Appellate Judge Dave Ryan prefers to sink your battleship.
It's the worst loss of life at sea that no one ever considers.
It is little more than a footnote in the history of World War II. Late in the war, three German ships were torpedoed by Russian submarines off the coast of Poland, in the Baltic Sea. The ships—the Wilhelm Gustloff, the General von Steuben, and the Goya—were evacuating civilians, wounded soldiers, and some military personnel from traditionally German Danzig and Gotenhaven (today, Gdasnk and Gdyina), in advance of their imminent capture by the advancing Red Army. (The two cities were part of the "Polish Corridor, "an area of the Baltic coast that had traditionally been part of Germany. As such, many of the area's residents were not of Polish/Slavic descent, but were ethnic Germans.) The massive sealift, dubbed "Operation Hannibal," was planned and organized by Admiral Karl Dönitz, the famous commander of Germany's U-boat fleet.
The Gustloff, a passenger liner, had at least 7900 civilian refugees on board, plus crew and about 1500 wounded soldiers. However, many of the refugees were not officially registered; historians estimate that there probably were close to 10,000 people on the ship. The vast majority of the refugees were women and children. The Gustloff was spotted by the Soviet submarine S-13, commanded by Alexander Marinesko, on January 30, 1945, which hit it with three torpedoes. The ship quickly sank in the near-freezing water. Roughly 1200 people were rescued from the sinking. The confirmed loss of life—5,348, many of whom were, as noted, women and children—makes the Gustloff's sinking the greatest marine loss of life in history. (Compare this total with the Titanic and Lusitania casualty totals: 1,503 and 1,198 respectively.) In reality, the casualty total was probably closer to 8,500.
The Steuben, which departed from Pillau (east of Danzig and Gotenhaven) ten days after the Gustloff, was a passenger liner that had been converted into an armed transport. By 1945, it was being used as a hospital ship, transporting wounded soldiers back to Germany. It, too, was taking on refugees as part of Operation Hannibal. When it left Pillau, it carried an estimated 5,200 people—mostly wounded soldiers, but including approximately 1,000 refugee women and children. It, too, was spotted by Marinesko in the S-13. Two torpedoes sent it to the bottom of the Baltic. Only 659 people survived.
By April of 1945, the Soviets have captured Gotenhaven, have surrounded Danzig, and have functionally defeated Germany. However, Operation Hannibal was still ferrying civilians back to the all-but-defeated Reich. The Goya, a fast freighter, was one of the last ships to make it out of the area. It, too, was ferrying a mix of civilians and soldiers. There is no record of how many refugees desperately packed themselves onto the ship. Reasonable estimates run between 6000-7000. Only 183 survived.
Ghosts of the Baltic Sea, which originally aired on the National Geographic Channel, recounts the stories of these ships through the stories of four survivors—two from the Gustloff, and one each from the Steuben and Goya. Along for the ride is Dr. Robert Ballard (Ghosts of the Abyss), the finder of the Titanic, who assists Polish researchers in finding, identifying, and photographing the wrecks of the three ships. The survivors, elderly German men and women, are highly sympathetic; the documentary tells their story without judgment. But there's the rub.
I certainly have all the sympathy in the world for these four people, who seem friendly and kind, and I can't begin to imagine the horror of their experiences. But this sort of situation cries out for some sort of judgment. This wasn't a random act of terror against civilians in the vein of 9/11. There was a war going on. The German army certainly hadn't been particularly kind to Russian civilians—was turn-about fair play in this case? All of these three ships had some sort of military or Nazi Party connection, too, arguably making them more than legitimate military targets. The Gustloff, for example, was initially built as a propaganda tool. It was named after the former leader of the Swiss Nazi Party, assassinated by a Jewish university student and made into a martyr by Hitler. It was used as a vacation ship for the "common people" of the Nazi Party before the war, and as a dormitory for submarine trainees at the Gotenhaven base during the war. (Gotenhaven was one of the primary German U-boat bases, and had a large German naval presence.) In fact, the Gustloff was originally supposed to evacuate only Nazi party and military personnel. Or consider the Steuben, which was supposed to be a hospital ship. If it truly were a medical transport ship, it could, pursuant to the generally accepted rules of war, have borne the markings of the Red Cross, designating it as an invalid military target. Apparently it did not—nor should it have, since it was also transporting active military personnel.
I'm not in favor of innocent deaths, nor am I in favor of large-scale tragedy. But objectively, Operation Hannibal was only necessary to begin with because the Germans had been so brutal to the Russians and other Slavic people in the years prior. Bear in mind that the official Nazi line on the Slavs was that they were, literally, subhuman—descended from a completely different line of humanity from the Aryans and other European "races." When looking for lebensraum for the new Reich, it was only natural for Hitler to look to the vast farmland inhabited only by these "animals." Unfortunately, the Russians were controlled by someone just as evil as Hitler, who, like Hitler, had no compunctions about slaughtering civilians by the truckload. And after the way Russia had been treated, Stalin had no intention of being gracious in victory. Hence, the Germans knew that capture by the Russians was a horrible fate, necessitating the massive seaborne evacuation.
So the question arises: is this really a "disaster" or "tragedy," or is it just the unfortunate consequence of putting civilians on legitimate targets in wartime? On the other hand, maybe this documentary's refusal to even broach the question is the whole point: no matter what the answer is, a lot of people who were probably completely innocent of participating in Hitler's crimes died.
Technically, the disc is competent. The feature is presented in a non-anamorphic widescreen format. Much of the footage used is archival, but the contemporary segments have good color and sharpness. Audio is provided via a Dolby Digital 2.0 stereo track that gets the job done well. No extras are provided.
There isn't enough material here to recommend a purchase, but Ghosts of the Baltic Sea is certainly worth a rental, especially for shipwreck buffs or World War II completists. It's a decent documentary about a sad footnote in a tragic war.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Wellspring Media
Review content copyright © 2006 David Ryan; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.