The Nazi Titanic

  • Review
By – May 3, 2016

Robert Wat­son uncov­ers the sto­ry of the ill-fat­ed grand Ger­man ship Cap Arcona in The Nazi Titan­ic: The Incred­i­ble Sto­ry of a Doomed Ship in World War II. Begin­ning ser­vice in 1927 as the largest and most lux­u­ri­ous ship trav­el­ing to South Amer­i­ca, the ves­sel end­ed the last days of World War II as a float­ing con­cen­tra­tion camp for pris­on­ers, many of them Jews trans­port­ed from the Neuengamme con­cen­tra­tion camp.

The sto­ry of this ship and its final pas­sen­gers is a stark reminder that every life lost dur­ing that dead­ly peri­od is pre­cious, and that even the good inten­tions of the Allies — Britain’s Roy­al Air Force, in this case — could lead to inad­ver­tent tragedy for over a thou­sand vic­tims. Giv­en the unprece­dent­ed loss of human life dur­ing World War II, the fate of the Cap Arcona may seem triv­ial. But Wat­son is able to weave an inter­est­ing sto­ry and draw atten­tion to the poignan­cy of the last days of the Third Reich, the emp­ty­ing of the camps, the Death March­es, and the sink­ing of a fabled ship on May 3, 1945, with­in a week of Hitler’s sui­cide and only four days before the Allied lead­ers met to for­mal­ize Germany’s uncon­di­tion­al sur­ren­der. The RAF pilots may have mis­tak­en­ly attacked the ship, but the ulti­mate respon­si­bil­i­ty rests with the Nazis and their geno­ci­dal policies.

The Nazi Titan­ic is an inter­est­ing book about an unknown chap­ter of Holo­caust his­to­ry, uncov­er­ing over­looked doc­u­ments and inter­views sur­vivors of this inci­dent to pro­vide con­text and per­son­al details. Although only a few peo­ple sur­vived the sink­ing of the Cap Arcona, Wat­son is able to iden­ti­fy many of them and trace their lives going for­ward. The book reads as a nov­el, intro­duc­ing char­ac­ters who are essen­tial to the plot, includ­ing the Nazi Min­is­ter of Pro­pa­gan­da Joseph Goebbels, the Swedish diplo­mat and vice chair­man of the Swedish Red Cross Folke Bernadotte, and even the head of the SS, Hein­rich Himm­ler. At times The Nazi Titan­ic veers off into tan­gents that do not seem par­tic­u­lar­ly rel­e­vant or nec­es­sary to the sto­ry; nev­er­the­less, any­one inter­est­ed in mar­itime his­to­ry and learn­ing about one of the Holocaust’s unex­am­ined inci­dents — the sto­ry of a Ger­man lux­u­ry lin­er repur­posed for mil­i­tary use, pro­pa­gan­da, and impris­on­ment — will find this book of supreme inter­est. It under­scores the chaos of the last days of the Reich, as many of the inno­cent vic­tims of Nazi ter­ror lost their lives with­in days of liberation.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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