Monday, May 13, 2013

Death in the Baltic: The World War II Sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff by Cathryn Prince

It's hard to know what to make of this book.  The subject is well enough known for those familiar with WWII.  For those who are not, reading about the event changes nothing in the grand scheme of things.  Furthermore, there's no new information provided for greater analysis or contextualization.  The only thing that's new or original are the few recollections from the survivors of the ship.  But their fates don't much differ from the millions of others who survived the Second World in general while living in Germany.  Instead of surviving fire bombings these men and women survived a sinking ship.  Worse is the fact that the author is continually looking for something hidden to unearth but ends up unable to find any such evidence.

The writing leaves a lot to be desired.  There is no chronological coherence throughout much of the text and random tangents that add little to nothing to the overall story are constantly present.  The author randomly jumps from one event and time period to another, introduces random characters, gives minor histories to pad the page count, and moves on.  Journalistic tendencies are evident as the author begins putting thoughts, ideas, and words into the mouths and minds of men and women long dead.  "Would have", "might have thought" belong in fiction, not historical monographs.  This combined with regularly grasping at straws to gain as much sympathy as she can get from the reader, as if the words and recollections of survivors aren't filled with enough emotion, make for an awkward reading experience for those interested in history rather than a forced tearjerker.  Worse are the random generalizations and even a mixing up of the actions of the Wehrmacht for those of the Red Army (page 67).  The latter is evidence of the limited amount of research that went into this book, at times relying on dubious journal and online articles, when it comes to the background and history of the Second World War and, more specifically, the Eastern Front.  Unfortunately, the weaknesses often outnumber the strengths in "Death in the Baltic."

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