Tuesday 9 April 2013

Death In The Baltic by Cathryn J Prince

Although the majority of the books that I read are fiction, I do try to read a couple of non-fiction titles each month.  The subjects can vary, I enjoy biographies and travel books and over the past couple of years have started to read more historical non-fiction.

When I was approached by Palgrave Macmillan to read and review Death In The Baltic by Cathryn J Prince I was intrigued by the blurb and readily accepted.  I'm so pleased that I'd not seen the cover before then, in my opinion, it's the one thing that really lets this book down.
In all honesty, I found the cover very unappealing and I really doubt that I've have given it more than a passing glance if I spotted it on a shelf.

Dwarfing the record set by the Titanic, the worst maritime disaster in history resulted in the unreported deaths of more than 9000 German civilians in the twilight of World War II.
In the final days of World War II, German civilians were in a panic.  The Third Reich was in free fall and the Allied forces were closing in from all directions. With the Red Army quickly advancing from the east, Berlin planned an eleventh-hour exodus for upward of 10,000 women, children, and the elderly using a former cruise ship, the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Sent off into the icy waters of the Baltic Sea on January 30, 1945, they were soon found and fired upon by Soviet Navy submarines.  The ship sank that night, taking an estimated 9,400 victims to their deaths.
In Death in the Baltic, award-winning author Cathryn J Prince reconstructs this fateful day to shed light on one of the greatest tragedies of World War II.  She explores why, despite the immensity of this disaster, both East and West kept this story hidden for 65 years.  While the sinking of the Titanic and the Lusitania are well-known tragedies, the Wilhelm Gustloff has been nearly forgotten by history, and Prince examines how that silence continues to affect survivors today.
Drawing on interviews with those who escaped the Gustloff, as well as the letters and diaries of those who perished, this is an important and absorbing account that finally gives this World War II tragedy its rightful remembrance.

Everyone knows the story of the sinking of the Titanic, and most people would think of it as the greatest maritime disaster of all time.  The majority of  passengers were rich and famous, there have been countless books, films and TV programmes retelling the story of the Titanic.    Yet when the Wilhelm Gustloff sank in  1945 and around 9400 people lost their lives, nothing was made of it despite the fact that these too were civilians - ordinary people who were fleeing their homes before the Russians invaded and took it all away from them.  

This really is a shocking fact.  For many reasons the details of this awful disaster have been kept covered up by both the East and the West.  The Allied countries had suffered dreadfully during the War, it would be very hard for them to muster up any compassion about this tragedy.  The Germans wanted it kept under wraps, and the Soviets destroyed many of the remaining records.

Cathryn J Prince has done an amazing job in researching the facts about the Wilhelm Gustloff.  Her book is a mix of hard facts, taken from the records that did survive and also interviews with survivors and family members of those who died.

At times I felt a little bogged down by some of the more strategic facts, but they are essential to the whole story.  On the other hand, I was fascinated by the stories that were told by the survivors and the families of the victims.  Many of these people have never felt able to talk openly about their experiences before, some of them were made to feel ashamed, others were not believed.  These were ordinary citizens, victims of war, just like the victims in the Allied countries.  They too had lost their homes, had suffered under the Nazi regime and were continuing to suffer.  Germany had lost the war, the Red Army were advancing and the chance to escape on the Wilhelm Gustloff was their last and only chance.

Death on the Baltic does make for fascinating reading, at times it's just a little dry, but on the whole it is a well written, well researched book about a little known disaster.

Death on the Baltic : The World War II sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff  by Cathryn J Prince is published by Palgrave Macmillan on 9 April 2013.   Many thanks to Katy at Palgrave for sending an advanced copy for me to read and review.

For more information about the author, visit her website at www.cathrynjprince.com

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