Book That ‘Killed’ – Are Written Or Spoken Words Powerful Enough To Take Control Over Our Actions? – A few centuries ago, Europe experienced a strange suicide wave. A large number of young men were found dead without any obvious reason.

It was soon established that the men had nothing in common with each other. However, they were all dressed in the same clothes and everyone of them committed suicide by shooting themselves.

A closer investigation revealed a shocking discovery – all of the men had read a specific best-selling book. The book is still very popular today.

Can written words affect people to such a degree that thousands decide to commit suicide?

What happened?

After reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's book about 2,000 people committed suicide...
After reading Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s book about 2,000 people committed suicide…

In 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832), one of the greatest German writers published his roman “The Sufferings of Young Werther”. It only took him four weeks to complete the work, but the repercussion of his book were long-lasting and catastrophic.

Goethe’s influence spread quickly across Europe, and for the next century his works were a major source of inspiration in music, drama, poetry and philosophy. Unfortunately, one of his works was also associated with a large number of deaths.

His book “The Sufferings of Young Werther” was about Werther a young, middle-class artist who fell in love with a woman he cannot have. Lotte, who Werther loved deeply was already engaged to another man. Although, Lotte loved Werther she decided to remain faithful to Albert, her fiancé. Werther cannot control his emotions and accept the situation. Since he cannot be together with Lotte, he decides to commit suicide and shoot himself in the head.

Goethe’s book became quickly a best-seller. European youth appreciated the sad story as it reflected so much of what many young people felt. Werther’s strong feelings captured many hearts. Even Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821), the famous French military leader always carried a copy of the book whenever he went to war.

Can written words affect people to such a degree that thousands decide to commit suicide?
Can written words affect people to such a degree that they decide to commit suicide?

Unfortunately, what Goethe had not anticipated was that so many young men would follow in Werther’s footsteps. Suddenly, several suicide reports came in from different European countries. Young men dressed in a blue coat and yellow pants, the same clothes Werther wore were found dead on the streets, at home and elsewhere. All had committed suicide with a pistol shot to the head. All of them had read Goethe’s book – The Sufferings of Young Werther.

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The influence Goethe’s book had on young people became a major social problem. The Church was far from enthusiastic and condemned the book. Leaders of the Church did not appreciate that suicide, which was considered as one of the greatest Christians sins, was presented as a solution to common problem we all face in life.
Fearing a possible mass suicide wave, several European countries like Norway, Austria, Denmark and some states in Germany banned the book.

Even Goethe had to admit something had gone terribly wrong. When the second edition was printed, Goethe was forced to include a warning to all readers. On the cover he wrote – “Be a man, do not follow in my footsteps.”

It took a couple of years before the end of the Werther fever. In time, the number of suicides decreased. Norway was the last European country to remove the ban on the book as late as 1820.

Today, Goethe’s book is considered one of the most popular literary works of all time.
Historians estimate that about 2,000 people committed suicide after reading “The Sufferings of Young Werther” but the exact number of suicides is unknown.

What is worth contemplating on is whether our society has really changed. Are we stronger individuals today?

Do we have better control of our feelings? Is it really possible we could face a similar situation modern times, or has our society different views and values?

Naturally, the book didn’t ‘kill’ all these people but its content reminded these individuals of their own current, sad situation.

Most of us have experienced an unhappy love relationship, but few of us consider it to be a reason worth dying for. On the other hand, over the years we have heard of dangerous cults, like for example the Heaven’s Gate whose leader convinced 38 of his members to commit suicide, An action, which he claimed would allow their souls to board a spaceship that they believed was hiding behind the comet.

Some years ago, there were also certain doomsday prophets who sparked fear among the public when they announced the world was definitely coming to an end.

Several people were prepared to commit suicide immediately. Is also the power of written or spoken words still so strong it can control our actions?