The weeks of excited, ramped-up nostalgia for the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic reach a climax on April 14. Maybe we should ring all the churchbells of the nation at 11:45 p.m., the time the ship hit the iceberg.
I have nothing against myth-making, or romanticizing a tragic event, or even taking a relatively minor historic occurrence and turning it into some manner of universal metaphor for something or other. However, it is apparent that this particular centennial has been eagerly awaited for years, and that the ocean currents of hype we are currently awash in have long been prepared to flood us.
I have weathered the recent all-Titanic-all-the-time over-sentimentality with detached bemusement until today, when I read the quotation in a major Canadian newspaper that gushingly described the sinking of the Titanic as "the ultimate maritime tragedy." And I finally had to shout "not so!" and "enough already!"
Consider this. In the fall of 1944, the Soviet Red Army crossed the borders of the German Reich, into East Prussia and Pomerania (now part of Poland). Of all the examples of the interface between soldiers and civilians, this campaign ranks right up there with the most savage. There were not many avenues by which civilians could flee the approaching army - the sea was one way.
On January 30, 1945, the former cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff pulled out to sea from what is now Gdynia on the Baltic coast, jam-packed with about 8,000 refugees - four times the ship's peacetime complement. That same evening, it was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine. An estimated 7,000 refugees drowned - five times as many deaths as the Titanic (this was only one of many disasters at sea over the following weeks).*
It is impossible to attach any misty-eyed sentimentality to this event. As for any metaphoric value, the Wilhelm Gustloff serves only as a symbol of horror, and the fruits of barbarism which seems to bubble so closely under our surface veneer of civilization. Now that's a tricky subject. Maybe that's why no one seems to want to recall this particular anniversary - not the Germans, not the Russians, not the Western Allies. No one's lining up to make a 3-D movie of the Wilhelm Gustloff.
Speaking of anniversaries, the sinking of the Titanic shares one with an event of major historical importance and consequence - a tragedy which is difficult to overhype in the way we are overhyping the Titanic.
One-hundred years ago today, the Titanic was well underway, and everybody on board was having a swell time (even in steerage, according to that movie which will here remain nameless). Almost 150 years ago today - in 1865 - Abraham Lincoln was reluctantly making plans to go to the theatre, partly to publicly celebrate the surrender of Confederate General Robert E. Lee and the imminent end of the American Civil War. And on Good Friday, April 14, down he went with his wife and two young friends to take in "Our American Cousin" at Ford's Theatre in Washington.
The assassination of Abraham Lincoln - perhaps the most capable and clear-thinking of any American president - had an immeasurable impact on the development of the United States. His plan to re-unite the country quickly with a program of forgiveness and leniency towards the south was shattered; instead hatred and a desire for vengeance dominated the post-war reconstruction. His death profoundly impacted American public and political consciousness,** even more than Kennedy's assassination. There's no telling what kind of country the U.S. would have become under Lincoln's continued tenure, but one can safely counter-factualize that it likely would have been even greater than it is now.
Abraham Lincoln has come to signify human endeavour, perseverance and compassion under the most crushing of circumstances. He has become the supreme tragic symbol, whose legacy we can still look to to inspire us, without all the frantic and superfluous myth-making we heap on the Titanic.
* Ian Kershaw: "The End"