Thursday, August 29, 2013

Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn Prince

Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff
by Cathryn Prince

What a mess of a book. Okay where to begin? The jacket copy trumpets eyewitness sources but they're not really long enough to fill out this short book. In many places this thing reads like a stretched magazine article. The length is padded with superficial  background material. Instead of providing context and often just got in the way.

The book is about the sinking of the  Wilhelm Gustloff Prince points out repeatedly that the loss of life was worse than the Titanic. Yes it's the largest ever maritime disaster. Curiously the actual sinking takes just one short chapter. We hear more about the individuals lives during World War II than anything else. There's also repeated statements that the history has been buried or somehow suppressed. No to my knowledge there have been at least two English-language books on the sinking although admittedly not in the last 30 years. Also the idea that the government would suppress discussion of it after the war seems strange.

The terrifying thing is that the book has some hilariously bad errors. That 5 seconds on Google should have obliterated from the text. This says something both about Prince and Palgrave Macmillan who really don't care at this point. For instance Regina is in Saskatchewan not Ontario. Contradictions between the eyewitness accounts aren't dealt with. Either pointed out or balanced. For instance just how many torpedoes hit the ship? At one point it says there were 69 people in a lifeboat but some of them fell off before they could be rescued. However several pages later it says that 70 people were rescued from the same lifeboat. So which is it? I understand this is a chaotic event that's being remembered 70 years on but at least try to deal with the contradiction. Part of the historians job is to come to a determination on these things.

The book concludes with a very abbreviated discussion of whether or not the sinking was justified. Considering that this was still during wartime where the ship was carrying at least some military personnel as well as sailing under blackout conditions. I am left completely baffled as to what exactly the Soviet submarine captain was supposed to do instead.

Not recommended avoid.

This was received through LibraryThing's early review program. Just think how much I would've hated it if I had to pay for it.

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