In a way that was characteristic of the final months of the nazi regime, the self-historicization of the nazi leaders drew upon references to famous heroic deaths in history. Goebbels is said to have read out passages from Carlyle’s history of Frederick the Great to Hitler in the bunker. In these passages, Frederick the Great contemplated suicide by poisoning himself when the military situation seemed hopeless to the Prussians in 1757 during the Seven Years War. In a lengthy radio speech, Goebbels claimed on 28 February 1945 that Frederick the Great had only known ‘victory or death’. And in the same speech, reprinted in most German newspapers on 1 March 1945, Goebbels alluded to the Stoic heroism of Roman leaders such as Cato of Utica, who had preferred to die rather than surrender his life and body to the mercy of Caesar.
Anticipating the suicide of his wife and of himself as well as the murder of his children, Goebbels furthermore claimed that he ‘would not find it worthwhile to live . . . neither for his children nor for all those whom I loved’, but would prefer, if Germany were defeated, ‘to cheerfully throw away his life’.
Interestingly, it was Roman political suicides, rather than the highly ritualized voluntary suicides of the Japanese allies, that served as a precedent for nazi leaders, as they had already done in the French Revolution. According to rumours circulating among diplomats of those few states which were still represented in Berlin, Goebbels had been glorifying suicide at a press conference on 3 March. A conservative German diplomat allegedly commented upon Goebbels’ speech dryly: ‘The nazi leadership could long ago have set a good precedent by doing away with themselves. That would have been a blessing for Germany and the world.’