Bryan Caplan  

Suicide and Sincerity

An Annoying Law... SarbOx and MF Global...
I just shared the sublime Downfall with my older sons.  It's the German-language movie of the last days of Nazi Germany.  (You probably already to know it from the countless Youtube parodies of Hitler screaming at his generals with funny subtitles).  I trust it's not a spoiler to tell you that almost all the characters die by the end - and that the most common cause of death is suicide.

The movie strongly suggests that suicide is a strong test of sincerity.  Yes, opportunists might prefer suicide to torture and execution.  And yes, the sincere might run away to fight another day.  But for the most part, the sincere Nazi fanatics kill themselves (and sometimes their children, too), while the murderous opportunists frantically look for a way out - and prefer prison to oblivion. 

Question: On balance, how credible is the suicide test of sincerity?  I'm the first person to maintain that sincerity is overrated, but I'm still curious.

Comments and Sharing

COMMENTS (11 to date)
Gabriel Rossman writes:

See chapter 8 of Rodney Stark's Rise of Christianity, "The Martyrs: Sacrifice as Rational Choice." In it he describes how martyrdom in Rome was essentially voluntary since (a) many martyrs turned themselves in to the Romans and (b) an accused Christian could be pardoned by making a token pagan sacrifice. Given this, Stark argues that martyrdom was essentially an issue of signaling group solidarity, especially for people (ie, bishops) with strong investments in social capital that was asset-specific to the church.

It should go without saying, but just in case, my parallels here are entirely about people being willing to die for a cause and in no way implies moral equivalence between the odious cause in Professor Caplan's example and the innocent one in Stark's example.

david writes:

You're the same Bryan Caplan who noted that insane people can still be rational; they just have extreme preferences. So why assume that the suicidal fanatics care about credible status displays instead of, say, avoiding mental suffering from acknowledging the doom of their cause?

faze writes:

You're talking about signaling through suicide: showing others that you value your beliefs more than life itself. The audience for such an act is not supposed to be impressed by your sincerity so much as to consider that any beliefs so highly valued must at least be worth looking into. Suicide as proselytism.

Duane McMullen writes:

The sincere Nazis were the ones who allowed themselves to be arrested and openly described their actions to the Nuremburg prosecutors, leaving nothing out. Some were contrite and accepted that they committed crimes that needed punishment, others openly defended their actions right up to their executions. From an advertising perspective, their examples were arguably more powerful, and chilling, than the suicides.

The suicides were moral cowards who knew their actions were evil and chose to avoid retribution the only sure way they knew. The opportunists/survivors tried to avoid getting caught and if caught did everything they could to avoid punishment (I was not there! Mistaken identity! I only drove the commandant's car! I know rocket design! etc. etc.).

Tom West writes:

Actually, the thing that drove me utterly nuts about the movie (although it was completely real) is that right until the end, as Hitler is berating all the Germans for failing him as they're dying in droves defending Berlin, not one officer tries to speaks up on behalf of his countrymen who are fighting and dying for Hitler's deranged dreams.

Hitler gets to die thinking he has the respect of his officers, instead of being forced to acknowledge that it was his egotistical stupidity that has doomed them all.

(Okay, of course it wasn't going to happen, but it was classical evasion of responsibility to the end, aided and abetted by all around him and it drove me up the wall.)

On topic, I suspect suicide was simply a way of evading the vengeance of the victors - nothing more, nothing less. Killing the children is simply an act of responsibility - better to die quickly than what the Russians will do to them. At least that is how I perceived the rationale being.

Seymour writes:

Absolutely terrible movie. Cliche after cliche. German language Hollywood-style nonsense.

chipotle writes:

This post has to be understood as part of Prof. Caplan's larger philosophy which, stated directly would say something like this

  • Everyone loves life.
  • Only Objectivists or their near cousins are willing to admit to this
  • If everyone did not love life, there would be many more suicides
  • Since suicides are relatively rare, everyone really loves life

Professor Caplan's position is superficially clever but ultimately absurd. It's very easy to think of reasons to not want to die. No one knows what it feels like to not be conscious. Perhaps the moment of death--the actual permanent loss of consciousness, not the type that people have "come back from"--is excruciatingly painful. What's it like to be dead, anyway? Maybe it's like the worst boredom you've ever felt...and it lasts forever. Who knows? Perhaps there is something like a hell. Maybe it's nothing like what the religionists think. Maybe it's unimaginably worse.

In any case, it is very difficult to imagine someone who thinks it's wise to bet their life on something so profoundly unknown. Clearly it's rational to continue living (who knows, maybe things will get better), even if life is not particularly lovely (right now).

Glen S. McGhee writes:

Rossman neglects to distinguish martyrdom in the RISE of Christianity with Nazi bunker suicides, clearly at the end of the Third Reich, and not its beginning.

More context is needed, I think, in assessing the movie, Downfall.

David Redles has a chapter on apocalyptic Nazi millennialism in my book, the best chapter in the book. Redles addresses the intensification of these views toward the end of the war, including the belief in a miraculous Endsieg. The book provides satisfactory answers to questions that I have always had about Nazism: why was Hitler elected? Why was there a Holocaust? and why was Russia invaded?

This last question, I think, provides important contextual clues pertinent to understanding the Nazi bunker suicides. Bolshevism was the purest embodiment of virulent Judaism for Nazis.

Once the apocalyptic world-view of Nazism is understood -- along with the reality of the impending racial war between Aryans and Jews -- Hitler's actions take on added meaning. Old Guard Nazis prized violence that they saw as redemptive, and deified their own martyrs (i.e., Horst Wessel).

Without this context, we are at a loss in interpreting these historical events. In effect, they are taken out of context.

Few scholarly courses on Nazism, if any, accord millennialism a sufficient explanatory role, although contemporary research shows just how central it is. All too often, historiography suffers from its lack of understanding.

Steve writes:

Last weekend I watched The Goebbels Experiment, a documentary based on the diary of Hitler's director of propaganda.

Goebbels comes across as a congenitally unhappy man who found a reason to live by attaching himself to a political movement. As a student he wrote in his diary that once he got his PhD he would end his own life. He didn't kill himself though because shortly after he finished school he found Hitler.

So my hunch is Goebbels committed suicide because that was the kind of person he was, not because he was a true believer.

Gabriel Rossman writes:


During the Diocletian persecution it probably did look like the end (especially in the Eastern provinces). A bishop deciding whether to turn himself in and/or exonerate himself through apostasy had no way of knowing that the Battle of the Milvian Bridge was just a few years into the future.

Mitchell Porter writes:

Comments for this entry have been closed
Return to top