If you asked someone what the worst maritime disaster in history was (in terms of loss-of-life) most people would, understandably, resort to the most well-known: the Titanic. At least 1500 people lost their lives in this terrible event in 1912, but it’s certainly not the worst. This dubious distinction goes to the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by a soviet submarine in January 1945; according to one estimate, 9600 people died out of 10 600 on board; with around 5000 of these being children. It is difficult to know for sure because there were many more people allowed on board who were not on the passenger list.
I only came across this incident due to a personal connection. My German fiancée’s mother was born in a Königsberg air-raid shelter (during an air raid) in 1945; so I became interested in the history of East Prussia. At this time, the Red Army was approaching the city, and news of atrocities against civilians had become widespread. People were looking for a safe way to flee west to relative safety. In mid-January 1945, a general evacuation of the region called Operation Hannibal began. It was like the Dunkirk mission in 1939, but on a much larger scale and longer timeline.
What you need to know about the Wilhelm Gustloff
The Wilhelm Gustloff had started life before the war as a Kraft durch Freude cruise ship and had been named after a Swiss Nazi party leader who had been assassinated by a Jewish student in 1936.
It was even used as a ‘polling station’ for Germans and Austrians living in England to vote on the Anschluss (the merging of Germany with Austria), they were ferried out from Tilbury to the ship, which remained in international waters, and were treated to a real festival of top-class food, beer, and live entertainment on a ship festooned with pro-Anschluss material. Of the 1968 votes cast on the ship, only ten were votes against.
However, since the start of the war, it had been used as a hospital ship and a military transport ship … uncomfortably alternating between being a legitimate target and not being one (for what that means in the age of Total War…)
The family story goes that my fiancée’s grandmother wanted to leave on the Wilhelm Gustloff, and had arranged passage, but (fortunately for them) her daughter took so long packing her things that they were too late. They ended up staying in the city after the end of the war until they were forced to leave by the Soviet ethnic cleansing policy. They ended up in Kiel, the very port that the Wilhelm Gustloff had been bound for.
Naturally, how this event is talked about remains controversial. It certainly was a civilian ship in most ways; although an anti-aircraft gun had been placed on her. The ship was carrying mostly civilians; although it was also carrying military personnel, not all of whom were injured, so it was, in some way, ‘contributing to the war effort’.
The strange combination of civilian and military duties also led to a series of conflicts of interest and tactical arguments among the leadership group of the ship during its final ill-fated voyage, causing it to become far more vulnerable to attack than it perhaps should have been.
Language is the key
While some of these kinds of stories are available in English, learning German is really opening up a fascinating window onto a whole new area of history; not to mention being able to talk to German speakers about their own personal stories, something smarterGerman has really helped me with.
I’m certainly looking forward to seeing Kiel now, and then hopefully taking a ship up the Ostsee to what-is-now-Kaliningrad (Königsberg was renamed by the Soviets). There’s always another fascinating story around the corner. Oh … and do you want to know more about learning German using a story? Check out our Everyday German B1 course!
Written by Jeremy Davis