I approached this young adult novel with wary curiosity more than anything. I wrote about the true story behind the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in January 1945 in my book, Final Voyages: The world’s worst maritime disasters, so I knew who most of the 9–10,000 victims were – the beneficiaries of lebensraum, German citizens who moved eastward after the Third Reich cleansed swathes of Poland of her own people.
How do you write a novel that demands your sympathies for character who are only refugees now because of their own legacy of turning much of a continent into refugees (or worse) half a decade before?
Of course, there’s a reason why Ruta Sepetys won the Carnegie, the Booker Prize for children’s literature, with this novel, which is her answer to that question, and which deserves much of the prestige with which it has been lavished in the past couple of years.
For most of the characters in the opening chapters, the war is already over, even if the killing hasn’t stopped and peace is still months from being declared. A disparate group of people end up sheltering in the same barn overnight on their way through occupied Poland, heading towards the coast, where the greatest sea-based evacuation in history awaits them. Some of them won’t make it. And all of them have secrets. Soon three young people become bound by what they know about each other – secrets that may give them power, or be their greatest weakness.
For those who make it to the harbour, there’s an agonising wait to be boarded, but of all the ships docked, the lavish former liner the Wilhelm Gustloff is the one everyone wants to get on. And over 10,000 of them are squeezed aboard. But a Soviet submarine lurks in the freezing waters of the Baltic. Relative safety in Germany is only a 48-hour voyage away, but the promise is a lie.
I first learnt of the Wilhelm Gustloff from The Tin Drum author Gunter Grass’s more recent novel, Crabwalk. In that he notes how the disaster’s place in history has moved sideways since 1945. It started as just another tragedy in the bloodiest months of the Second World War, either suppressed or ignored. After the war it became something unworthy of being mourned in a newly shamed Germany who had no right to feel a sense of suffering. More recently, however, it has become a totem for the Far Right – a little-known massacre of mainly civilians written out of history by the victorious perpetrators, but which proves Germans were victims all along.
Sepetys does somewhat try a little too hard to establish that most of her main characters are not typical German occupiers or their offspring, but ordinary people who have been caught up in the turmoil of events. We can feel sympathy for them because they didn’t build their homes over the bones of the Poles.
What’s more she spends a bit too long establishing just how vile the Red Army was behaving as it forced the Reich back towards Germany’s old borders. The net result is that the Soviets seem like the true monsters even before they torpedo the Wilhelm Gustloff, whereas the crimes of the Nazis are somewhat downplayed, and the only main character who remains loyal to Hitler until the end is a naïve buffoon. I wonder what Gunter Grass would make of this treatment of the disaster, which does somewhat pivot on us being kept from knowing which of the anonymous victims are like our heroes, and which remain devoted to Hitler too.
Of course it’s not a novel about goodies and baddies, because every character here lives in the grey area left behind after they have been overrun by history. As Oliver Stone would have it in Platoon, the first casualty of war is innocence, and almost six years after this war began, by the time the Wilhelm Gustloff was sunk, were there really any innocents left?