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Sinking of the Lusitania

Elizabeth GrenierFebruary 23, 2015

When the Titanic sank, Germans mourned. Shortly after, as 1,200 civilians died during the sinking of the Lusitania, they cheered. Author Willi Jasper tells DW how intellectuals encouraged such shocking views.

Irish poster depicting the sinking of the Lusitania. Copyright: Mauritius images
Image: mauritius images

In May 1915, a German U-boat torpedoed the Lusitania, a large British passenger ship. It sank within just a few minutes, causing the death of almost 1,200 people, among which many prominent figures of American society, as well as women and children.

By firing on a civil ship without warning, the Germans not only breached international laws, they created a precedent which shocked the world, just like the September 11 attacks would years later. These events would influence the United States to join the war in 1917.

Building on the American historian George F. Kennan, who describes World War I as "the great seminal catastrophe of this century," professor Willi Jasper, author of the book "Der Untergang der Lusitania. Kulturgeschichte einer Katastrophe" (The Sinking of the Lusitania, Cultural History of a Catastrophe), sees the sinking of the Lusitania as the seminal event leading to the totalitarian violence of World War II.

His book is the first to analyze how the German cultural elite positioned itself in the propaganda war following these events.

Willi Jasper
Willi Jasper's book focuses on the cultural history of the sinking of the LusitaniaImage: be.bra verlag

DW: How did the Germans react when the Titanic sank in 1912 as opposed to the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915?

Willi Jasper: Germans were deeply moved when the Titanic sank, they were even mourning. Articles demonstrating this were published in the newspapers at the time. The Titanic was a symbol of technological progress and it happened in a time of peace, so the Germans were saddened by the story of this ship defeated by the forces of nature.

With the Lusitania, which sank during the second year of war, they cheered. All of a sudden the German Navy demonstrated it could outdo the British navy by sinking a large luxury ship - this was seen as a success. The press coverage was bloodcurdling. And actually this attitude wasn't just in the press. The cultural elite joined in too - only a few exceptions held a different discourse, such as Erich Mühsam and Kurt Tucholsky. Thomas Mann, who would later win a Nobel Prize, was notably among the major writers praising the attack.

How did the sinking of the Lusitania change the course of World War I? How did it matter symbolically?

By torpedoing this huge civil ship, Germany demonstrated that it no longer made a distinction between soldiers and civilians. Many prominent personalities as well as women and children were among the casualties. It therefore shocked the Allied countries' population even more than the massive executions of civilians in France and Belgium for example. A storm of indignation was unleashed by this attack involving so many defenseless people. It escalated violence and blew up this conflict between German culture and Western civilization.

How did Germany's image change in the eyes of England, France and the United States after it attacked the Lusitania?

Germany's image was already darkened after its invasion of Belgium, a neutral country, where it had openly committed many atrocities among the civilian population. The mood was already charged, so when Germany attacked the Lusitania, strong comparisons were drawn. For the Americans and the English, the term "Kultur" no longer belonged to European civilization. There were posters and cartoons which portrayed the German Kaiser as a bloodhound for example. The assumption was that Germans had chosen a special path which didn't fit in with Western civilization.

Poster showing the German as a "Kultur" brute. Copyright: Verlagsarchiv
Propaganda poster showing Germany as cultural bruteImage: Verlagsarchiv

How did German artists and intellectuals react to these accusations?

They tried to defend their culture. They wished to demonstrate that German culture had a special status. This reaction was reflected in the propaganda war of the time. Their position was quite weak, they could not really defend it, but they nevertheless believed in their country's exceptional cultural mission and held on to it. This escalated until World War II, where everything reached dramatic proportions.

Could you explain how the conflict between the brothers Thomas und Heinrich Mann offers a good representation of the clash between German culture and Western civilization?

This conflict between Thomas and Heinrich Mann was not just a family story. Thomas Mann represented the view of Germany's exceptionalism through German culture, whereas Heinrich Mann rather stood for the Western Enlightenment perspective. Heinrich Mann could be positioned in the French camp, so his brother tried to discredit him as a "civilization literary figure." The point of view adopted by Thomas Mann, as well as Gerhart Hauptmann and Ernst Troeltsch, can be summarized as "the West can only be saved by German culture." You can read this in Thomas Mann's long essay "Betrachtungen eines Unpolitischen" (Reflections of a Non-Political Man), or earlier with "Gedanken im Kriege" (Thoughts on Wartime), in which he had already formulated those ideas before the sinking of the Lusitania. He further developed these thoughts in his long essay, where he tried to justify the attack. It was a treatise against the peace movement.

You often mention this clash between "German culture" and "Western civilization." What defined these two perspectives?

"German culture" was a construct that assumed that the Germans, because of their philosophers, had an exceptional status in Europe and that the Western countries did not have any cultural depth. There was a pamphlet by Werner Sombart called "Helden und Händler" (Heroes and Dealers) which tried to demonstrate this difference. The "heroes" were the great thinkers of German culture and the "dealers" were the profit-driven Anglo-Saxons, which were quickly seen as connected to the Jews. This attack against Western civilization was already intertwined with anti-Semitism.

Do you believe this former understanding of "German culture" is still observable in some form today or has it completely changed?

Nowadays the situation is obviously very different than it used to be during the First and Second World Wars. In Europe, enemies are now friends. Yet, we still need to deal with uncovered aspects of this part of history. We can only hope that the idea of a German exceptionalism, and not just a military one, never gets another opportunity to try to take over. It is currently essential for Germany to avoid the path of exceptionalism, where it would try to force a German perspective on Europe; it should rather prioritize the Europeanization of Germany. This process is not completed yet. In this case, I believe that the German cultural elite, who took such an inappropriate stand in the past, now has the chance to demonstrate a wiser political continuity.