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Udo Grashoff

Udo Grashoff was born in Halle / Saale in 1966, studied biochemistry, history, German and literature, and received his doctorate in 2006 on suicides in the GDR. From 2008 to 2014 he was a research assistant at the University of Leipzig. In 2011 he published his research on black living / occupation in the GDR. From 2014 to 2020 he taught as a DAAD lecturer at University College London and is currently working again at Leipzig University. His habilitation thesis “Danger from within. Treason in the Communist Resistance to National Socialism ”will be published in spring 2021 by Wallstein-Verlag.

How to count How to rate An expert dispute.

In 2017, the bpb published a study by the SED State research association at the Free University of Berlin on the deaths of the GDR border regime. It also includes suicides by border guards. But how are these to be classified? A review by Udo Grashoff, he did his doctorate in 2006 on suicides in the GDR. Then a reply from the criticized scientist, Dr. Jochen Staadt.

In the FU study quoted MfS report about the suicide of a major of the border troops in the border training regiment in Glöwen (Brandenburg) in May 1988. In abbreviated form, a farewell note found on site is reproduced in the Stasi paper: "STKLPA [abbreviation for deputy commander and Head of the Political Department] and that's for the flag. I have enjoyed living. Brings me well underground. I liked being an officer. " Only after the book went to press were photos of the crime scene showing the dead man's open notebook. "And that is for your flag" the major noted before his death, but not "for the flag". A question of interpretation. Apparently he had been severely reprimanded for his alcohol flag, but not for criticizing the GDR flag. The classification of this case is also currently being disputed. (& copy BStU)

In the biographical handbook “Death of the GDR Border Regime” [1], Jochen Staadt from the SED State Research Association questions three conclusions formulated in my book “In an attack of Depression… Suicides in the GDR” [2], which I published in 2006. They read:
  • 1. The suicide rate in the border troops of the GDR was not higher than in the National People's Army (NVA).
  • 2. The suicide rate in the NVA was not higher than that of the comparable civilian age group.
  • 3. An influence of GDR-specific political and social factors on the frequency of suicide can hardly be proven. [3]
I understand state criticism as a suggestion to review and reconsider my results. Before I begin, I would like to explain my understanding of the problem of suicide, as Jochen Staadt and his co-authors seem to have irritated some of my statements based on medical studies, such as the reference to the fact that mental injuries suffered in childhood have a far greater potential for the Expressions of suicidality than later life conflicts.

While working on my book, I completed a "secondary study" in suicide [4], during which I learned that suicides are primarily motivated by experiences of suffering resulting from psychological or physical dysfunction as well as frustrating human relationships. The wider social environment can deter people who have a certain disposition to commit suicide. As the French sociologist Emile Durkheim has shown, the Catholic milieu with its comparatively low suicide rate is a classic example of this. [5]

The social environment can also have the effect that the usual circle of suicides is expanded and that people who have only a very weak tendency to act desperately and would not commit suicide under normal circumstances take their own lives. This can happen either in times of crisis or in extremely repressive regimes. A classic example of the first possibility are the suicides during the time of the Great Depression in the early 1930s, an impressive example of the second possibility are the mass suicides of Jews in response to the National Socialist policy of humiliation and extermination. Such extraordinary phases are visible as "waves of suicide" in the statistics.

There are also long-term structural factors that can lead to higher suicidality in certain social systems. However, it is extremely difficult to determine this concretely. In Saxony, Thuringia and other East German regions for many decades (in the German Empire, in the Weimar Republic, in the Third Reich and in the GDR), a higher suicide rate was registered than in comparable West German and more Catholic regions such as the Rhineland or Bavaria. Differences in the regional mentality, which in turn are closely related to denominational influences, apparently play a role here, but the research into the causes is by no means complete.

The suicidality of the border troops of the GDR, which is the subject of the following, is part of this larger problem. The question is whether the specific circumstances of military service on the border between GDR and Federal Republic of Germany or West Berlin have increased the number of suicides above the normal level. Jochen Staadt has massive doubts regarding the results of my research that the suicide rate of members of the border troops did not differ significantly from other areas of the NVA or from the suicide rate of the comparable civilian age group. He points out that research for the biographical handbook on the deaths of the GDR border regime had shown that allegedly almost a quarter of the suicides among the border troops were related to official conflicts. [6]

First of all, two things must be kept apart analytically:

On the one hand, there is the question of whether there were suicides in the NVA that were partly caused by official conflicts. The research team believes that around 22 percent of suicides among border guards were related to military service. Staadt writes about these suicides, which are included in the biographical handbook: “Many of them did not do this service of their own free will, some broke because of it. The GDR border regime was fatal for them too. ”That may apply to individual cases. However, as Michael Kubina also stated in a reply to Staadt in 2020, “in the vast majority of cases at Schroeder / Staadt there is no sufficient evidence that the 'business problems', if they were at all the cause of the suicide, were also more border-specific Art were. ”[7] My critical review of the suicide cases showed that specific conflicts of the army service, such as a rude barrack tone or fear of punishment, played a role in only 24 cases.

The resulting corrected figure of 12 percent agrees with the percentages contained in civilian motive statistics for occupational conflicts (one to three percent) or “fear of punishment” (four to twelve percent) as a suicide motive in the GDR. [8] I can only identify conflicts that resulted directly from the border regime in two cases, i.e. one percent of the suicides. This is also within the range of suicides I estimate in the civilian sector, which reveal a causal connection to political conflicts.

Another question is decisive for the suicide rate under discussion among border troops, namely whether service-related conflicts have led to more suicides overall than under the “normal” conditions of the SED dictatorship. Staadt questions my calculations in this regard, which showed in 2006 that this is not the case, with two objections. For one thing, he believes that the civilian peer group I have chosen is not well chosen. On the other hand, he points out that the suicide rate in the NVA was higher in individual years than in the civilian sector. I take this as an opportunity to put both Staadt's calculations and my own results to the test.

The choice of comparison group

Jochen Staadt considers the choice I made of the comparison cohort (20 to 24 year old men) of the GDR suicide statistics to be problematic. [9] His main objection is that the selected comparison group would have led to an underestimation of the extent of suicidality in the army, since the suicide rates in this group are significantly higher than in the comparison group of 15 to 19-year-old men he favored.

Here, in fact, there is an omission in my presentation. I should have justified explicitly why I chose this comparison group. Before I catch up on that, briefly on Staadt's approach: He rightly points out that military service providers were usually called up for service at the age of 18 or 19. In order to determine the suicide rate among soldiers, he estimates that around a third of all suicides were committed by military service. Even if this number is not justified, it seems acceptable to me. [10] Staadt then takes the mean value of suicides among 15 to 19-year-old men from the GDR overall statistics and compares it with the estimated number of suicides among 19-year-olds doing basic military service. [11] Staadt apparently assumes that suicides are evenly distributed within the cohort, i.e. that the suicide rate of 15-year-olds is roughly as high as the suicide rate of 19-year-olds.

This assumption is incorrect, however, since the likelihood of suicide generally increases with age, although this increase is even greater in the group of 15 to 19-year-olds than in the following five-year cohort. So if Staadt averages the 15 to 19-year-olds, he underestimates the suicide rate of 19-year-olds in civil life. So if Staadt comes to the conclusion in his 1969 sample that the suicide rate in NVA and civilian life were about the same, then this is an overestimation of the suicide rate in the military.

If one were to take into account the age-dependent increase in the likelihood of suicide, one would have to conclude that the suicide frequency in the GDR military was somewhat lower than in civilian life. Methodologically, it would have been more appropriate to use the average for 16 to 25 year olds as a comparison value. This value would also be a bit too low because of the age dependency, but would provide the best possible results for estimating the approximate suicide probability of 19 to 20-year-olds.

Then why didn't I do it that way in my own investigation? I used Staadt's objections to self-critically examine and revise my own approach to the question of the comparison group. I have samples from 1977 and 1988 of suicides in the border troops. The average age of members of the border troops who died by suicide is 26 in the first sample and 31 in the second. It would therefore be more appropriate to use an older cohort instead of the comparison age group of 20 to 24-year-old men selected by me, or to use the mean of, say, the suicide rate of 20 to 35-year-old men. In both cases, the comparison value from the civilian sector would be higher, i.e. the values ​​from the military sector would appear even lower in comparison. In view of this, a severe critic could accuse me of the exact opposite of what Staadt has in mind. By choosing the comparison group of 20 to 24 year olds, I slightly overestimated the suicide rate among the NVA. A mildly-minded critic, on the other hand, would perhaps admit that this would compensate for the slight under-reporting of suicides (number of unreported cases).

How high was the number of unreported cases?

The question of the number of unreported cases is of fundamental importance in statistical calculations. Staadt approaches this question very briskly and postulates an unreported number of 100 to 150 percent. He does not provide a fact-based justification for this extremely high value. The fact that suicides are underrepresented in statistics on causes of death is a global phenomenon.

Although the SED state continued the reporting and registration mechanisms of the Prussian state bureaucracy - which is why the suicide statistics of the GDR provided very good results in an international comparison (including the Federal Republic) - there was also an unreported figure in the SED dictatorship. A secret study in 1977 found a statistical non-recording of suicides in the range between 9 and 29 percent [12] This result was confirmed by several retrospective studies in the 1990s. [13]

With regard to suicides in the military area of ​​the GDR, I also found in my own investigations that the figures from the Ministry for State Security (MfS), which Bernd Eisenfeld [14] had kindly made available to me, were lower than until the mid-1960s the suicide figures contained in the collegiate protocols of the NVA. For the following period, the figures, which cannot be directly compared due to different periods of time, are of a similar order of magnitude. But even after that it may have happened that in certain years there was an underreporting or, as Staadt found for 1975, temporary reporting failures, which is why the total number of 204 suicides in the border troops, an annual average of five to six Cases - I agree with Staadt - is in all probability too low.

However, like Staadt, I have no evidence whatsoever that the number of unreported cases customary in the GDR (around 25 percent) was exceeded by the border troops. Staadt only expresses the suspicion that “military superiors disguised suicides as firearms accidents in order to cover up their own shared responsibility”. In my sample of suicides in the border troops in 1988, there is actually one case that was officially declared an accident. In addition, I added one of the 11 reported cases that a contemporary witness credibly reported to me. However, after looking specifically for them, it seems extremely unlikely that there have been cover-ups of numerous suicides beyond such isolated cases.

Increased individual values

Stone of contention. The study with research status from January 1, 2017 on the deaths of the GDR border regime on the inner-German border, edited by Prof. Klaus Schroeder and Dr. Jochen Staadt. The research continues. (& copy bpb / Kulick)
The second important argument by Staadt refers to individual years with increased suicide rates in the NVA. Strictly speaking, these are random fluctuations. Based on Staadt's considerations, for example, the estimated suicide rate of 18 to 19-year-old soldiers in 1979 was around 170 percent of the civilian rate, compared to only 60 percent in 1980. Such fluctuations are common in statistics based on very small numbers.

In the statistical material of the NVA (college reports) I used, I also came across individual years with increased suicide rates. For the 1960s there is a report on the Berlin city command, i.e. the border troops on the border with West Berlin, which records a total of seven suicides for the period from December 1, 1964 to November 30, 1965, which is a high suicide rate of 46 with a troop strength of 15,000 men , 7 results. [15] The suicide rates I calculated for the NVA on the basis of numbers from the NVA and the MfS fluctuate between values ​​of 20 and 35. The first half of 1959 is an exception, when the reports even show a very high suicide rate of 48 ( compared to 35 in the previous year). [16] However, one should not attach too much interpretative weight to such fluctuations. In order not to go on speculative black ice, I have summarized two years for the diagram in my book from 2006 [17]. If one were to do this, for example, for the samples from 1979 and 1980 mentioned by Staadt, the frequency of suicides in the civilian and military sectors would be almost the same.

On the other hand, it makes sense in individual cases to ask about the causes of temporarily more frequent suicidal acts. One example is the year 1962. However, this only applies to the number of registered suicide attempts, which, at 28, were significantly higher than in subsequent years immediately after the Wall was built and at the same time as the introduction of compulsory military service. Ten actual fatal suicides were reported, which in my view is not a dramatically high number. [18]

Suicide in military service

Staadt also doubts my statement that the peculiarities and constraints of military service did not lead to suicides to a statistically relevant extent, and that harassment in the course of the 'EK movement' [19] did not have a greater influence on the frequency of suicide . (It should be noted that this is always about the suicide rate, not individual cases. I am not saying that the conditions in the army did not cause suicides, but I would point out that this has not increased the frequency of suicides.)

I definitely see that in view of the efforts of the army and the Stasi to portray all suicides as the result of illness or private problems, great skepticism is required when evaluating the state files. It can be assumed that much has been covered up. But that does not justify falling into the other extreme and overestimating the deadly effects of military service. If, as I have already done in my book, one randomly calculates the specific suicide rates per position, then large differences become apparent. For the period from mid-1972 to mid-1973, for example, the estimated suicide rates were 43 for officers, 39 for NCOs and 18 for soldiers. For the period from mid-1987 to mid-1988, the corresponding numbers are: 47 (officers), 31 (NCOs) and 22 (soldiers). [20]

Since the likelihood of suicide increases with age, these numbers should primarily reflect the age difference between soldiers and officers. Only the suicide rate of NCOs, who are mostly only in their early twenties, appears to be slightly higher. Service conflicts may well have played a role here. [21] In addition, a comparison with the number of troops shows that the suicidality of those doing military service was generally lower than that of higher ranks. This also applies in particular to the border troops, where the proportion of soldiers in basic military service was 66 percent higher than that of the NVA (43 to 45 percent). If you take the sample from 1988 with a total of 12 suicides, then six were soldiers, five non-commissioned officers, plus one officer. The share of soldiers in suicides (50 percent) is thus significantly lower than the share of soldiers in the troop strength (66 percent).

In view of these findings - I have to put it so harshly - all the objections and doubts formulated by Staadt appear to be unjustified in my view. But how is the fact that the frequency of suicides among the border troops (and in the NVA) was not increased with the observation that official conflicts played a role in every fourth suicide? Doesn't that mean that the military's specific contextual conditions certainly contributed to young men taking their own lives? In almost a quarter of all suicides?

I answer the last two questions with a clear yes. But I interpret the situation at the NVA to mean that there has been a substitution of conflicts. The fact that the incidence of suicides in the NVA was not higher than in the civil sector can only mean that the conflicts in the NVA did not have a greater suicidogenic effect than the normal extent of the SED dictatorship, but that they were only the equivalent of social conflicts in other areas of society. [22]

Briefly about the Bundeswehr, because Staadt also touches on this aspect briefly. In his study on suicides in the Bundeswehr, Klaus-Jürgen Preuschoff showed that the differences in the suicide rate between young men in the military and in the civilian sector were greater than in the GDR. According to Preuschoff, the average suicide rates calculated for five-year periods between 1957 and 1981 in the Bundeswehr were considerably lower (15 to 19) than those in the comparison group of 20 to 24-year-old men (27 to 29). [23] Preuschoff cites the main reason for the low suicidality in the Bundeswehr as the thorough selection of recruits, which was carried out in continuation of the military psychology of the Wehrmacht, which up until the 1980s also led to suicidal Bundeswehr soldiers being retired due to insufficient "mental fitness". [24] There was nothing like it in the NVA, withdrawal for medical reasons was very rare, and psychological factors hardly played a role.


With the chapter on suicides in the border troops, the “biographical handbook” has, in my opinion, done a disservice. The frequency of suicide in the NVA, and also in the border troops, was no higher than in the civilian area of ​​the GDR. The problem of suicide is too complex to be used as a weapon in the struggle for the most dramatic stylization of the GDR as a totalitarian dictatorship. Life in the GDR was depressing and stressful in many ways, but the SED functionaries cannot be blamed for the high rate of suicide. Likewise, the falling suicide rate in East Germany after 1990 is not a result of the introduction of a market economy and democracy, as the city seems to believe. I would have liked Staadt to have studied my “book, which is often cited as a standard work” a little more thoroughly. There he could have read that the convergence of suicide rates in East and West Germany by no means only began with the end of the GDR. As the statistics broken down by age group show, the suicide rates of those born after 1949 have been almost the same in East and West Germany since 1970. [25]

The fact that the alignment only became visible in the statistics at this time was a cohort effect. Since older cohorts have a much higher probability of suicide than younger people, the cohorts born before 1949 dominated the GDR suicide statistics until the 1980s, masking a trend reversal that had already started twenty years earlier. Why the cohorts born in the GDR did not continue the "tradition" of higher suicide rates in East Germany, which has been demonstrable since the 19th century, has not yet been clarified by suicide research. What is certain, however, is that the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the GDR did not represent a major turning point.

From a methodological point of view, Staadt's attempt to demonstrate a connection between military service and the suicide rate is similar to an approach used during the Cold War by Konstantin Pritzel, a former SED health functionary, who from 1951 in West Berlin at the East Office of the SPD and later at the RIAS was active, was practiced. This interest-based method consists in overemphasizing deviant individual values ​​and ignoring long-term averages in order to accuse the communist regime of the SED. In Pritzel, the manipulative instrumentalization of statistics went so far that he simply ignored the values ​​of individual years that did not fit into his interpretation and claimed increasing suicide rates on this basis, while the actual trend was a decrease in suicide rates. [26]

Jochen Staadt doesn't go that far, he doesn't even try to discuss long-term developments. Instead, he contrasts a single, hypothetical number with my conclusion, which was derived from the long-term average of the empirically determined suicide rates. [27] From a methodological point of view, this is dilettantism, from a historiographical point of view an example of how the adherence to undifferentiated totalitarian theory norms criticized by Mary Fulbrook (the murderous SED regime) tarnishes the view of the actual complexity of historical phenomena, to which the GDR undoubtedly belongs ]


Sample 1: Suicides in the border troops December 1987 to November 1988:

Date rank (age)
11/24 Senior Ensign (41)
9.11. Ensign (30)
1.9. Soldier (19)
31.8 Uffz. (24)
27.7. Soldier (24)
May soldier (19), contemporary witness
20.5. Major (45)
21.4. Uffz. (21), declared as an accident
28.3. Soldier (25)
23.3. Frozen (22)
22.3. Soldier (24)
12.2. Uffzsch. (19)
15.1. Civil worker (46)

Sample 2: Suicides border troops Jan-Nov. 1977:

2.2. Occupation (28)
13.2. Major (38)
14.4. Lieutenant (22)
23.8. Ufw. (22)
16.9. Frozen (20)

To the replica of Dr. Jochen Staadt on this post.

How to quote: Udo Grashoff, "Criticism and replies: Suizide bei den Grenztruppen and Military Service in the GDR“, in: Germany Archive, February 12th, 2021, Link: www.bpb.de/326355. Further texts and interviews in this series will follow are opinions of the respective authors, they do not represent an opinion of the Federal Agency for Civic Education.

Further articles in our focus: "Who was a victim of the GDR border regime?"