Before drifting off to sleep I generally read a few pages. To be truthful I usually only manage one. Except when I have an early night and can get through a chapter.
The books I tend to read before sleep are ones about maritime disasters. While they may not fill me with glee just before sleep, they do provide a certain levelling of life experience.
Let me explain.
I have just finished reading an book called Death in the Baltic by Cathryn Prince. It concerns the sinking of a German ex-liner called the MV Wilhelm Gustloff. She was torpedoed by a Russian submarine on 30 January 1945 as she set off to ferry (mostly) civilians to safety.
Approximately 9,400 people died when Submarine M13 fired three torpedoes into the hull of the ship. ‘Approximately’ is rather chilling when you think of them as individuals.
This happened during a time when the Russian army was in the ascendency in the Baltic area and the Germans were busy evacuating everyone they could. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced, walking across frozen landscapes trying to reach a safe haven ahead of the Russians. Many of them headed for the coast where MV Wilhelm Gustloff was moored, acting as a submarine training school for the German navy. These were ordinary, every day people.
When the Germans were in Russia they were accused of enacting many atrocities against the Russian civilian population so, when the Russians attacked back, they figured they’d do the same in some sort of revenge for the folks back home.
It’s one thing to start punishing uninvolved civilians for something their government and armed forces did but it’s quite another to punish innocent families who were only German for a bit. The thing was, these ‘German’ civilians were actually pawns in a political game of border changes.
These civilians were from such places as Prussia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland, Estonia, Croatia, etc. They didn’t vote for Hitler. They didn’t want the Nazis in control of them. The Germans conquered these countries and simply expanded their borders like a pirate stealing an entire ship with a full crew. It’s not like they had much choice.
Imagine: a whole bunch of Nazi soldiers come through your Latvian town and tell you that you are now German and must act like one. Then, as the war turns and the Germans start to retreat, the Russians turn up and tell you you’re now part of the USSR. It’s not like it’s simply a change of postal systems.
However, before they tell you that you are now a part of the glorious communist community, they rape and pillage and kill tens of thousands of you. They did it because the Germans, while beating the Russians, raped and pillaged and killed tens of thousands of civilians before telling them they were now Germans.
It makes me wonder why a handful of (usually) men decide the fates of millions because they think they’re right. Hitler was one man who had a particularly evil bunch of henchmen. They won a vote and then decided they could do whatever they wanted. They knew they could justify it because they had a ‘mandate from the people.’
As the German borders expanded so the population in their control increased this mandate. The handful of psychos at the top had more people ‘on their side’. And then, so did the Russians. This means a whole lot of civilians became involved in something that was not of their doing or choice.
I realise that the whole concept of Total War means anyone is a target but I can’t see how it’s in any way fair or right. In fact, I rather like the idea that any leader of a country who feels he should go to war with another should have to go into a cage and fight the leader of the other country. And they can’t use so-called champions, either.
Imagine Donald Trump in a cage with Kim Jong-un in a fight to the death, winner takes all, Bare Knuckle Extravaganza. Now that would be a reality TV programme I’d watch.
I know it’ll never happen while we are stuck in this patriarchal world but it makes for some nice dreams.
By the way, originally, the MV Wilhelm Gustloff was going to be called the MV Adolf Hitler. That would have made a great claim by the Russian submarine captain. He could have boasted about how he’d shot Adolf Hitler three times.