The Lusitania Medal

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This year marks the one hundredth anniversary of the sinking of the Lusitania, Cunard’s huge transatlantic passenger liner which a German U-boat torpedoed off the Irish coast on 7 May 1915. The ship, which was sailing from New York to Liverpool at the time, went down in just 18 minutes – between 14.10 and 14.28 on a foggy Friday afternoon – with the loss of 1,198 passengers and crew (while an amazing 761 others were saved).

Built on the Clyde in 1906, the Lusitania was briefly the world’s biggest ship.

The disaster made immediate world news, naturally: because of the huge death toll; because so many of those who had perished were famous; and also because it represented a new milestone (most felt, a new low) in the great war. As is well known, the 124 American deaths – along with those of 94 children – had a major impact on public opinion in the USA, where, as a result, many former neutrals and anti-war advocates became proponents of American involvement in the global conflict. Eventually, the shift Lusitania caused helped to propel the USA into the war, and so to guarantee Germany’s defeat.

Much has been written about the Lusitania’s effect on America, but there is less on German reactions to the sinking. In Germany, official propaganda emphasised that Cunard’s ship had been carrying Allied military materiel at the time it was hit; this was fiercely disputed by the Allies at the time, but it has now been proved to be correct. To German minds, it made the Lusitania a legitimate target for submarine warfare, despite the enormous number of civilians onboard. The German Imperial Government also pointed out that it had warned prospective passengers of the dangers of travelling on liner just a few days before Lusitania set sail, through a notice in the American press.

Egged on by their government’s jingoism, many ordinary Germans, therefore, celebrated the terrible catastrophe. They saw it as an event that might help their own forces to gain an edge in a war that had already lasted far longer than expected. A uniquely macabre form of celebration was the Lusitania Medal, which became a cause celebre in its day but has now been all but forgotten.

The medal was designed and privately produced in August 1915 by Karl X. Goetz, a sculptor and medal designer from Munich. On one side, it depicts the Lusitania sinking, beneath the words “KEINE BANNWARE!”, or “NO CONTRABAND!” – a reference to the weapons – and on the other it shows a skeletal Cunard clerk handing out tickets to unsuspecting passengers. Bad taste does not even begin to describe the gleeful, playful nature of the artwork, which is more reminiscent of Weimar, than Imperial, Germany. Nevertheless, the medals sold.

Karl Goetz’s celebratory medal retains the power to shock even today.

During 1916, one of them fell into the hands of the British Foreign Office, which immediately decided to use it for its own propaganda purposes. So horrifying were the coin’s images thought to be that British diplomats felt certain they would stir up useful anti-German feeling on both sides of the Atlantic. They were not disappointed. The New York Times published pictures of the medal in May 1916, as part of its commemoration of the disaster’s first anniversary, and there was a general outcry. Meanwhile, in London, the businessman Gordon Selfridge created hundreds of thousands of replica medals to sell in his department stores, with the proceeds went to good causes. No one bothered to point out that the original medal had been produced privately, and instead many reports implied, or even stated, that it was the work of the German government.

Below is a transcript of the fascinating texts that were included with each of Selfridge’s replicas, texts intended to drive home the notion that Germany, it people and culture had now become unique threats to civilisation.

TEXT PRINTED ON THE INTERIOR OF THE SELFRIDGES PRESENTATION CASE

The “Lusitania” (German) Medal. An exact replica of the medal which was designed in Germany and distributed to commemorate the sinking of the “Lusitania”. This indicates the true feeling the War Lords endeavour to stimulate, and is proof positive that such crimes are not merely regarded favourably, but are given every encouragement in the land of Kultur. The “Lusitania” was sunk by a German submarine on May 7th, 1915. She had on board at the time 1,951 passengers and crew, of whom 1,198 perished.

TEXT OF THE LEAFLET INCLUDED WITH EACH SELFRIDGES REPLICA MEDAL

A German Naval Victory.

“With joyful pride we contemplate this latest deed of our navy…”, Kolnische Volkszeitung, 10th May, 1915.

This medal has been struck in Germany with the object of keeping alive in German hearts the recollection of the glorious achievement of the German Navy in deliberately destroying an unarmed passenger ship, together with 1,198 non-combatants, men, women and children.

On the obverse, under the legend “No contraband” (Keine Bannware) there is a representation of the Lusitania sinking. the designer has put in guns and aeroplanes, which (as certified by United States Government officials after inspection) the Lusitania did not carry, but has conveniently omitted to put in the women and children, which the world knows it did carry.

On the reverse, under the legend “Business above all” (Geschaft uber alles), the figure of Death sits at the booking office of the Cunard Line and gives out tickets to passengers, who refuse to attend to the warning against submarines given by a German. This picture seeks apparently to propound the theory that if a murderer warns his victim of his intention, the guilt of the crime will rest with the victim, not with the murderer. 

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