Death In The Baltic: The World War II Sinking Of The Wilhelm Gustloff, by Cathryn J. Prince
As someone who reads and writes at least my fair share of literature about naval disasters , this book was definitely something that I could understand the need for. Many people are under the illusion that the notable events of history are covered in more or less a fair fashion, but this particular incident demonstrates that the context of a situation determines a great deal if it receives attention. The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff cost the lives of some 8,000 people, the worst naval disaster in history, and yet the story is an obscure one, far more obscure than the Titanic and the Lusitania disasters. Part of the reason is the context, in that the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk by a submarine commander known for exaggerating his kills and was sunk in the latter days of World War II, and that the people who died were mostly terrified German civilians of East Prussia and other areas seeking to flee Russian rape and murder. Given the fact that few people at the time had a great deal of sympathy for the Germans, it would make sense that this disaster did not get a great deal of attention at the time.
The structure and contents of this book are worthy of interest, and the book is about two hundred pages long, a pretty standard length for books of this type and one that should present no great difficulties for those who appreciate the book’s subject matter. After a short introduction in which the author ably defends the purpose of this book, the author moves on to the situation for Germans in East Prussia and the terror they felt at the approach of the Soviet army, along with the operation meant to evacuate as many civilians and soldiers as possible to avoid them being trapped by the rapid advance of the Red Army and the history of the sunken ship itself, the pride of the German cruise fleet. After this the author then turns to looking at the perspective of the submarine captain who sank the Wilhelm Gustloff and his colorful background and checkered reputation. The account of naval warfare in the Baltic Sea during World War II is then discussed, along with the circumstances of the sinking itself and the paucity of items that have been found from the ship’s sinking, as well as the struggle of the survivors of the wreck to move on despite the horrors of PTSD that they faced as a result of their experiences.
The author does a fine job here of looking at the disaster from a wide variety of perspectives. It is hard for me to be particularly sympathetic to the situation of Germany at the end of World War II given the fact that the war was the fault of the Germans themselves for their aggression against neighbors. Even so, the Germans of the Baltic region were not the Germans responsible for German aggression, and were, as the author explains, Hitler’s hostages in dangerous terrain. The Russians were not prone to publicize how they used rape and massacres to terrorize the local German population of the Baltic region, and the Western Allies did not think it worthwhile to antagonize a wartime ally by mentioning it. Thankfully, the author and some of the survivors of the disaster have been able to overcome the conspiracy of silence about this disaster and give it its proper place in history in the dark days towards the close of World War II, when efforts to evacuate Germans from East Prussia led to the worst maritime disaster in history, a reminder of the bad blood that still exists in the region over various historical evils.
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