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Book Review: Lusitania – The Cultural History of a Catastrophe

By (September 22, 2016) No Comment

Lusitania: lusitania-cover
The Cultural History of a Catastrophe

by Willi Jasper

translated by Stewart Spencer

Yale University Press, 2016

“When it comes to a subject like this, one can either write up a quick trot or a long treatise,” said an Oxford don three-quarters of a century ago. “There is no middle ground.” And although that subject was the Battle of Waterloo (and although that Oxford don spent virtually his entire publishing career writing middle ground-length books on similar topics), the warning applies to all such signpost subjects – indeed, the warning sounds all the louder in the age of the Internet and Wikipedia. The phrase “knowledge at your fingertips” used to apply to the proximity of your nearest library, but in the 21st century the phrase is literal: any of the 1.6 billion cellphones in the world can connect to the Internet and give its owner instant access to detailed facts about any subject, and not just facts: near-infinite interpretations, discussions, arguments, and YouTube videos also abound.

It’s an ocean of information the like of which has never been seen before, with greater accessibility than the world has ever known before. It’s a wonder, but it also tends to cut the limb right out from underneath things like Cliffs Notes or the “Very Short Introduction” series of pamphlets from Oxford University Press. Why would somebody curious about Subject A go out and find a short book on Subject A when they could just read up on Subject A on their phone?

It’s a question that hangs over books like this new one by Willi Jasper, emeritus professor of German literature at the University of Potsdam. Originally published in 2015 as Lusitania: Kulturgeschichte einer Katastroph and now produced by Yale University Press in an English translation as Lusitania: The Cultural History of a Catastrophe, and weighing in at barely 200 pages, this is both an account of the actual event, the British luxury liner Lusitania being torpedoed by a German U-boat in May of 1915 and sinking with the loss of nearly 1200 people, and a look at the reverberations the sinking had in British, American, and German cultures in the following years.

The book exists a bit uncomfortably somewhere in that middle ground between a trot and a treatise. Professor Jasper lists dozens and dozens of longer works in his bibliography, almost all of which treat his subject in much greater depth than he does, so at least one guiding assumption of his own book must be that his readers won’t want that depth – that they’ll be coming to his book for something quicker although with any luck also more interesting. But do people looking for “quicker and more interesting” still go to short books, with the vast troves of the Internet glowing all around them? Why read Professor Jasper’s little book in its English translation when you can listen to Derek Jacobi narrate the same assemblage of facts in a YouTube documentary while you knit or swim or walk the dog?

One possible answer (the one a publisher like Yale must be in some measure counting on) is the lingering prestige of the printed book as a format, but the more persuasive one, the one for which every reader hopes, is more personal: that the author will make the subject his own and, through insight and eloquence, provide the kind of absorbing analysis that makes the book a valuable experience in its own right. The Boston bookseller Charles Lauriat, for instance, was a survivor of the Lusitania sinking and later wrote a gripping book about it – a book for which, as it were, there is no substitute.

There are, unfortunately, any number of substitutes for Professor Jasper’s book – in fact, he lists two dozen of them in his bibliography, and that listing doesn’t even touch on the endless Internet sites devoted to all things Lusitania. Jasper gives a fairly tepid account of the ship’s sinking, an easy account, consisting of standard disaster-history boilerplate (“lost souls” instead of “passengers,” “stricken” to describe the vessel, etc.), in this case juxtaposing it with the more clinical German records of men who were there, including Walther Schwieger, the captain of the German u-boat that did the deed:

This matter-of-fact account gives no hint of the heart-rending scenes that unfolded on the deck of the Lusitania and in the waters around her. She began to list to starboard so quickly that those passengers who had been hit by fling debris were unable to get to safety, while the lifeboats could not be properly lowered into the water. By the same token, Captain Turner’s desperate attempt to steer the stricken vessel towards the coast was bound to fail, for the Lusitania had lost control of her steering.

The Lusitania was the last British luxury liner still plying the Atlantic in 1915 – all the others had been converted into troop ships for the war effort. And conspiracy theories have abounded since the sinking that Lusitania was also a war effort ship in all but name, carrying not only passengers and luggage but contraband. The second half of Jasper’s book concentrates on the ripple effect these conspiracy theories had on popular and political opinion, not only pulling America inexorably into the First World War (128 Americans died in the disaster) but also planting Germany firmly on the path of unrestricted submarine warfare. “By accepting a large number of civilian casualties as a result of the ruthless torpedoing of an unarmed passenger liner, the Lusitania, in May 1915,” Jasper writes toward the close of his book (but not far enough from the opening of his book to warrant reminding his readers about the name of that unarmed passenger liner), “the crew of a German U-boat achieved the aim of ‘total’ war, a concept which, terrible in its symbolism, was later to be perfected by Erich Ludendorff.”

It’s difficult to imagine the audience for Lusitania: The Cultural History of a Catastrophe. Casual browsers in bookshops, students researching a topic on assignment, general-interest history buffs … surely they will all want either much less than Professor Jasper provides or much more? Which leaves only Lusitania completists and book reviewers. Talk about lost souls.

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