'Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff', by Cathryn J. Prince - review

27 April 2013 9:00 AM

Wilhelm Gustloff was a Nazi leader in Switzerland, who was shot dead in his Davos apartment by a Croatian Jewish medical student in 1936. Hitler at the ensuing state funeral promised that Gustloff would remain ‘immortal’ under the Third Reich. But his name is now only remembered because it was bestowed on a ship which later sank with the highest loss of life in maritime history. The torpedoing of the Wilhelm Gustloff in the Baltic in 1945 took an estimated 9,400 lives. This is double the number who perished with the Doña Paz in the Philippines in 1987, and far outstrips the 1,523 lost on Titanic in 1912.

The Nazis built Wilhelm Gustloff at a cost exceeding £2 million as ‘the crown jewel’ of their Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) fleet of cruise liners. It was launched at Hamburg by Hitler in 1937. On board, during cruises to Fascist Mediterranean climes, Aryan workers could tan themselves, exercise and relax in the ship’s gymnasium, swimming-pool, cinema and concert-hall. As a propaganda stunt, the liner anchored off Tilbury docks in 1938, and served as a polling station for Germans wishing to vote in the plebiscite on Anschluss with Austria.

After the outbreak of war in 1939, Wilhelm Gustloff was commandeered as a floating hospital, and then used as a training-base for submariners at the Baltic port of Gotenhafen in eastern Prussia.  Cathryn Prince gives a grisly account of Gotenhafen’s slow collapse into chaos, privation and fear until, in January 1945, the Nazis decided to evacuate their outpost as Russian armies advanced. There followed, in ‘Operation Hannibal’, a German equivalent of the Dunkirk evacuation of 1940 as hundreds of ships tried to take fugitives from Stalin’s savagery across the frozen Gulf of Danzig.

Priority in allotting boarding-passes for Wilhelm Gustloff was given to Nazi officials, military officers and women with children.  During the long turmoil of boarding, children were swapped between strangers trying to pass as parents. In all the shoving and snatching, some children fell overboard or crashed onto the pier. Soldiers disguised themselves as women, and rolled blankets to resemble bundled babies. Women smuggled husbands and sons in their trunks, while other men were secreted in crates. Pathetic children, wrenched from their parents in the frantic melee, huddled on the pier: ‘their tears froze’, said a bystander. Yet the children left behind were the lucky ones.

Once out of harbour, the liner switched on navigation lights so as to avoid collision with mine-sweepers. Twinkling like a Christmas tree, it was tracked for two hours by a Russian submarine, S-13, which then, from a distance of under 900 metres, launched three torpedoes which exploded on hitting their target. In the hideous ensuing panic, people were trampled to death, others committed suicide, while fathers shot their families. There were only 22 lifeboats, and lifejackets for under half the passengers and crew.

People in the lifeboats saw the imploring eyes of people in the icy sea or heard their screams: ‘I have that always in my ears,’ said a survivor 60 years later. In describing the experiences of survivors, whom she has been adept in tracing, the journalist Cathryn Prince gives voices to ‘ordinary people who suffered during extraordinary times’ — and does so with scrupulous empathy.

Nevertheless, Death in the Baltic is a very American book. It is based on interviews conducted across the continent from Tecumseh, Ontario, to Las Vegas. It is written with an artless simplicity that can be touching, but sometimes resembles the faux naïveté of an annoying child. The clumsy innocence is apparent from the first page, where Prince notes the paucity of news report of the sinking and asks: ‘Was it because there were no Americans aboard?’

The book also has a page of acknowledgments sploshed with outlandish emotional effusions such as ‘Perched upon my soul, you are my laughter and my light.’ Perhaps Americans are sincere when they talk like this, but Europeans only murmur such nonsense when they are young, drunk and trying to wheedle their way into having sex with someone who is feeling tired.