Choosing the Final Freedom: Suicide in the Past and Present – my new article in the Areo Magazine

During the Second World War, my mother’s sister was a liaison officer in the resistance movement. She performed very important clandestine work. As she said herself, she wasn’t afraid of death, only torture. She had little resistance to pain, and was afraid she would betray someone or give away vital information. By some means, she came into possession of a potassium cyanide capsule. She took the poison when the Gestapo surrounded her home, having earlier set fire to one of the rooms, thus probably destroying some vital documents.—Anonymous letter to a Polish blog.

This is one of thousands of similar stories from those bleak times. A poison capsule was a guarantee of a final escape that neither the Gestapo nor the SS could prevent: an escape from torture, humiliation and a death deprived of dignity. It was no accident that the Third Reich scorned those who voluntarily gave up their own life. They even denounced the use of the word Freitod (“free death”), one of four German synonyms for the act we call suicide. The other three terms are Selbsttötung (“killing oneself”), the scientific Suizid and Selbstmord (“self-murder”). The Nazis preferred the latter. There was a loophole in the otherwise hermetically sealed totalitarian system—and the word Freitod showed its location. For the representatives of absolute power, there is nothing worse than the knowledge that their power has limitations, and, for the slave, nothing is more invigorating than the possibility of breaking free. In those days, a capsule of potassium cyanide gave many people a real sense of freedom.

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