If you ask any given person what the worst maritime disaster was in history, (of those who could bring one to mind) you would probably hear about the Titanic, or even the Lusitania. However, I’d say it’s a safe bet that the odds are astronomical that you’ll find someone who knows about the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. Now author Cathryn J. Prince has brought this story to our attention.
The province of East Prussia is located on the Baltic Sea, between Latvia and a small sliver of Polish territory that allows that country access to the Baltic. Historically, the area was a Polish duchy, but when Poland was divided between Germany and the Soviet Union in their Non-Aggression Treaty of 1939, the territory went to the Nazis. Where before East Prussia was an area of mixed ethnicity, now began a period of "Germanification." The Nazis and the Soviets relocated the civilian population by the hundreds of thousands. Ethnic Germans were expelled from Soviet states and relocated to East Prussia.
East Prussia, having been separated from the rest of Germany during the interwar years, had not been overly influenced by the Nazi rise to power. They were also relatively unaffected by the war until late 1944 when the Red Army started closing in. That all changed when the Soviets began to retake their former territory. Retribution for Germans was terrifying. The anticipated rape and murder by Russian soldiers created a panic to flee the area. However, Hitler would not allow any evacuation of civilians from East Prussia until Russian tanks were literally breaking through the German defensive line. Almost too late, the head of the German Navy, Admiral Karl Donitz, launched Operation Hannibal, the evacuation of both military and civilians across the Baltic to the German port of Kiel.
The goal of Operation Hannibal was to move one million military personnel and two million civilian refugees by ship and/or train from the eastern provinces to northern Germany beginning on January 23, 1945. Over 800 ships, both military and merchant marine, would participate. One of those ships was the Wilhelm Gustloff, a luxury cruise ship launched in 1938. The ship had been previously used as a troop transport, hospital ship, and floating barracks for the German navy. It was designed to carry only 2000 passengers and crew when it operated as an ocean liner.
On the night of January 30, 1945 the Wilhelm Gustloff departed Gotenhafen enroute to Kiel. It was estimated, since no records survived if any were available, that the ship carried over 9,000 souls. The majority were civilian refugees, women and children, and a number of wounded military personnel on board. A short time later, the Wilhelm Gustloff was struck by three torpedoes fired by a Soviet submarine S-13. The ocean liner sunk within an hour. Since there were lifeboats for only a fraction of those on board, many drowned in the freezing Baltic. There were approximately 1200 survivors. Some estimate the death toll as high as 9,400. For perspective, the sinking of the Lusitania took under 1200 and the Titanic claimed just over 1500 lives.
The sinking was not deliberately kept secret over the years, but it wasn’t exactly publicized either. In post WWII America, not many people cared about what had happened to our former enemies. The ensuing Cold War with the Soviets further obscured the tragedy in the world’s collective memory. Author Cathryn Prince heard about it one day and was driven to find out more. She found a survivor who had since immigrated to Canada. Prince went there to interview him. That’s all it took to compel Prince to find more survivors to interview, and finally tell their story.
Prince articulates an observation that Americans have a tendency to not acknowledge the suffering of the German people during the war, not wanting to view them as having the right to be “victims” of the Nazis like other nationalities in Europe (p. 181). But if we are able to put those prejudices aside, there is a lot to learn in the details of the closing days of WWII in the European Theater. Moreover, as a reader and writer of military history, I think it’s a good thing that we periodically put strategy and tactics aside and examine the experiences of civilians during war.
The book is well written and reads at a good pace. There is no fluff, coming in at 236 pages including back matter, but it is a thorough history. The reader will learn about what happened on the Eastern Front in the closing days of WWII, and be caught up in several of the survivor stories. Photographs of the survivors as children help us see them as real people who went through extraordinary events. In the interest of full disclosure, Palgrave Macmillan provided a review copy of this book. I’m glad they did, as at first glance it was not a subject I would have chosen. However, I highly recommend Death in the Baltic. It is an interesting, well told story that brings a little known event from WWII to light.