Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathyrn J. Prince

I came across Death in the Baltic while browsing at a local used bookstore. The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German passenger ship torpedoed by a Russian submarine on January 30, 1945. I had never heard of the Wilhelm Gustloff and was shocked to read on the back cover that over 9,000 civilians died in its sinking, 5,000 of which were children.

Until finding this book, I thought the sinking of the Titanic or the Lusitania were the worst maritime disasters. 1,500 people died in the sinking of the Titanic. The sinking of the Lusitania claimed 1,195 lives. All horrific, but why isn’t the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff common knowledge?

From the publisher: The worst maritime disaster ever occurred during World War II, when more than 9,000 German civilians drowned. It went unreported.

January 1945: The outcome of World War II has been determined. The Third Reich is in free fall as the Russians close in from the east. Berlin plans an eleventh-hour exodus for the German civilians trapped in the Red Army’s way. More than 10,000 women, children, sick, and elderly pack aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a former cruise ship. Soon after the ship leaves port and the passengers sigh in relief, three Soviet torpedoes strike it, inflicting catastrophic damage and throwing passengers into the frozen waters of the Baltic.

More than 9,400 perished in the night—six times the number lost on the Titanic. Yet as the Cold War started no one wanted to acknowledge the sinking. Drawing on interviews with survivors, as well as the letters and diaries of those who perished, award-wining author Cathryn Prince reconstructs this forgotten moment in history. She weaves these personal narratives into a broader story, finally giving this WWII tragedy its rightful remembrance.

Prince explores the reasons why the sinking of this ship is largely forgotten. It was an act of war during the world’s largest war, for starters. And among other issues was the absolute chaos at the end of the war, the focus needed on settling the terms of peace, and the quick transition into the Cold War.

This book gripped me. Prince’s storytelling isn’t as polished as popular history writers like Erik Larson or Nathaniel Philbrick, but it is a solid story and one that deserves a wider audience for what it shows about the cost of war. Prince covers the history of the ship, the desperation of German citizens to get away from the advancing Red Army, the efforts of the Nazi government to evacuate its citizens, and the focus of a Russian submarine captain doing his job. Prince interviews survivors of the sinking and weaves their personal stories into the larger history.

Readers interested in WWII, naval warfare, maritime history, German or Soviet history will want to check out this book. It won the 2013 Military Writers Society of America Founders Award.

Title: Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff
Author: Cathryn J. Prince
Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013
Source: Bought it

Additional resources: the Wikipedia page on the Wilhelm Gustloff lists books and documentaries.

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