100 years ago this week the German Imperial navy torpedoed and sank RMS Lusitania.
There’s an article in the Graun today entitled “What can the Lusitania teach us about MH17?” Good question you might think. Apposite. After all the Lusitania was an oversimplified and madly exploited meme that helped perpetuate a needless and massively costly world war. MH17 at least had the makings of being something very similar until Marie Harf’s promised presser July 21 (in which the “proof” the Russians did it would be offered) failed to materialise, and the official MH17 narrative was stillborn. So, yes, good question Guardian.
But nah. Post-Snowden, the Graun knows its place and knows better than to visit questions like these. The Graun knows – and tells us – that the only lesson the Lusitania can teach us about MH17 is that British/US propaganda is good and other propaganda is bad/evil, “conspiracy theories” (i.e. stories that don’t fit the approved narrative) are always daft and always “theories” even if they are provably true, and that any dodgy narrative thrown together by an approved source is “the truth” even when it has yet to be substantiated by a shred of corroborative data.
Big Brother is always right, even when he seems to be wrong. Even when he never produced his evidence and his allegations collapsed into allusions and sulking. That’s what the Guardian – or at any rate the people who tell the Guardian what to print – think we should all learn on the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania. The Germans were mean and wrong. Russia is currently mean and wrong. Now all go back to sleep, (or back to trying to figure out why more than 20% of the UK want David Cameron to run their country).
Is this really the best we can do? Is there really no other stories to be gleaned from May 1915 to help us understand ourselves and now?
Let’s see. In May 1915 the UK Establishment was in trouble. The unnecessary European war they had heedlessly embroiled themselves in was going badly. Instead of reacting to aggressive British blockades by buckling at the knees and begging for mercy, Germany was crippling British shipping with her U-boats. The chiefs of the UK War Office and Admiralty were faced with the prospect of career-ending humiliation. Domestic enthusiasm for the war was also lukewarm. For these and other reasons perceived interest was coalescing around the need for some kind of incident that might simultaneously gee-up the British public’s willingness to see its young men die in France, and induce the US public to support entering the war on Britain’s side. Winston Churchill, then First Lord of the Admiralty admitted as much in a letter to the president of the Board of Trade when he wrote:
most important to attract neutral shipping to our shores, in the hope especially of embroiling the United States with Germany.”
It would be immensely handy, in other words, if the German U-boats patrolling UK waters could be induced to attack and sink a ship full of US citizens. Not only would this be a big propaganda boon for the Brits, it might also persuade the nominally neutral USA to declare war on Germany. The US Ambassador to Britain at the time, Walter Hines Page, was even more specific, when he wrote, on May 2 1915:
The blowing up of a liner with American passengers may be the prelude. I almost expect such a thing….If a British liner full of American passengers be blown up, what will Uncle Sam do? That’s what’s going to happen….”
Page was an unusually talented clairvoyant. Just five days after he wrote this letter, his prescience was realised and Churchill got exactly what he was hoping for. Just as PNAC longed for a “new Pearl Harbor” and got one in the form of 9/11. Just as the Reichstag was so conveniently torched by a member of one of the political groups the Nazis were looking to persecute, so the graceful but hapless RMS Lusitania steamed into history on Friday May 7 1915 to answer Churchill’s prayer.
There she was that spring day, 12 miles off the coast of Ireland, running at two-thirds speed and in a handy straight line, rather than the usual zigzag used to avoid torpedoes; her cabins stuffed with US citizens (including Alfred Vanderbilt), her hold full of undeclared arms shipments bound for the UK, sailing all alone, inexplicably sans Royal Navy escort and right into a known U-boat hot zone.
As you can probably imagine what happened next came as a complete and shocking surprise…
Torpedoed by the German u-boat U-20, she sank in 18 minutes, taking over 1200 passengers, including 128 Americans with her. Newspapers the next day carried banner headlines. Pictures of the mass graves followed, along with harrowing mockups of the ships’s last agony.
Germans were portrayed as “pirates”, monsters who laughed in the face of slaughtered innocence. It was even said (falsely) that German school children were given an official school holiday to celebrate the deaths of those tragic women and children. As for Kaiser Wilhelm, he was vilified and demonised.
“The man who is crucifying humanity on an iron cross,” shrieked a post-Lusitania edition of the Sunday Pictorial. While cartoons portrayed him as Satan’s pal.
Drowned as completely and immediately as the 1200 victims was any recollection the Lusitania had been carrying arms shipments into a war zone, which made her a legitimate target under the rule of engagement.
Entirely annihilated from collective memory were the numerous warnings posted by the German government in US newspapers, warning people they traveled on British shipping into British waters at their peril.
No one even considered asking why Lusitania had been steaming so slowly and in a straight line, or why the Admiralty had seen fit to withhold the usual naval escort.
And totally forgotten was the aggressive policy of starving Germany to its knees that had prompted the U-boat campaign in the first place.
After the war began in 1914, Britain immediately began a naval blockade of Germany, intercepting merchant ships and strewing the North Sea with mines. Since the British classified even foodstuffs as “contraband,” the Germans had to ration food. By all estimates, several hundred thousand people ultimately died of starvation due to the blockade. James Perloff False Flag at Sea
Why waste a perfectly good catastrophe asking “what really happened” or “why”? The only thing to do with catastrophe is use it to catalyse. And the message of what that catalysis was supposed to be could not have been clearer.
More war. Bigger war. Longer war.
“Remember the Lusitania – it’s your duty to enlist today” reads one recruitment ad.
“Destroy this Mad Brute – Enlist” – reads a US poster from 1917, over a picture of a drowned woman in the arms of a gorilla wearing a German helmet.
The Lusitania official narrative was about persuading people to turn themselves into cannon-fodder. Sign up, ship out and die.
Did it work? Of course it did. Who is going to refuse to avenge drowned maidenhood? There were a few dissident voices over the years, such as Joseph Kenworthy, Churchill’s junior at the Admiralty who wrote pointedly in his book Freedom of the Seas, 1927:
The Lusitania was deliberately sent at considerably reduced speed into an area where a U-boat was known to be waiting and with her escorts withdrawn.”
Though even here the word “deliberately” was removed by the publisher on the insistence of the Admiralty. Meanwhile, the Official Inquiry, chaired by Lord Mersey, was as fearless and uncompromised as most official inquiries are (think Hutton). Even before it began plans had been discussed to “scapegoat the ship’s captain, William Turner”, while leaving most other stones unturned.
At the inquiry, held partly in camera, Lord Mersey quashed all evidence of the Lusitania’s munitions. Captain Turner was never even asked what his cargo was. Mersey relied on a letter from Dudley Field Malone saying items on the ship’s manifest “were permitted to be shipped on passenger steamers under the laws of the United States.” Malone’s letter was unsworn (he declined to make a statement under oath) and referred only to the first one-page manifest, not its 24-page supplement.
Mersey’s report concluded that “the loss of the ship and lives was due to damage caused to the said ship by torpedoes fired by a submarine of German nationality whereby the ship sank.” James Perloff, op. cit
Lord Mersey, later asked to be spared from further service and described the whole Lusitania incident as “a damn dirty business.”
Today there’s a healthy industry of sublime and ridiculous “what really happened” analysis regarding the Lusitania, implicating all and any from Churchill to JP Morgan in anything from wanton negligence to outright false flag. But it took the best part of 100 years for enough people to start asking the right questions, for the meme of Innocence Slaughtered to be replaced with a more realistic picture of reckless negligence, convenient elision and inexplicable omission.
Not in the Guardian though. In those hallowed halls as in Wiki’s new Ministry of Truth, the mere quoting of Churchill’s own 1915 words about “embroiling the United States with Germany” qualifies for the dire caveat of “conspiracy theory”. That it’s not a “theory” at all, but a proven fact counts for nothing beside the potent social requirement to uphold the fiction that such things never happen – even when they do. The same delicacy is shown in another Guardian piece, where a a review of a new book on the Lusitania applauds the sensible decision by its author to avoid “making a direct accusation of deliberate endangerment.”
Absolutely. That kind of crazy talk has no place in mainstream analysis. Deliberate endangerment? Our governments would never consider such a thing. And we are obliged to say that even in the face of cast iron proof that they have and will.
Unless it’s about Russia of course. Russia is the current bad guy so the Russian government can be accused of all the unthinkable things without anyone using the “c” word.
The long history of hyper-convenient catalysing catastrophes that continues and increases in magnitude to this day, demands more than this sad array of intellectually bankrupt avoidance and diversion, if only because in the present age any war we are lured into through modern Lusitania-memes might prove to be the last and worst war ever.
The Guardian could have devoted its centenary article to a consideration of how headlines from last year about “Putin’s Missile” destroying MH17 show us how primed and gullible we still are for easy answers and good-guy/bad-guy narratives. It could have discussed the extent to which the US State Dept handling of MH17 shows that nuclear deterrence isn’t an absolute or even a very secure safeguard against Lusitania-thinking.
We need to grow up enough to examine these naive horror stories as they are given us, not a hundred years down the line. Our survival as a species may well depend on our ability to do that.