Does the Sinking of the Gustloff Get Swept Up in the Carnage at the End of World War Two?

History Hit Podcast with Roger Moorhouse

3 mins

03 Sep 2018

Image credit: Bundesarchiv, B 145 Bild-P094443 / CC-BY-SA 3.0

This article is an edited transcript of Hitler’s Titanic with Roger Moorhouse on Dan Snow’s History Hit, first broadcast 6 May 2016. You can listen to the full episode below or to the full podcast for free on Acast.

The sinking of the Titanic may be the most famous maritime disaster in history – at least in the western world – but it is a long way off from being the deadliest. While more than 1,500 people were killed after the Titanic hit an iceberg in April 1912, an estimated 9,500 people perished in the sinking of Nazi military transport ship the Gustloff – and even that may be a conservative toll.

Despite being the worst shipwreck of all time, the Soviets’ sinking of the Gustloff on 30 January 1945 is often forgotten about. Taking place in unquestionably the darkest period of German history, it is often swept up with all of the other terrible things that were taking place across central Europe at that time.

The death toll and circumstances of the Gustloff sinking are certainly horrific – the majority of those who died never even left the boat, while those who did faced the freezing temperatures of the Baltic Sea in January.

But, coinciding with the Holocaust and the Nazis’ prisoner death marches, among many other horrors, it can be argued that the Gustloff has been correctly subsumed into the general tragedy of World War Two, and particularly its end.

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A deliberate sweeping?

The relative nature of tragedy may not be the only reason we don’t remember the sinking of the Gustloff today. It is also possible that it has been deliberately forgotten or swept under the carpet.

As a German tragedy, the Soviet attack on the Gustloff falls into the category of “German victimhood”, something that couldn’t really be mentioned in polite society until relatively recently.

With Germany responsible for starting the war and for carrying out the Holocaust, for many decades after World War Two it was considered distasteful to talk about German victimhood in the context of the conflict, and Germans didn’t do it.

As a result, stories like the Gustloff sinking just didn’t get talked about after the war and were subsequently largely forgotten about.

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A tectonic shift

Interestingly, the person responsible for most of the research on the sinking was a survivor named Heinz Schön. Schön was on the ship as an 18-year-old and, after surviving, spent most of his life collecting eyewitness accounts of the tragedy and other information about it.

But although he published a number of books about the Gustloff before his death in 2013, those books were very much on the fringes of academia and publishing. He was someone who was slightly beyond the pale and beyond polite society.

In fact, it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that German historiography began to talk about the Gustloff. A shift came when the sinking was front and centre of Günter Grass’s 2002 novel Crabwalk.

And that was one of those moments when there was a sort of almost tectonic shift in German historiography and in Germany’s treatment of its own history.

Crabwalk author Günter Grass. Credit: Blaues Sofa / Commons

With this shift, it suddenly became possible for German society to start talking about its own victims – albeit within certain parameters and certain circumstances. And Schön, at the very end of his career and at the end of his life, had a kind of swan song. He was suddenly considered interesting and began to be invited to conferences; to some extent, he came back in from the cold.