Book Review: Death in the Baltic by Cathryn J. Prince

[FULL DISCLOSURE: I received my copy of this book free from the author for purposes of reviewing it. I was not paid for this review and the opinion expressed is purely my own]

Wilhelm Gustloff Modell sx3 cropped

The Wilhelm Gustloff was a German built pleasure ship built by the Nazis to bolster their public image both at home and abroad in the late 1930’s.  It is remembered today because when it was sunk by a Soviet submarine in early 1945 as it was evacuating civilians and wounded military personnel from East Prussia to Kiel its sinking became the ship sinking with the highest loss of life in recorded history.  Nobody knows for sure but the smart money is that somewhere north of 8,500 people died when the Gustloff sank into the icy Baltic waters on January 30, 1945.  This is a story that should have been told a long time ago as it is an event that is virtually forgotten outside of the families who lost relatives and historians.  I would love to be able to say that Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn Prince is the book to tell that story but there are so many issues with the book itself that I have a hard time doing that.

The book is 200 pages of text separated into eleven chapters with an appendix, notes for each chapter, a bibliography, and index.  The chapters describe the war in the east, the drive for Germans to evacuate, the evacuation operation itself, the situation in the Baltic, and the sinking and rescue of the ship.  The writing is for the most part very clear, though there were parts where I was confused as to what point the author was trying to make or what information she was trying to impart.

First, let me say that it is obvious that quite a bit of effort and research went into writing this book.  That alone makes the glaring errors that appear regularly throughout the text so disheartening.  All is not bleak in my review however.  The book does an outstanding job of narrating the events surrounding the sinking and subsequent rescue attempts.  I also found the stories of what the survivors did post war to be extremely interesting and well written.

The errors, I generally tab books that I read for review at places where there are errors or misinformation as well as passages of particular note.  This book has plenty of the former and only one of the latter.  Many of the errors are simple errors of fact that even a cursory search of Wikipedia or Google would show to be wrong.  Some examples of this include:  1. pg. 17: The claim is made that a sailor received a payment in Deutsche Marks in January, 1945.  This could not be since in January, 194 the German currency was the ReichsMark and the Deutsche Mark was not introduced for circulation until 1948 and in the intervening Years occupation scrip and ReichsMarks had been used Post-War.  2. pg. 31: The claim is made that German girls joined the Hitler Youth at the age of ten.  They did not, German girls joined the Bund Deutscher Mädel, which was the female Nazi youth organization.  This is corrected later and then the terms are used interchangeably, which they are not. The Bund Deutscher Mädel and Hitler Youth were two separate organizations with separate training programs.  3. pg. 40: I was surprised to find out that the 6th Army that surrendered at Stalingrad only had 90,000 men.  It would be useful to make it clear that that is how many men surrendered but that the 6th Army had upwards of 500,000 men on it’s roster and only 90,000 men survived to go into captivity.  These are just a few of the examples of factual errors.

Chapter five discussing the tactical and operational situation in the Baltic Sea is thoroughly confusing in its entirety.  Mainly because one gets the impression that the author does not have a good grasp of geography.  She seems to use the terms Black Sea and Baltic Sea interchangeably or at least as though one were an extension of the other.  That is certainly not the case as the two seas are separated by over 1,500 km on land and to get from one to the other by sea you have to travel through the Mediterranean, Atlantic Ocean, and North Sea.

There are many other similar instances of confused facts or outright misinformation in the first six chapters of the book.  I found myself jarred every time I ran across one.  Some are obvious editing errors such as misspelling Führer to errors that showed a lack of basic knowledge of the time.  Not every reader will catch many of these mistakes, but that does not excuse them.  I found myself wondering as I read it if any historian had proofread the book prior to publication?  Almost all mistakes are amenable to simple fixes that can be fixed in subsequent editions.

This could be an outstanding book about a little known, obscure, but important topic. The author is absolutely correct that the suffering of ethnic Germans in East Europe has largely been ignored post-war. She is also correct that it is time these stories were told and told in such a way that it is clear that not every German was a Nazi but that all Germans ended up being painted with the Nazi brush.

Because of the nature and importance of the story told and topic covered I will reluctantly recommend this book.  There are almost literally no other English languages sources for stories of the dislocation of ethnic Germans at the end of WWII. Readers should just keep in mind that the best and most important part of the narrative is that part surrounding the actual events just before, during, and after the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was torpedoed. The author has showcased her research and storytelling ability in these compelling chapters. I only wish that the same attention to detail had gone into the rest of the book.

  • Bill Niven

    I was interested to read this review, but I don’t think it’s fair to criticise Prince for an error which isn’t one. The League of German Maidens was part of the Hitler Youth, from the moment it was founded in 1930, not a separate organisation. Anyway, as the editor of a German book on the Gustloff – I decided not to write one in English, as I thought noone would be interested, a misconception I am glad Prince’s success has disabused me of! – I am very glad this story is now better known in Britain and the States. It needs to be, given that most people still seem to think the Titanic the greatest sea disaster in world history. I would stress that, in Germany, for long it was uncertain whether the sinking of the ‘Gustloff’ really had cost as many lives as the sinking of other German refugee ships, such as the ‘Goya’. That said, the story was well known in West Germany, less so in the East, where there was a greater focus on the sinking of the ‘Cap Arcona’ by the British. That, by the way, is another story that needs to be told. I have a student researching it. It is just a pity key files relating to the role of the RAF seem to have disappeared.

    • http://www.thepointyend.us/ Patrick Shrier

      While technically you are correct that the Bund Deutscher Mädel (BDM) was the girls adjunct of the Hitler Youth (HY), would it not have been reasonable to expect the author to explain that the BDM and HY were two different parts of the same overarching organization, especially given that this book is intended for a mass audience? I don’t know too many non-historians that know the distinction and it is an important one. My biggest issue is she uses BDM and HY interchangeably without explaining any linkage which makes the text confusing.

  • Lucy Allen

    I recently read this book and wanted very much to like it, but I must agree it was full of factual errors. This is unfortunate since many Americans have no background on the history of East Prussia and will take what Cathryn Prince wrote as fact. It was also neither fish nor foul; it was history written by a journalist and journalism clouded in too much history. To try to cover everything Prince did in 201 pages was overly ambitious. I agree with Mr. Shrier that many of the errors could be corrected in a future edition; I hope they will be. Especially lacking was a good map showing the important locations mentioned in the book. Her stock maps did not even show the port of Gotenhafen/Gdynia, to which the refugees trudged for many miles and from which the “Wilhelm Gustloff” sailed. Even if errors are corrected (oh, please fix that one about the sinking of the SS “Athenia”), unless the structure is also revised this will never be a truly great book. I found no drama in reading the accounts of the survivors. I got much more feeling from reading previous accounts–and yes, there were some, even though the world seems married to the idea that this is the only resource available to Americans. Is it only coincidence that the author failed to mention these resources in her copious footnotes and bibliography?

    • http://www.thepointyend.us/ Patrick Shrier

      First, Thanks for reading the review and taking the time to comment.

      Second, I agree with you that it is a crying shame this book is not as good as it could be. I hope the errors in the book are fixed in any future editions. Because it is new it is more likely to be read than older works, which actually makes the importance of fixing the errors that much greater.

    • Lucy Allen

      I had only reviewed one other book in my life, but when I finished DEATH IN THE BALTIC I sent a 3-star review to Amazon.com. A number of things about the book really bothered me. I haven’t read any of Prince’s other books, but from reading the reviews they weren’t terribly well rated. For some reason, this new book has taken America by storm. As one British reviewer put it, the opportunity to write the definitive book on this subject still exists.

    • Lucy Allen

      The subject certainly deserves better treatment. As one British reviewer wrote, writing the definitive story of the WILHELM GUSTLOFF is still an opportunity for someone. I had only written one book review before, but after reading DEATH IN THE BALTIC I submitted a 3-star review to Amazon.com.

    • http://www.thepointyend.us/ Patrick Shrier

      I would guess that given the remove in time and dearth of reliable sources about what actually happened the definitive story of the Gustloff will never be written.

  • Jill Swenson

    Frightening to read such an arrogant attack, when this review is filled with typos, poorly written and lacks style.

    • http://www.military-history.us/ Patrick Shrier

      Unlike the author, I do not have paid editorial staff. I write my own material while simultaneously having a family and a job. I did not attack the work, I pointed out some factual errors while saying it is a book and a story worth being told. Thanks anyway for the constructive comment.