On the night of 30 January 1945, the former cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk off the Pomeranian coast after being hit by three torpedoes fired from a Soviet Navy submarine. The ship was carrying German refugees fleeing west before the advancing Red Army. As many as nine thousand people lost their lives (six times the death toll of the Titanic), including four thousand children and infants.
The victims of the Wilhelm Gustloff were among roughly 33,000 Germans who died at sea attempting similar journeys. Far more made the westward trek overland in 1944-45, from East Prussia, Pomerania and Silesia: perhaps five million by the time of the Potsdam Conference in July 1945. This desperate mass flight, fuelled by justified fears of rape and other forms of violence, was to be followed over the next three years by the forcible expulsion of a further seven million Germans from Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and other liberated countries. Taken together, the mass flight and expulsions amounted to the single largest known migration over a short period of time. The overall loss of life was huge. Deaths from hunger, disease, murder and suicide ran into the hundreds of thousands - the suicides of whole families on board the sinking Wilhelm Gustloff foreshadowed what would happen thousands of times over in the years ahead.
LRB 27 June 2002 | PDF Download