Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Gustloff

I read about the sinking of the Gustloff the other day, which was the first time I had ever heard of it. It appears by general consensus to be the worst maritime disaster of all time, with as many as 9,000 or more dead. The circumstances of the voyage were wretched enough as it was to begin with. Built by the Nazi government in 1937 as a cruise ship, it set off in January of 1945 from the city of Gotenhafen (now Gydnia in Poland, near Gdansk) packed with 10,000 Germans, mostly civilians, fleeing from the advancing Soviet Army. It was torpedoed by the Russians in the Baltic Sea, which is never warm, and is reported has having been icy on the occasion of the disaster. Around 1200 survivors were rescued. The event, of which the significance was downplayed or muted for many years even in Germany, remains a subject of controversial, obsessive and wounded interest among many people there today. It is not difficult to understand why. Many vivid impressions of terror, misery, dislocation, ignominy, and nihilism press upon one just in reading a dry account of the matter. Much of this is of course due to the fact of the victims being Germans at the end of World War II, not a sympathetic group, and the sense that goes with any account of that period of history that the members of that group in general deserved suffering far worse than anything that was able to be inflicted on them. This includes the children, perhaps not personally, but as symbols, as a necessary debt owed by the elders of their people before the cataclysm could finally exhaust itself and any hope or sense of light enter the civilizational consciousness once again.

The last convulsions and accompanying absolute devastation of the German nation in early 1945, the last months of the war--fittingly named "year zero" in the classic movie about the time--is increasingly striking me as the most interesting and crucial aspect to understand about that whole period. Unlike in 1918, the society subjected as well as dedicated itself to so much death and destruction in the last months of the war--on both counts seemingly pointless and unnecessary--the pitch of both being raised and raised, almost hysterically so, until the very, very last possible instant, until the day the head of the body harboring the demonic agent was finally cornered and forced to cut its own head off. To the artistic imagination, the Gustloff incident is a nearly perfect encapsulation of the chaos and catastrophic state that the whole society, the whole culture, had come to, and from which it seemingly cannot ever spiritually recover. It crystallizes a real end point, a real break between past and future from which certain major traits/qualities do not move on, but simply cease to move altogether.

While it is to a certain extent surprising to me that I have not been familiar with this particular event before, with World War II one is always either stumbling across enormous violences, movements of peoples, political crises, etc, that one had either never previously been aware of or had not properly begun to grasp the magnitude of either with regard to the loss of life, destruction of culture and history, or general collective insanity therein revealed. This, too, though the conflict is probably the most documented, filmed, written about, referenced, etc, historical event of all time. The number of 500,000+ populated cities in Russia alone that were just razed to the ground and that even today most people outside that nation are barely aware of the existence of staggers the mind when one begins to try to consider it. I mentioned in a prior post the eviction of entire populations from other cities such as Breslau and Konigsberg, and the repopulation of them with entirely different people that took place under the Soviet occupation. This does not even take into consideration all the minor disgraces, the small-time fascists and opportunists in small towns and small countries like Romania and Hungary and Slovakia, eagerly delivering up their neighbors and countrymen, already in desparate enough positions as it was, for petty, and seemingly meaningless preferments.

The darkness out of which all this emerged was obviously very deep-seated, and the atmosphere of most of Europe was thick with it for the better part of 30 years, England perhaps slightly less so, or at least with less insistent negative force until 1930 or so. In the art of the period it can be said the sun itself did not partake of any gloriousness, nor did the beautiful young girls, unless, as in Joyce and Proust, they clearly belonged to the pre-1914 world. That does not mean that the art of the modernist period does not have serious attractions for me. I am as much if not moreso in spirit a descendant of that period that of eras with more positive energy. And art, as an engagement with actual life and actual human mental activity, seemed still to be a comparatively more natural and instinctive process among such as retained their sensibilities, an old habit not quite shaken entirely out of the cultural personality, than it has become in our inceasingly anomic age.

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