Wilhelm Gustloff

The Soviet Union suffered far more than Germany did in World War II, and far, far more than the U.S. or even the U.K.

24 million Soviet citizens lost their lives, including 14 million civilians. They were invaded, bombed, starved, robbed, raped, enslaved, and executed en masse. To the Germans, they were subhumans, “üntermenschen”, and were treated thusly as only the Germans know how to do.

By contrast, the United States and Great Britain lost less than half a million people each, and, in the case of the U.S., almost no civilians.  Japan lost a total of about 3 million, and Germany lost about 8 million, including 2 million or so civilians. Full stats by country here.

The U.S. mainland was not occupied or bombed. There was no siege that starved out any city. No enemy invaded to rob and rape. Life at home was as close to “normal” for the women and children there as you could expect during wartime.

And, until the last months of the war, you could have said the same about the German home-front, too (except of course, for the Jews).

In the closing weeks of the war, when the Red Army was advancing on Germany from the east and the allies from the west, the German people began to feel some of the blow-back from what their country had done in the east for the previous five years. The Russians exacted revenge in the most brutal and, it must be said, sometimes barbaric ways imaginable (though the limits of the German imagination are still unknown).

Over two million German women were raped, many again and again. In 2008 a movie based on the diaries of journalist Marta Hillers  attempted to tell the story from the German point of view.

Stalin explicitly approved of all the rape and plunder, saying people should “understand it if a soldier who has crossed thousands of kilometres through blood and fire and death has fun with a woman or takes some trifle”, and “We lecture our soldiers too much; let them have their initiative.”

When everyone finally realized the war was lost, the primary objective of every German was to avoid being taken by the Red Army, and everyone tried as hard as they could to flee to the west where they knew they would get better treatment from the Americans and Brits.

In late January, 1945, “Operation Hannibal” was undertaken to evacuate German military and civilians from Courland, East Prussia. On January 31, some 10,582 passengers and crew crammed aboard the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. About 9000 were civilians, of which about 5000 were children. And some Gestapo, members of the Organisation Todt,  were on board as well.

III.Reich: KdF-Schiffe - Jungfernfahrt der Gustloff

Once under way, the ship was spotted by Soviet submarine S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko, who had sunk more German ships, measured by tonnage, than any other Soviet submarine commander. The sub followed the Wilhelm Gustloff for a couple of hours, and, when it was about 20 miles offshore, fired three torpedoes at it. Forty minutes later the ship was 140 feet deep in the icy waters of the Baltic Sea.

9,343 people lost their lives, including about 5,000 children. The death toll was six times that of the Titanic sinking, and was the largest single loss of life in maritime history.

According to Wikipedia,

Before sinking Wilhelm Gustloff, Alexander Marinesko was facing a court martial due to his problems with alcohol and was thus deemed “not suitable to be a hero” for his actions and was instead awarded the Order of the Red Banner. Although widely recognized as a brilliant commander, he was downgraded in rank to lieutenant and dishonorably discharged from the navy in October 1945. In 1960 he was reinstated as captain third class and granted a full pension. In 1963 Marinesko was given the traditional ceremony due to a captain upon his successful return from a mission. He died three weeks later from cancer. Marinesko was posthumously awarded Hero of the Soviet Union by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990.

Also from Wikipedia,

Günter Grass, in an interview published by The New York Times in April 2003, “One of the many reasons I wrote Crabwalk was to take the subject away from the extreme Right …They said the tragedy of Wilhelm Gustloff was a war crime. It wasn’t. It was terrible, but it was a result of war, a terrible result of war.

Maybe it was a war crime, maybe it wasn’t. Maybe the victims were better off than if they had been taken by the Red Army, maybe they weren’t. Maybe the Russians were justified in giving the Germans this taste of their own medicine, maybe they weren’t.

As is often said, history is written by the victors.


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