‘Lusitania’: The Cultural History of a Catastrophe 
by Willi Jasper, translated by Stewart Spencer.
Yale, 233 pp., £18.99, September 2016, 978 0 300 22138 1
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At​ 9 a.m. on 7 May 1915, the commander of U-Boat-20, Lieutenant Walther Schwieger, troubled by low fuel and heavy fog, decided to end his marauding in the Irish Sea and return to Wilhelmshaven. Shortly after one o’clock, he took a last look around through his periscope. The fog had lifted and in his sights was ‘a big passenger steamer’. Without hesitation, he fired a single bow-shot; an initial great explosion was followed shortly by another. The steamer listed heavily to starboard, preventing most lifeboats on the port side from being lowered. Just 18 minutes after the torpedo had hit, the ship began to sink and Schwieger, as he noted later in his logbook, was able to make out ‘the name “Lusitania” in gold letters on the bow’. His action caused the deaths of 1197 people, about 61 per cent of those on board; 788 were passengers; 35 of the 39 infants aboard died.

Schwieger’s unexpected success electrified the world, despite the fact that the European war had already been raging for nine months. Shock and horror swept through Allied and neutral nations alike. In New York City, the composer Charles Ives observed that passengers waiting for the ‘El’ train spontaneously began to sing the Gospel song ‘In the Sweet By and By’, whose refrain promised that the drowned would one day be saved:

In the sweet by and by
We shall meet on that beautiful shore
… And our spirits shall sorrow no more.

In Denmark, cowed into subservient neutrality since August 1914, the Illustreret Tidende dared to write that ‘the disaster was caused by a deliberate act of will on the part of a warmongering nation.’ The Norwegian Morgenbladet was sharper: ‘The Germans have meant to terrify. They have terrified their friends, and terror breeds hate.’ The United States government reacted more powerfully still, issuing the first of a series of diplomatic protests that amounted in each case to an ultimatum. Germany would have to follow international law as it was usually understood and not sink passenger or merchant ships without first rescuing everyone on board (so-called ‘cruiser rules’), and subsequently paying reparations. Otherwise the US would hold Germany ‘to a strict accountability’, which might mean war. For two years, German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann Hollweg, fearing U.S. entry would ensure Germany’s defeat, used its ultimata to force the navy to modify and then to end unrestricted submarine warfare. When Bethmann finally lost his battle in February 1917 and Germany resumed sinking all the ships in its declared war zone around the British Isles, the United States finally, reluctantly joined the war on the Allied side, as it had warned it would.

Willi Jasper, the author of this absorbing book, argues that ‘the sinking of the Lusitania was the “seminal catastrophe” of both world wars, marking, as it did, the beginning of a process whereby totalitarian violence lost all of its inhibitions and raged completely out of control’, targeting civilians as well as soldiers and sailors. The claim is somewhat exaggerated. Extreme methods that accepted high casualty rates among civilians and even targeted them for purposes of terror and control (or simply out of frustration) had been characteristic of Imperial Germany especially, but also of Austria-Hungary and Russia, since the first day of the war. The sinking of the Lusitania had been preceded by ‘the Belgian atrocities’, the burning of Louvain, the shelling of Reims cathedral, and other acts immortalised in the Allies’ ‘Calendar of German Crimes’. During the interwar years, appeasement, distrust of government, and a clever, surreptitious campaign by the German Foreign Office put these acts in doubt, reducing them to ‘propaganda’ and erasing them from public memory. Part of Jasper’s goal is to remind us what happened, using the Lusitania as a vehicle.

Jasper is surely right to say that the Lusitania sinking epitomised the Imperial German conduct of war. Schwieger probably wasn’t ordered to destroy the Lusitania specifically, though his slightly falsified logbook and the absence of any notation concerning oral or wireless orders will doubtless continue to encourage conspiracy theorists. But the logbook does tell us that on the same voyage neutral ships were targeted as well as other large enemy passenger ships. That was the purpose of unrestricted submarine warfare: to sink everything, including neutral merchantmen and passenger ships, in order to scare shipping out of the waters around Britain. Terror was intended to compensate for the lack of U-boats or other warships sufficient to uphold a real blockade.

There have been many, many books on the fate of the Lusitania. In fact, published accounts of the disaster outstripped even the voluminous literature on the Titanic until about 1975 when the earlier tragedy began to eclipse the later one. What sets this book apart is its focus on the reaction to the sinking inside Germany. Jasper is a retired professor of German literature. He reads the Wilhelminians very well and is at home with their ‘bewildering mixture’ of peaceable assurances and ‘simultaneous sabre-rattling’. He catches them out as their language begins to slip, becoming more ‘euphemistic and cynical’. Rather than simply recounting the jubilation of most contemporary German newspapers, he focuses on responses among writers and critics, the educated bourgeoisie whose counterparts in other countries were horrified by the loss of innocent life. Jasper’s treatment isn’t comprehensive; there are many influential people missing from his roster. And he doesn’t examine people close to politics (except for Karl Liebknecht and Bethmann’s private secretary, Kurt Riezler) with the result that the protracted semi-public debate about how to juggle the Americans’ demands and those of intransigent military leaders is absent. Jasper concentrates instead on the emotional response of his subjects, on their capacity, or incapacity, for empathy. By doing so, he reveals a more differentiated picture than the univocal cheering that went on in the press, or the goal-directed rationality of the politicos.

Some of those he cites had their minds changed by the Lusitania. Most surprising is the case of Erich Mühsam – poet and anarchist – whom one would have imagined immune to super patriotism. He admitted he found himself ‘moved by the general sense of intoxication’ in the heady August days of 1914: 7 May 1915 changed all that. Jasper chronicles Mühsam’s agonised diary entries as he returned to the pacifism that better suited his prewar politics. Mühsam’s revulsion at his country’s methods was so great that he broke off relations with former friends (like Thomas Mann) and even his current lover, who championed the sinking. Others were moved to fisticuffs. The social-critical novelist Leonhard Frank overheard a socialist journalist proclaim in a posh Berlin café that the destruction of the Lusitania was ‘the greatest act of heroism in the whole of human history’. Frank marched over and slapped him in the face. In Vienna, Karl Kraus, who had always opposed the war, reacted less dramatically but with longer-term effect. He devoted the summer to a special edition of his journal, Die Fackel, called ‘The End of the World in Black Magic’, and began to vivisect the war and its useful idiots (using their own words) in his encyclopedic and devastating play The Last Days of Mankind.

It is telling that most of the critics Jasper cites ended up fleeing to neutral Switzerland (or being forced to publish there). There was little room for empathy or fine distinctions in the wartime Kaiserreich. Thomas Mann expressed the more usual response, cheering ‘the destruction of that impudent symbol of English mastery of the sea and of a still comfortable civilisation, the sinking of the gigantic pleasure ship’. He disdained ‘the world-resounding hullabaloo [raised by] humanitarian hypocrisy’. He publicly feuded with his brother, Heinrich, the most astute contemporary critic of Imperial Germany. As late as 1922, Thomas reprinted his 1915 vociferations as if they were as fresh and acute as they had been when he still thought Germany might win the war. For Thomas Mann and most of his university-educated colleagues, the war was a Kulturkampf. ‘I do not want politics. I want objectivity, order and decency,’ he wrote in 1915. And he saw the ‘much decried “authoritarian state”’ as the proper government for Germans. The war was an apocalyptic struggle between ‘intellect and politics’, ‘[German] culture and [Anglo-Saxon and French] civilisation’, ‘soul and society’, ‘freedom and [mere] voting rights’, ‘art and literature’, with German traditions and culture epitomising, indeed preserving for all of Europe, the first terms in each couplet. The theologian Ernst Troeltsch (who changed his mind in 1917), described the dichotomy as between ‘irrational and individualistic democracy’ on one side, and Germany’s ‘monarchical’ and ‘military character’ on the other. The war epitomised the ‘naturalness of the metaphysical belief in the divine and universal mission of Deutschtum’. English-speaking contemporaries were quite familiar with such utterances. They appeared regularly in British propaganda and were collected in a book published in 1917, Out of Their Own Mouths. But most people, and unfortunately even many historians, have since forgotten them. Jasper’s excavation is a public service.

Although he isn’t a trained historian, Jasper’s historiographical judgment is excellent. He follows the best-researched and most judicious secondary works on the Lusitania sinking – no small feat given the cascade of books and fanciful nonsense printed on the subject. Jasper accurately scuttles the most persistent rumours: that the great ship was armed, that it carried high explosives, was ferrying Canadian troops, or was set up by the British Admiralty to lure the United States into the war. The first three of these inaccuracies were launched by the German government as it defended itself from the onslaught of negative world opinion. Unfortunately, fake news, then as now, has a remarkable half-life. Someone can always make money or a reputation by ‘reinvestigating’ ‘facts’ long since disproved.

This​ disinformation campaign bears remarkable similarity to the much larger and much more successful ‘innocence campaign’ spearheaded by the German Foreign Office to disprove the Allied contention that Imperial Germany started the war (the so-called ‘war guilt lie’). That effort targeted non-German historians, aiding them with sponsored conferences and collections of vetted documents, in the hope that they would adopt the view that structural forces – alliance problems, imperialism – caused the war, rather than decisions made primarily in Berlin and Vienna. Revisionism, the heading under which these arguments fall, triumphed in the interwar years and has proved long-lived even after the Second World War should have made consumers of history books much less credulous. Readers will have noticed how prominent among the books marking the centenary of the Great War are those hewing to the old innocence line. Christopher Clark’s The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 is probably the most well-known.

Jasper argues strongly against the revisionist trend: ‘All that we can say for certain is that no one sleepwalked his or her way into this nightmare.’ At the same time he notes that ‘the Lusitania tragedy has played no part in revisionist thinking, its symbolic significance and importance in terms of cultural politics having been comprehensively ignored.’ More significant in his view are the cultural politics that prevailed in Imperial Germany: the dichotomous view of a Europe divided between petty, individualistic Western democracy and German metaphysical depth and superior military organisation, qualities that ought to have guaranteed it victory and hegemony over Europe. The idea that modern Germany was fundamentally different from Western Europe with a ‘special path’ – literally, the Sonderweg – has a long and twisted history. Originally a conservative concept that prized difference as German superiority, the Sonderweg was adopted by progressive historians in the 1960s to describe political deficiencies resulting from late and uneven socio-economic development. In the 1980s that Weberian view was criticised as at least partly an artefact produced by using Britain’s own unique development as a standard of comparison. But Jasper does not use the term Sonderweg to refer to socio-economics or to any other theory about the reason Imperial Germany’s politics developed as they did. He focuses exclusively on the content of its political culture. He means by that the widespread basic assumptions about politics, law, war and peace, right and wrong that permeated not just the aristocracy or the officer corps, but, more important, the educated middle class of journalists, professors, writers, artists, educators and other cultural leaders whose views (and disagreements) he charts using the Lusitania as a lens. This Sonderweg did indeed exist. Denying it makes it impossible to understand the First World War, or the Second. Jasper wrote his book for a German audience. He worries that, in the words of the German historian Heinrich August Winkler, the ‘revisionist view of the outbreak of the war encourages the tendency to adopt a nationally apologetic and, hence, uncritical understanding of German history’. Stewart Spencer’s excellent translation allows Anglophone readers to be privy to a German discussion made necessary partly by historiographical trends currently popular in the English-speaking world.

The First World War and Germany’s role in it is far too complex in its origins and long-term consequences to be adequately handled in a single book, or even a bookcase of them. The international-legal issues raised by submarine warfare alone are too technical, too byzantine, to be easily grasped even by specialists. But this book is a graceful attempt to use that tragedy to examine a much larger issue. Readers unfamiliar with the case will be rewarded by a detailed description of the U-boat commanders and their lot, of the Lusitania passengers as they embarked and as they reacted in the 18 minutes before the ship sank, and a nicely dramatic telling of the day itself, seen alternately from the point of view of Lieutenant Schwieger and Captain William Thomas Turner. Above all, they will get a taste of what contemporaries on both sides ‘knew’. For it was their knowledge of facts (which we have forgotten) and the commonsense assumptions they shared nationally and even internationally that caused their spontaneous reactions to the loss of the ship, their jubilation or their intense sorrow and anger.

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