since reading this question I wonder about precedents for multiple leaders of the side that so clearly and decisivly lost the war with such prosperous post-war careers. – mart Sep 30 '20 at 10:03
  • @releseabe I've edited something into your question, please take a look if you are happy. – mart Oct 1 '20 at 7:18
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We are talking about 175-180 suicides of the Nazi leadership, from Hitler down to individual Reichstagsabgeordnete and high ranking Officers (from cursory reading: Significantly more suicides in the Waffen-SS than the Wehrmacht), some Mayors etc. There were probably thousands, maybe low ten thousands of people with similar rank and standing who did not commit suicide. It should also be noted that there was a wave of suicides in the general population around the immediate end of the war and a decision about wether a specific suicide was by a leader will always be a bit subjective.

Also even in the last days of the war, some Wehrmacht and Volkssturm units still tried to fight off the Allies, that the Nazis persecuted deserters right until the end (The judges who signed the execution warrants as a rule didnt commit suicide and often had successful post-war careers.). I would see this stubborness in fighting (and murdering, see the death marches) on even after the war was clearly lost on the same spectrum as the suicides: The inability to simply quit fighting and murdering and going into captivity.

As for reasons, Tom Au suggests persecution and the fact that the Nazis did not conduct themselves honourably by the measures of their time. I don't think that's wrong, but I would suggest another approach.

In the very militarized, apocalyptic worldview of the Nazis, there was only victory or armageddon. Their vision of total war was a war between the totality of the individual peoples. I don't think they could really conceive of a post war order, after losing their war, in which a recognizable Germany would exist.

Also, fascism is a death cult, or rather a

cult of heroism [that] is strictly linked with the cult of death. It is not by chance that a motto of the Falangists was Viva la Muerte (in English it should be translated as “Long Live Death!”). In non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant but must be faced with dignity; believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness. By contrast, the Ur-Fascist hero craves heroic death, advertised as the best reward for a heroic life. The Ur-Fascist hero is impatient to die. In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.

(Umberto Eco: Ur Fascism)

So one could look for these aspects - apocalyptic vision, cult of death - in the last known words from Nazi leaders before their suicides.

One should also add that while the Nazis had apocalyptic visions, many of those who killed themselves could probably have had decent careers in post-war Germany, at least in the west.

  • note to self: so far (Böhme) no final letters or similar – mart Oct 6 '20 at 7:01
  • Nazism and the (war) crimes of the Nazis definitely play a major role. With WW1 and WW2 being both total wars in a relatively short order, Nazism stands out as a major differentiating factor. – Dohn Joe Oct 6 '20 at 7:02
  • @DohnJoe I can't tell wether you fundamentally agree or disagree with my emphasis on the ideology (if you disagree, please elaborate) – mart Oct 6 '20 at 7:09
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    Sorry, for being unclear, I agree. I think WW1 could serve as an example to highlight the ideology-based explanation. WW1 was equally fought as a total war, yet the leadership of the Reich and the Reichswehr reacted completely different than the leadership of the Nazi party and Wehrmacht. – Dohn Joe Oct 6 '20 at 7:15
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There was one important difference between Nazi leaders and other defeated leaders that (probably) made many Nazi leaders commit suicide. That is the fact that they had committed "war crimes" against civilians, and realized that they would be charged with that. That was what was "unprecedented."

Shortly before his execution at Nuremberg, Hans Frank, the governor of the "General Government" (occupied Poland) said the following: "A thousand years will pass and still this guilt of Germany will not have been erased."

In earlier times, the casualties of wars, while severe, were mostly limited to fighting men. There wasn't an idea of "total war" against everyone on the other side, including unarmed civilians. In his time, America's William T. Sherman perhaps violated this taboo by waging war against Confederate civilians, but he "only" threatened their property, and not their lives.

Leaders who had been defeated but who had conducted themselves "honorably" (for their times) were usually not executed and had no reason to commit suicide.

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    I'm not sure the dead of the various wars of colonial expansion agree that previous wars were "mostly limited to fighting men." That doesn't make your answer wrong. – mart Sep 30 '20 at 15:25
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    That is central to the question -- they already knew that they had committed war crimes despite later saying that they were just following orders or did not know of mass murder. – releseabe Sep 30 '20 at 15:39
  • @releseabe: Perhaps some low level people had this "excuse." But these were high level people who were above the perpetrators. So they either ordered the atrocities or at least had the power to stop them and failed to do so. A few who did protest, like Admiral Canaris, were executed for their trouble – Tom Au Sep 30 '20 at 18:06
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    Well, massacres of civilians were common in ancient world, as well as suicides. Think of Mark Anthony with Cleopatra suicide, but it was common to defeated Romans to kill themselves with sword. Among the Japanese i was also common. – Anixx Sep 30 '20 at 19:15
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    It wasn't just that they were the first to massacre civilians, it was that since the 19th century and particularly from the 1920s, there was an increasing belief that it was legitimate to punish the losing side for war crimes and wars of aggression. This followed the Geneva Conventions, Kellogg–Briand Pact, etc. (The extreme nature of German crimes, which were distinct from the norms of European war at the time [if not colonial war], would also have influenced them.) – Stuart F Oct 1 '20 at 9:59
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It certainly wasn't unprecedented - plenty of defeated combatants kill themselves to avoid capture, rape, or humiliation. Examples:

Emperor Chongzhen of the Ming Dynasty

Word reached Beijing that Shun rebels were approaching the capital through Juyong Pass, and the Chongzhen Emperor held his last audience with his ministers on 23 April. Li Zicheng offered the emperor an opportunity to surrender, but the negotiations produced no result. Li commanded his forces to attack on 24 April. Rather than face capture by the rebels, the Chongzhen Emperor gathered all members of the imperial household except his sons. Using his sword, he killed Consort Yuan and Princess Zhaoren, and severed the arm of Princess Changping.

On 25 April, the Chongzhen Emperor was said to have walked to Meishan, a small hill in present-day Jingshan Park. There, he either hanged himself on a tree, or strangled himself with a sash. By some accounts, the emperor left a suicide note that said, "I die unable to face my ancestors in the underworld, dejected and ashamed. May the rebels dismember my corpse and slaughter my officials, but let them not despoil the imperial tombs nor harm a single one of our people."

The Japanese practice of Seppuku.

As a samurai practice, seppuku was used voluntarily by samurai to die with honor rather than fall into the hands of their enemies (and likely be tortured) ...

At the end of the Siege of Masada.

The ramp was completed in the spring of 73, after probably two to three months of siege. A giant siege tower with a battering ram was constructed and moved laboriously up the completed ramp, while the Romans assaulted the wall, discharging "a volley of blazing torches against ... a wall of timber", allowing the Romans to finally breach the wall of the fortress on April 16, 73 CE. When the Romans entered the fortress, however, they found it to be "a citadel of death." The Jewish rebels had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and had killed each other, declaring "a glorious death ... preferable to a life of infamy."

Aftermath of the Jingkang Incident:

Emperor Taizong feared that the remaining Song troops would launch a counter-offensive to reclaim the capital. Therefore, he set up in Bianjing a puppet government for the lands south of the Yellow River, called Chu (楚), and ordered all the assets and prisoners to be taken back to the Jin capital – Shangjing (in present-day Harbin). The captives marched to the Jin capital along with the assets. Over 14,000 people, including the Song imperial family, went on this journey. Their entourage — almost all the ministers and generals of the Northern Song dynasty — suffered from illness, dehydration and exhaustion, and many never made it. Upon arrival, each person had to go through a ritual where the person has to be naked and wearing only sheep skins. Contrary to what was previously thought, the ceremony was drawn from ancient Han Chinese customs, drawn together by Jin experts on China rather than a Jurchen ritual. Empress Zhu committed suicide because she could not bear the humiliation ...

Some other famous people who killed themselves to avoid capture are Brutus, his co-leader Cassius, Mark Antony and Cleopatra.

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