The German Titanic
The Wilhelm Gustloff began life as a passenger cruise ship, named after the German leader of the Swiss Nazi party who died in 1936, and before the Second World War served as the flagship for the Power Through Joy workers recreational program. With the outbreak of war in 1939, the ship was transferred to the military and used as housing for U-Boat crew undergoing training.
By the end of 1944 Germany was losing the war and hundreds of thousands of German refugees and wounded soldiers fled from East Prussia and Poland to escape the advance of the Red Army. As they crowded into the German held Baltic ports looking for a way back to Germany proper the Wilhelm Gustloff was on of the many ships pressed into duty to assist in the evacuation process.
On Tuesday, January 30, 1945 at 12:30 in the afternoon the Wilhelm Gustloff set sail from the Baltic port of Gotenhafen. (1) No one knows quite how many people were on board, estimates range between seven and nine thousand, but almost every square inch of available space onboard was occupied.
At around ten minutes past nine that evening the ship was struck by three torpedoes fired by the Russian submarine S-13. There was an immediate panic as people rushed to gain access to the upper decks and the lifeboats. Unfortunately many were covered with ice and were difficult to launch and soon the listing of the ship made it almost impossible.
With the Wilhelm Gustloff rapidly sinking beneath the icy Baltic waters it became apparent that few would manage to attain the relative safety of the lifeboats.
One survivor Karl Hoffmann recalled seeing "families shoot themselves rather than suffer slow and terrifying death through drowning that awaited them." After flinging himself into the sea he further recounted the scene that confronted him;
"What I saw then was terrible. Children hung in life jackets, their stiff legs sticking straight up. Elderly people bobbed dead in the water. Death screams and cries for help filled the air."
He only survived, as did a few hundred others, after being picked up by a passing German torpedo boat
squadron. In total only some 1,000 of the passengers and crew managed to survive, the reminder drowned or froze to death as the Wilhelm Gustloff
sank in the Baltic Sea
somewhere between the Bay of Danzig
and the Danish
island of Bornholm
The sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff has recently been the subject of the latest work by Gunter Grass, Germany's Nobel prize-winning author. Named Im Krebsgang or In Retrogression it uses a blend of fact and fiction to tell the story of the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Of course what interests Gunter Grass is not so much the tale of the Wilhelm Gustloff itself, but how it symbolises the sufferings many Germans endured during the Second World War and in particular the expulsion of the millions of Germans from their former homes in East Prussia (2) and how reluctant Germany has been to recognise this itself.
Publication of the novel has triggered a re-examination within Germany of its past. The UK Daily Telegraph reports that publication " has caused a sensation in Germany," and how it has been hailed as a turning point in the way that the country views the fate of own citizens who died in the war.
As Gunter Grass himself puts it (3)
It is strange and disturbing to hear it said that it is only ever late in the day and with much hesitation that the sufferings inflicted on the Germans during the war are recalled. The consequences of the war, begun without scruple by Germany and criminally pursued, that is, the destruction of German towns, the deaths of thousands of civilians as a result of bombing, the expulsion and distress of the 12 million Germans in the east who had to flee: all this was only ever mentioned as a background. In postwar literature, the memory of the many who died in the nights of bombing and the mass exodus was never reflected in the same way. Experience shows that victims of violence, whoever was responsible for it, do not wish to remember the atrocities they have undergone.
(1) Now known as the port of Gdynia in Poland, not far from Gdansk (or Danzig)
(2) Gunter Grass himself was born in Danzig and much of his family was from the east
(3) From the source quoted below.
-Grass novel on German 'Titanic' ends taboo By Toby Helm and Uwe Gunther from the UK [Daily Telegraph
-The eyewitness testimony of Karl Hoffmann, a survivor of the sinking, located at the World War II Preservation Society website at http://www.cybercreek.com/cybercity/WWIIps/gust.html
-Truth in the broken mirror by Gunter Grass http://books.guardian.co.uk/extracts/story/0,6761,429408,00.html Itself an extract from a longer article published in Index on Censorship, 1/01, Memory and Forgetting