By Chet Yarbrough
Written by: Erik Larson
Narrated by: Scott Brick
History of the Lusitania is only vaguely, if at all, remembered by young Americans in 2015. Erik Larson spectacularly revivified WWI by chronicling the sinking of the Lusitania by a German’ submarine in 1915. In Larson’s detailed exposition, a reader/listener learns about early submarine warfare and its role in indiscriminate slaughter of civilians in war.
In the beginning chapters of “Dead Wake”, the choice of Scott Brick as narrator seems inept. However, as the brutality of the story rises, Brick’s somber delivery fits the tone of Larson’s sharpened history of the Lusitania. After leaving New York, the Lusitania slipped beneath the sea in 18 minutes on May 1, 1915, only 11 miles off the Irish’ coast; on that date, 1,193 men, women, and children became victims of a torpedo attack by a German’ submarine. The submarine, christened the U20, sinks the Lusitania at sea between Ireland and England.
The captain of the Lusitania, William Thomas Turner, is on the bridge as the Lusitania sinks. Turner survives, along with 767 passengers and crew members, out of a total of 1,960 people. Turner returns as captain of lesser vessels for the Cunard Lines (owner of the Lusitania). He retires to Australia and dies of natural causes.
The commander of the submarine, Walther Schwieger and his crew, return to Germany after releasing one torpedo to sink the Lusitania. The torpedo streams (a path described as a “dead wake’) toward the Lusitania and blasts a hole, the size of a house, in its hull. Schwieger is awarded the German’ “Blue Max” (an award based solely on tonnage rather than military necessity). Larson notes that 16% of Schwieger’s tonnage is from the sinking of the Lusitania. Schwieger is killed in battle two years later while commanding a different, larger, and more modern submarine.
The mixture of facts about English’ and German’ influences on American’ entry into WWI is what makes Larson’s story engrossing. Larson interestingly explains Machiavellian’ decisions made, by respective world leaders, about warfare. He identifies personal details of famous and not so famous people surrounding the Lusitania disaster.
Woodrow Wilson is President of the United States. He is re-elected to office on a platform based on “He kept us out of war”. Wilson lost his wife in the first term of office and married Edith Galt in his second term. Both wives are characterized by Larson as important advisers to Wilson during his Presidency.
Larson lightly touches on Wilson’s southern prejudice by explaining that “Birth of a Nation” is previewed in the White House. (“Birth of a Nation” is originally titled “The Clansman”, a film depicting African-Americans as dumb, and the Ku Klux Klan as heroic.) By Larson’s account, Lusitania’s sinking in 1915 and other American’ citizen deaths are not found to be proximate causes for America’s declaration of war. Wilson resists entry to the war until 1917 when the Zimmerman’ memorandum mobilizes American opinion to join the war.
At the time of the Lusitania’ disaster, Winston Churchill is First Lord of the Admiralty. Churchill’s policy on German submarine’ attack in 1915 is that no military ships are to rescue victims of sunken passenger liners. Churchill’s concern is that military ships would be sunk by submarines that laid in wait. (Churchill’s Machiavellian judgment is based on previous WWI’ military vessel losses.) In the case of the Lusitania, instead of rescue by a military ship within an hour of the sinking, the passengers were left in the sea or on lifeboats for three and a half hours. Those in the sea would be dead. Even though the sun is shining, fifty-five degree water causes hypothermia; with death soon following.
To magnify the tragedy, Larson notes MI5 (the British Secret Service) decoded German’ messages that showed a high probability of submarine attack in the area of the Lusitania. Because of fear that successful breaking of the German’ code would be revealed, Larson suggests the Admiralty chooses not to send clear information, or a military escort, to the Lusitania in face of imminent threat. To compound the amoral position of the Admiralty, after the sinking, the Captain of the Lusitania is tried by the British government for negligence in the loss of civilians. Larson argues–Captain Turner may have been prosecuted to obscure MI5’s knowledge of the broken German’ code. In any case, at the end of a private hearing, Turner is absolved of responsibility for loss of life and commended for bravery in staying at the helm of the sinking Lusitania. Though Cunard Lines retained Turner as an employee, he never regained his reputation.
Listeners will draw their own conclusion from Larson’s history of the sinking of the Lusitania. John F. Kennedy said, “Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind”. Kennedy may have been referring to nuclear war but the story of the Lusitania suggests weapons are only a part of a slippery slope destined to end civilization.
After World War I, “the number of people killed today” became a measure of success in war. Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill, and Harry Truman reinforce belief in bombing civilian targets as a way of ending war. (Joseph Stalin is in the same group, but not so much as a bomber but as an amoral mass murderer.) The fundamental argument is that civilian deaths demoralize the enemy. Once war is declared, morality disappears. In war, there are no “good guys”. There are only victims.