The Self-immolation of Oskar Brüsewitz Compared to Other Suicides Committed as a Political Protest

by Małgorzata Czabańska-Rosada (Author) Adam Czabański (Author)
©2017 Monographs 150 Pages


This book studies the phenomenon of altruistic suicide which was a form of political protest. The authors investigate the self-immolation of German pastor Oskar Brüsewitz and compare it with other politically motivated suicides. They portray both life and pastoral activity of Brüsewitz and analyse the motives of his suicide. Furthermore, they evaluate the judgement of this tragic event by confreres in faith and other witnesses. Besides the thorough analysis of Oskar Brüsewitz’s case, the book inspects the genesis of self-immolation and locates it in the tradition of Buddhism and Hinduism. It depicts cases of self-immolations in Vietnam, the USA, India, Tibet, China, Iran, and particularly in Middle-Eastern Europe (Czechoslovakia, Poland and Lithuania). The analysis also covers cases of self-immolations that occurred during the Arab Spring (2011–2012) and in Bulgaria in 2013.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the authors
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • I. Altruistic suicide as a political protest
  • I.1. Self-immolation as the most common form of an altruistic suicide committed as a political protest
  • I.2. Self-immolation in Asia
  • I.2.1. Self-immolation in the tradition of Buddhism and Hinduism
  • I.2.2. Socio-political causes of self-immolations in Vietnam and in the USA during the Vietnam War
  • I.2.3. From the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc to the contemporary cases of self-immolation in Vietnam
  • I.2.4. Cases of self-immolation in protest against the Vietnam War among Americans
  • I.2.5. Cases of self-immolation among Tamils in Tamil Nadu in 1965
  • I.2.6. Altruistic suicides committed as a political protest among Tibetans
  • I.2.7. Self-immolations in China (the Falun Gong sect)
  • I.2.8. Self-immolations of the Iranians
  • I.3. Self-immolations in Central and Eastern Europe
  • I.3.1. The origin of self-immolations in Czechoslovakia. The Prague Spring of 1968 and the invasion of armies of the Warsaw Pact
  • I.3.2 Self-immolations in Czechoslovakia (Jan Palach, Jan Zajic, Evzen Plocek) in 1969 and in the Czech Republic in 2003 (Zdenek Adamec)
  • I.3.3. Socio-political situation in Poland in 1968
  • I.3.4. Self-immolations of Ryszard Siwiec, Józef Dolak, and Walenty Badylak
  • I.3.5. Socio-political situation in Lithuania after the Second World War
  • I.3.6. The self-immolation of Romas Kalanta
  • I.3.7. The self-immolation of Hartmut Gründler in the Federal Republic of Germany
  • I.3.8. Self-immolations during the Arab Spring (2010-2011)
  • I.3.9. Self-immolations in Bulgaria (2013)
  • II. Self-Immolation of Oskar Brüsewitz – analysis of a phenomenon
  • II.1. Socio-political situation in the GDR
  • II.2. Self-Immolation of Oskar Brüsewitz
  • II.2.1. From East Prussia to East Germany
  • II.2.2. Theologian and anti-Communist
  • II.2.3. The evangelisation methods of Oskar Brüsewitz
  • II.2.3.1 The cross
  • II.2.3.2. Poster actions
  • II.2.3.3. The evangelisation of the children and youth
  • II.2.4. Repression and death
  • II.2.4.1. Preparations
  • II.2.4.2. Self-immolation
  • II.2.5. The perception of Oskar Brüsewitz’s action
  • II.2.6. The Martyr
  • II.2.7. Followers
  • II.2.7.1. Self-immolation of Rolf Günther
  • Final conclusions
  • Bibliography
  • Abstract
  • Bibliographical notes of the authors
  • Index of Names


One of the most difficult problems of all people is where to put the limit to the rebellion against one's fate.

Antoni Kępiński, Rytm życia, Cracow 2001, p. 161.

One reveals the true hierarchy of values in situations of conflict and, even more clearly, when one faces death.

Antoni Kępiński, Psychopatie, Cracow 2002, p. 45.

The essence of politics is the fight to win or maintain power. Scholars sometimes define power as the ability to cause change. What is more, it means a change directed according to the will of a ruler. In the complex process of exercising power, one usually encounters opposing forces, which is probably one of the cultural universals. Such opposition towards ruling political elites emerges in a more or less radical form, sooner or later, in every civilization.

When extremities occur, protesters decide to undertake even such determined course of action as self-immolation. Often ridiculed by the state apparatus, this radical form of protest takes place in the political sphere. Sometimes the apparatus exterminates members of the opposition by means of murder staged as suicide, forced suicide, or by otherwise driving them to commit suicide.

This study is focused on the analysis of such suicidal incidents with the play of politics in their background. Suicidology encounters here certain obstacles and limitations. Often, one cannot examine such suicides, as the state implements strong information blockades and noise. The aim of this study is to depict the situations, in which politics becomes intertwined with individual dramas of people who decide to commit suicide, are forced to commit suicide, or labelled as suicides.

Altruistic suicide committed as a political protest seems to be the purest form of altruistic behaviour in general.

The public opinion may struggle to accept and understand such a suicide for two reasons:

   people act against their instinct of self-preservation;

   and, they have altruistic, not egoistic incentives to do it.

Thus, people conquer their instinct of self-preservation for the sake of a group or society, even a global one; that is, for a community of people whom they do not even personally know. Altruistic suicides completely reject their own desires, expectations, hopes, and plans, only to devote all their energy to sacrifice them ← 9 | 10 selves to the idea, for others. The awareness and identity of an individual yields to the collective. This happened to well-socialized people, who integrated their pro-social values and duties.

The aim of this study is to depict the self-immolation of Oskar Brüsewitz in comparison with other suicides committed in political protest. The study requires us to closely follow the life and activities of Reverend Brüsewitz; his motives, the assessment of his deed in the eyes of his brethren and other witnesses of those dramatic events.

This study consists of two fundamental parts. The first part presents examples of suicides committed in political protest and political suicides. Those examples come from various epochs and cultural circles. The vast majority of those events took place between the beginning of the Vietnam War and the present. The second part of this study describes the profile of Oskar Brüsewitz as well as an analysis of his heroic deed and its consequences. ← 10 | 11

I.   Altruistic suicide as a political protest

I.1.   Self-immolation as the most common form of an altruistic suicide committed as a political protest

The essence of altruistic self-immolation as political protest is rebellion. As Buddhist monks clearly explain, the aim of self-immolation is not death but a manifestation of protest against evil, religious persecution, and the violation of human rights.

Albert Camus, in his work L’homme révolte, analysed the notion of rebellion. Rebellious people will express an uncompromising opposition to an offence that they deem impossible to accept. Simultaneously, they manifest a sense of being in the right. According to Camus, to remain silent is to desire nothing. The rebel gains consciousness but loses patience.1 As Camus writes:

With the loss of patience and the appearance of impatience there rises a movement, which can spread over everything that used to be accepted. Almost always this uprising also deals with the past. The moment a slave rejects a humiliating order of a master, he rejects the state of slavery itself.2

Rebellious people act according to the rule ‘all or nothing’.

Rebels want to be everything or nothing. To be everything means to identify completely with the good they suddenly realised, which is to be recognised and honoured in their person. To be nothing means to irrevocably yield to the force that dominates over them. As a last resort, they agree with the failure that is death, if the alternative is to be deprived of the unique privilege they call, e.g. freedom. They would rather die standing than live on their knees.3

Considering the essence of rebellion, Albert Camus underlines the passage from the individual to the common good. Camus’s thoughts may directly explain the issue of altruistic suicide committed for political reasons. The following excerpt of Camus’s work describes it even more clearly:

Camus’s argument that rebellion often is an altruistic reflex appears unusually pertinent: “Let us notice ... that rebellion rises not only and necessarily in an oppressed man, but it can also rise at the sight of the oppression whose victim is another man.... In rebellion, people overcome themselves for others”5 It is worth noticing that rebellion not only originates directly in a man subject to oppression but can also rise in a man who sees oppression. According to Camus: “We have here the case of identifying with the other individual”6 As an example, Camus describes protest suicides of the Russian terrorists, exiled to penal servitude, whose comrades had been flogged. Albert Camus gives an even more precise definition of rebellion by comparing it with the feeling of ressentiment, described in detail by Max Scheller in his work Ressentiment: “The reflex of rebellion is something more than an act of demanding in the strong sense of the word. Ressentiment has been excellently defined by Scheller as self-poisoning, a fatal internal secretion of accumulated helplessness. Rebellion, on the contrary, lets a man release everything; it changes dried-up rivulets into broad streaMs”7.

Politically motivated altruistic suicides (in protest against social injustice and the violation of human rights) take on various forms: from a hunger strike ending with death, through such methods of self-destruction as shooting, poisoning, stabbing8, and self-immolation.9 ← 12 | 13

Scholars assume that altruistic suicides in political protest occur in their purest form as self-immolation, committed quite often in certain periods of time and certain regions of the world. It does not mean that self-immolation is the only form assumed by political suicides. In this chapter, we will analyse the phenomenon of self-immolation in a wide context: its genesis, manifestations, and motives.

Further analysis of the phenomenon must consider the idea of nonviolence, most notably propagated by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Among the methods of nonviolence, one may list strikes, silent marches, hunger strikes, and self-immolations.10 Rainer Hildebrandt observed that a protest suicide is a particular case of nonviolence.11 We may consider it the ultimate means to direct the attention of others towards severe injustice. Suicide is equal to a declaration that all other means of nonviolent protest are either ineffective or impossible. Action without violence that assumes the form of self-immolation does not yield to evaluation with objective criteria, which is why subjective evaluation plays the decisive role. The fundamental rule of an action undertaken in a nonviolent protest is that one should not direct it against people but against the system. ← 13 | 14 Participants of that fight must know whether they want to do something against people or for them. Only a positive goal – self-sacrifice – finds its place among the rules of nonviolence.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2019 (January)
Altruistic suicide Totalitarism Non violence Anti-Communism Religious aspects
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 150 pp.

Biographical notes

Małgorzata Czabańska-Rosada (Author) Adam Czabański (Author)

Adam Czabański is a Professor and Head of the Health Sociology and Social Pathologies Unit at the Department of Social Sciences at the Karol Marcinkowski Medical University in Poznań. His research interests focus on phenomena connected with sociology of health, sociology of medicine and social pathologies. Małgorzata Czabańska-Rosada is an Assistant Professor at the Faculty of Humanities of the Jacob of Paradyż Academy in Gorzów Wielkopolski. She conducts multi-faceted studies of literary, magazine-writing and documentary artefacts made in the areas of the German-Polish border. Her academic interests include the phenomenon of the outsider in the broad area of socio-cultural research.


Title: The Self-immolation of Oskar Brüsewitz Compared to Other Suicides Committed as a Political Protest
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152 pages