The Titanic is the most famous ship in history and one of the world’s most famous disasters. The name brings to mind hubris and naivety, shock and drama on an unprecedented scale. The Titanic’s fame has been bolstered by best-selling books and a major motion picture that became the top grossing film of all time. The same cannot be said for the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff. It is a name known to very few westerners, except for shipwreck or disaster buffs and World War II scholars of the Eastern Front. The name evokes quizzical stares and glances of befuddlement. This is unfortunate, yet understandable. The ship sank during the final months of the deadliest conflict in human history, World War II. It happened in neither the Atlantic nor Pacific Oceans, but instead on the Baltic Sea. This area of the war belonged to the Eastern Front, much less studied than the Western European and Asian theaters of the war. Yet the sinking acts as a sort of representative example of the tragically monstrous loss of human life in Eastern Europe caused by the war.
Plumbing the Depths – Prussian Memories
After the fall of the Iron Curtain some of the suppressed German angst over the fate of Prussia at the end of World War II could be released. This led to belated recognition of the Wilhelm Gustloff disaster. In 2008 a German TV movie “Die Gustloff” about the sinking was watched by eight and a half million Germans. The famous author Gunter Grass published the novel “Crabwalk” a fictionalized version of the sinking. The disaster managed to break into the German historical consciousness, but not a European or world one. Publicizing the story to foreigners was problematic due to German war guilt. The question continued to arise, how can the Germans be allowed to grieve? This was at odds with their role as the preeminent aggressor nation during the conflict. Another problem has been the sheer magnitude of the human tragedy on the Eastern Front. The scale of death, destruction and ethnic cleansing in the area was about as close to apocalypse as modern humanity has ever experienced.
On a warfront where millions upon millions of civilians and soldiers were killed, the fact that nine thousand more lives were taken in one short-lived incident – no matter how dramatic – got lost in the sheer enormity of the war between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. That being said, what occurred 19 miles north of Poland’s Baltic coast was an unprecedented human disaster, one that in the total number of deaths dwarfs not only the sinking of the Titanic, but any other shipwreck in history. The loss of life from the sinking of Wilhelm Gustloff was six times greater than that of the Titanic. This is a shocking and relatively unknown statistic, an attention getter that acts as an avenue to a story which has lost none of its power to fascinate and horrify even seventy years later.
The Uses of Martyrdom – Wilhelm Gustloff: The Man
Start with the ship’s name. Wilhelm Gustloff may bring to mind nothing in particular today, but in the late 1930’s the name was well known in Nazi Germany’s political circles. Wilhelm Gustloff was the creator of the Nazi Party’s branch in Switzerland. Then as now, the nation was a hub of wealth and finance, it could act as a critical source of fiscal resources. With a majority ethnic German populace, the Switzerland was targeted by the Nazis for ideological conversion. Gustloff was a key figure in helping boost the party’s prominence, but not its popularity. He led the publication and distribution of the infamous anti-Semitic tome, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. These efforts brought him recognition as well as a deadly enemy. David Frankfurter was an ethnic Jew from Croatia who was studying at a university in the Alpine nation. He loathed Gustloff’s zealous Anti-Semitism to the point of hatred. Frankfurter began to keep a close eye on Gustloff’s political activities and behavior. He decided to take matters into his own hands, countering extremism with a bit of extremist action himself.
In 1936, Frankfurter went to Gustloff’s home, gaining an audience with the Nazi leader. He waited in the study where he stood for a few minutes while facing a photo of Adolf Hitler. When Gustloff entered the room, Frankfurter pulled out a gun and shot him five times. For the murder, Frankfurter was sentenced to prison (in 1945 he would be pardoned). The assassination was quite a career move for Gustloff. The Nazis sanctified his legacy with martyrdom. At the funeral Hitler sat beside Gustloff’s wife. He promised that her husband would be memorialized. A new, German built state of the art passenger cruise liner would be named after him. Thus, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was given its name under deadly circumstances. It would not be the last tragic affiliation for the ship.
The ways in which Wilhelm Gustloff was used became a reflection of the rise and fall of the Third Reich. In the late 1930’s the ship offered cruises and holiday outings a perk for important or loyal public servants of the Nazi regime. It was big, it was impressive, it was successful. A floating monument for the Nazi’s Strength Through Joy program. Beginning with the outbreak of World War II this began to change. During the invasion of Poland it was converted into a hospital ship where wounded soldiers would convalesce. Its military usage continued with yet another transformation. The ship was turned into accommodations for U-boat personnel who were doing their training nearby. One constant in each of these iterations, was that the ship was at the beck and call of the Nazi German state, whether for pleasure or war. The Wilhelm Gustloff was available for whatever they needed it be.
Setting Sail for The Bottom
After sitting inert at dockside for four years as a sort of floating barracks, the ship was suddenly called back into action. The Russians were on the doorstep of the floundering Third Reich. The fear their presence engendered among ethnic Germans was pervasive. Reports of Red Army atrocities during the first incursion into East Prussia led to a refugee crisis. A massive evacuation known as Operation Hannibal was planned. The Wilhelm Gustloff was ready to sail the Baltic once again. Unknown to the thousands who crowded onto it, this was to be a last, fatal voyage into history.