The short but interesting life of a German ship

Ship of Fate by Roger Moorhouse tells the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship with an interesting history. This is only a short book but I found it very interesting because of what it told me about the social history of the mid-twentieth century.

The ship was built in 1937 in Germany and used by the Nazis as part of their large social programme that provided holidays for German workers. Those chosen went on cheap cruises in liners such as this and were also able to attend resorts across Germany. When the war came the programme stopped and it became a hospital ship and later a base for sailors training for service on U-boats. The book provides lots of interesting details about all these activities and also how the ship was sent to London in 1938 to collect votes from ex-pats regarding the annexation of Austria.

As the Germans began to lose the war and the Russians advanced from the East there was massive displacement of Germans. The Wilhelm Gustloff was used to transport German families, officials and military personnel away from the conflict zone. In desperation she was packed with refugees and, although full records were not kept, it is estimated that on her first, and last, voyage she carried over 12,000 people crammed into every space on the ship. When she was torpedoed by the Russian navy most of these people had no chance of survival in the icy Baltic Sea and over 10,000 people are estimated to have been lost – the largest loss of life in any maritime disaster.

This story is a deeply sad one and the author uses examples and diary entries to illustrate what happened to individualise and to try and make such a huge disaster more understandable. The book also illuminates bits of history that I hadn’t previously known anything about. A short but interesting read.

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