The Holocaust Historiography Project

Book review

The Cruelest Night

  • The Cruelest Night, by Christopher Dobson, John Miller & Ronald Payne; Little Brown, Boston, 224pp, hardback, available from IHR at $11.00. ISBN: 0-316-18920-0.

Reviewed by Lewis Brandon

In the March 1980 issue of Encounter, a “neo-conservative” journal edited by “ex-Trotskyists” (see “Nuremberg and Other War Crimes Trials,” IHR No. 306, pp lO-11) an Australian academic lambastes John Bennett, the leading Revisionist in the Antipodes. Frank Knopfelmacher — in between slanderous slurs — mentions en passant that the “Holocaust” should not be questioned just as the sinking of the Titanic should not be questioned; for these constitute “indubitable historical fact.”

It is rather ironic that Mr. K. should pick on the Titanic as his pet Indubitable Historical Fact, for the above captioned book shows that that sinking was far from being the worst naval tragedy of all time, as many believers in Indubitable Historical Facts would maintain.

These three British journalists have stumbled across an atrocity which only those addicts of the Guinness Book of World Records have heard of: the torpedoing and sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff German refugee ship by the Soviets, in the Baltic in 1945. At least 7,000 refugees lost their lives; nearly five times the number who died on the more glamorous Titanic.

The refugees were fleeing from the advancing hordes of the Red Army, which was already into East Prussia. In October 1944 the Soviets had taken the East Prussian town of Nemmersdorf, and had gone on a wild spree of rape, murder and plunder. Five days later, the Germans had managed to regroup their decimated forces, and retook the town after bitter street to street fighting.

Five days after the Russians occupied Nernmersdorf, General Friedrich Hossbach and his battered Fourth Army threw them out again. When his troops arrived in the village, hardly a single inhabitant remained alive.

Women had been nailed to barn doors and farm carts, tanks had crushed those who had tried to flee, children had been shot. (p l6)

It was with such horrific butchery fresh in their minds that almost the entire population of East Prussia fled to the nearest path of escape: the sea-port of Gdynia. They swarmed to the dockside to attempt to get on board the few ships which were available. Eventually, 8,000 people set sail on board the Gustloff, a pleasure cruise ship designed for 2,000. The next night, 31 January 1945, the ship was torpedoed by the Soviet submarine S13.

In the freezing water, only a handful of the survivors of the assault managed to stay alive. There were too few lifeboats, and swimmers had to be shot to stop them trying to climb aboard already overcrowded rafts. Rescue ships that came on the scene could not stop, for fear that they too would be torpedoed. A total of only 964 survivors were picked up out of the sea; but many of these later died of cold.

On 9 February 1945 the Soviets struck again, and sank the General Steuben. Of the 4,000 on board, only 300 survived. On 16 April 1945, the same fate befell the Goya. Of an estimated 7,000 people on board, only 183 were rescued.

In total, almost 18,000 Germans — mostly women, children, and wounded men — lost their lives in the space of just a few months. Who today even knows about this atrocity? This new book is professionally written by three Daily Telegraph (London) journalists. The journalistic style makes it easy to read, and its factual basis in records and survivor testimony make it a valuable historical aid. It is fortunate that the authors do not include the usual codicils about the “Holocaust” or limp excuses for the barbarous Soviet behavior. However there are one or two gratuitous references to Nazi brutality particularly in regard to the career of Gauleiter Erich Koch, whom the authors claim to have discovered still alive, albeit imprisoned, in Warsaw.

From The Journal of Historical Review, Fall 1980 (Vol. 1, No. 3), page 282.