Forced suicide is a method of execution where the victim is coerced into committing suicide to avoid facing an alternative option they perceive as much worse, such as suffering torture or having friends or family members imprisoned or tortured or killed. Another common form historically has been deliberately providing a condemned individual with a weapon and a brief period in which to commit honourable suicide if he or she chooses before being executed. Because the victim's cause of death would be registered as suicide, the act also carries an additional benefit as black propaganda against individuals for whom an open execution would generate unwanted attention due to the suicide's position or influence.
In ancient Greece and Rome
Forced suicide was a common means of execution in ancient Greece and Rome. As a mark of respect it was generally reserved for aristocrats sentenced to death; the victims would either drink hemlock or fall on their swords. Economic motivations promoted some suicides in ancient Rome. A person who was condemned to death would forfeit property to the government. People could evade that provision and let the property pass to their heirs by committing suicide prior to arrest.
Probably the most famous forced suicide is that of the philosopher Socrates, who drank hemlock after his trial for allegedly corrupting the youth of Athens. The Stoic philosopher Seneca also killed himself in response to a request by his pupil, the Roman Emperor Nero, who himself was forced to commit suicide at a later date. Other famous forced suicides include those of Brutus, Mark Antony and Emperor Otho.
Forced suicides have occurred in ancient China, where generals who were responsible for major debacles that seriously brought a downfall in the course of a state's history would be held liable and were given orders to commit suicide. It was also the most common way to execute female criminals, as it was considered more humane than beheading.
In India, the ancient practice of sati, in which a recently-widowed woman would immolate herself on her husband’s funeral pyre, generally is not considered a type of honor killing. However, the extent up to which Sati was a purely voluntary act or one that was coerced is actively debated. There have been some incidences in recent times, such as the Roop Kanwar case, in which forced sati was suspected. Additional cases are under investigation, though no evidence of forced suicide has yet been found.
Japanese seppuku falls into this category. The culture of Bushido practiced by the samurai expected them to ritually kill themselves if found disloyal, sparing a daimyo or shogun the indignity of executing a follower. This was especially the case in the Edo period, and Asano Naganori was a clear example.
In modern Europe
Another famous example is the forced suicide of Erwin Rommel, a field marshal in the German Army during the Second World War. After Rommel lost faith in Germany's ability to win the war, and came under suspicion for having taken part in the July 20, 1944 plot to kill Adolf Hitler, he was forced to commit suicide. Due to Rommel's popularity with the German people, Hitler gave him an option to commit suicide with cyanide or face dishonor and retaliation against his family and staff. Since the guilty verdict had already been entered, the option of facing trial was hopeless, and thus, in order to save his family and his honor, he was forced to take cyanide.
During World War II there were many forced suicides in different military and paramilitary organizations. There is evidence of military failures requiring suicide as a better option than court martial, for example in the Winter War and at the Battle of Stalingrad. Several under Adolf Hitler's regime also committed suicide. Friedrich Paulus was promoted with the implication that he would die in futile military action or commit suicide. Suicide missions, in which volunteers were asked for, are well reported in fiction, but levels of compulsion are hard to assess.
As a substitute for honor killings
A forced suicide may be a substitute for an honor killing when a woman violates the namus in conservative Islamic societies. According to a BBC report, the United Nations is, as of 2006, investigating reports of forced suicides of Kurdish women in Turkey.
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