March 2, 2008 / 3:27 PM / in 11 years

New film explores fate of Nazi Germany's "Titanic"

By Dave Graham

BERLIN, March 2 (Reuters) - A new television film about the sinking of a Nazi ship carrying thousands of German refugees at the end of World War Two has lifted the lid on one of Germany’s most painful memories.

The film, to be broadcast on Sunday and Monday, tells the story of the former Nazi cruise ship "Wilhelm Gustloff", torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea on Jan. 30, 1945. As many as 9,300 people died — believed to be biggest loss of life on a single ship.

Yet the tale of the Gustloff, which has frequently been referred to as Germany’s Titanic, remains relatively unknown outside the country due to the reluctance of postwar generations to examine publicly Germans’ suffering during the war.

"It’s been very hard to talk about this because it raises the difficult question of German victimhood in a war the Nazis began," said British historian Roger Moorhouse. "This enforced silence for years will have been painful to many people."

"But it’s really a testament to how the treatment of German history is returning to normal that the story is now being told as a big budget film on prime-time German television."

The multi-million euro production "Die Gustloff" was to be aired on ZDF state television.

The imposing 209 metre-long (685 feet) Gustloff, named after the assassinated head of the Swiss Nazi party, was launched in 1937 and conceived as a cruise liner for the Nazis’ leisure organisation Kraft durch Freude, or "strength through joy".

Once war broke out, it was used by the German military.

Hundreds of soldiers were on the ship when it set off on its final voyage from Gotenhafen (now Gdynia in Poland) for Kiel. However, the vast majority of its passengers were refugees, many of them women and children fleeing from the advancing Red Army.


The ship was designed to carry about 1,500 passengers, but historians now estimate over 10,000 people were on board when it sank on the 12th anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s seizure of power.

Directed by Joseph Vilsmaier, who made the anti-war film "Stalingrad", the three-hour movie is the first to dramatise the Gustloff’s fate since German reunification in 1990. In 1959, a black-and-white West German film about the sinking was shot.

Until Germany’s Nobel laureate Guenter Grass addressed it in his 2002 novel "Im Krebsgang" (Crabwalk) the history of the Gustloff — whose death toll compares with around 1,500 for the Titanic — was relatively obscure even inside Germany.

The film, which Chancellor Angela Merkel and the head of Germany’s Central Council of Jews saw in advance, purports to detail incidents from the sinking like a woman who gave birth on a rescue boat as death surrounded her in the icy waters.

"The screams were terrible," Ursula Kossmann, a 77-year-old who managed to clamber on board a rescue boat with her mother, told daily Die Welt. "Some officers shot their families."

Survivor Guenther von Maydell, who was 13 at the time, told the same paper he wasn’t afraid when the ship began to go down.

"I was just focused on escaping," he said. "I only realised later how lucky I’d been. I must have had a guardian angel."

(Reporting by Dave Graham, editing by Myra MacDonald)

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