Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff

By Cathryn J. Prince | Palgrave McMillan | $20.24 | 236 pages | 2013

The following book review is, in very large part, written in recognition of this reviewer’s undying debt of gratitude to Don Paine. Several months ago, I received a copy of the book Death in the Baltic by Cathryn J. Prince, along with a note from Don that encouraged me to read and
review her book in light of his and Jerry Potter’s article in the April 2013 issue of this magazine on the Sultana disaster.1 My deepest appreciation goes out to Don’s memory for his thoughtfulness, unceasing professionalism, friendship and kindness; my thanks to him are enormous — as, no doubt, are also those of many of you reading this book review.
In their April 2013 article, Messrs. Potter and Paine surveyed this nation’s greatest maritime disaster and its legal aftermath, the explosion of the steamboat Sultana seven miles outside Memphis. That tragedy had a reckoning of more than 1,800 dead, including a host of East Tennessee Unionists recently freed from Confederate prisoner-of-war camps.2 The toll of the Sultana’s victims exceeded that of those lost on the Titanic (1,517). But, what was the greatest loss of life in any sinking, and how well known is that tragedy? The death toll in the worst shipwreck in history was more than five times greater than the Sultana, Titanic or Lusitania (1,198) tragedies. Because it happened in wartime and its dead were the citizens of a reviled enemy, few Americans even know of it, and because the ship was the target of Soviet torpedoes, many of the records on the other side of the affair were sealed for years behind the Iron Curtain.
The ship in question was the pride of the Nazis’ “Strength through Joy” workers’ recreation and travel organization, the cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff. Built to carry 1,500 passengers in high style, the Gustloff was pressed into naval service with the outbreak of World War II. In early January 1945, the Gustloff and other former ocean liners and merchant ships were pressed into service for Operation “Hannibal,” the Germans’ frantic efforts to evacuate civilians and soldiers from the Red Army’s advance on East Prussia and German-held Poland. The Nazis had reaped what they had sowed in the wake of their brutal 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union, and the Red Army‘s revenge on Germans of all walks of life, ages and sexes was savage. The Germans of East Prussia were desperate to escape the Soviet onslaught: more than 10,000 civilians, soldiers and sailors, and wounded troops jammed the decks and holds of the Gustloff before she set sail from Gotenhafen (now Gdynia, Poland) on the frozen evening of Jan. 30, 1945.
Enter brave and hard-bitten Soviet naval officer Alexander Marinesko. Under suspicion of “subversive activities” (drinking with Swedish women in off-limits bars) by the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police, Marinesko commanded the submarine S-13. On patrol in the Baltic Sea off East Prussia, Marinesko and his crew found an enormous target, not marked with any Red Crosses or any other identifications of it as being entitled to protected status under maritime law or the laws of war. The S-13 launched three torpedoes; all struck the target, which sank rapidly. Marinesko was decorated as a Hero of the Soviet Union — 30 years after his death in 1963, following several years of imprisonment. The secret police never let up in its pursuit of him, although his sailors and fellow Soviet Navy officers considered Marinesko a hero.
The scenes on the Wilhelm Gustloff after its torpedoeing were every bit as horrible and heart-rending as the cinematic depictions of the Titanic’s demise. Author Cathryn Prince has interviewed a host of the handful of remaining survivors of the Gustloff, and it is clear that none of them — many, very young children or teens in 1945 — have ever lived a day in the ensuing near-70 years without still suffering the effects of that frozen, terrible night. As one survivor recounted to Prince, “We had to get over it,” although none of those who escaped ever truly did, of course. In the chaos of the fall of East Prussia, accurate records of those who boarded and those who were who rescued, were lost or incomplete, but some 1,200 passengers appear to have been saved. By contrast, more than 9,000 died when the Gustloff went down. It remains the largest loss of life in a single ship sinking.
As to the legality of the S-13’s attack on the Gustloff: was its torpedoeing illegal and thus a war crime? Under the laws of war and maritime law, the answer appears to have been no. Nothing identified the Gustloff as a hospital ship or other vessel entitled to the protections of the Geneva and Hague Conventions (there were casualties on board, but also uninjured soldiers and sailors and war materiel among all of the non-combatants). Horrendous as it was, the Gustloff’s destruction was not likely a war crime under the then-applicable laws of armed conflict.
But, the “collateral damage” (to use that euphemistic term of later wars) lost when the Gustloff sank on that frozen winter night were nevertheless women, children and wounded troops rendered hors de combat. To the embittered Soviets, these deaths seemed like so much small change as the Red Army sought the eye-for-an-eye vengeance demanded by Stalin and his propagandist Ilya Ehrenburg, with the USSR’s leading cities in ruins and millions of Soviet lives sacrificed to defeat the Nazi scourge.
Today, besides being a grim footnote from the last days of a cataclysmic war, the Wilhelm Gustloff is sometimes discussed as being perhaps the last resting place of the fabled Amber Room, the Czarist-era art treasure looted by the Nazis from a palace near Leningrad (St. Petersburg) and lost during the last days of East Prussia.
Prince weaves a compelling story of a long-lost nautical tragedy from the ghastly final weeks of the Second World War. In telling it, she reminds us that victims and human disasters can be found on all sides of war — among the private citizenry and children of an enemy as despicable as the Nazis, and even in the form of a submarine captain of another enemy, the Soviet Union — and the costs and invisible scars of war linger long after the guns have fallen silent.

JACK H. (NICK) MCCALL is an attorney with the Tennessee Valley Authority Office of General Counsel in Knoxville. Any views and opinions expressed herein are solely attributable to McCall.
Notes
1. Jerry Potter and Donald F. Paine, “The Legal Aftermath of the Sultana Disaster,” Tenn. Bar Journal, April 2013, at 30.
2. Id.