One hundred years ago, a German submarine sank the transatlantic passenger liner RMS Lusitania as it neared Liverpool. 1201 passengers died, including 128 of the 159 Americans who had set sail from New York seven days earlier, died. The event event was seen by the British as a cowardly act of German barbarity, whilst the Germans claimed the liner was carrying weapons.
German artist Karl Goetz was so incensed by the British portrayal of events, he produced a medallion that satirised the British as cynically using passengers as a human shield, mocked the allied devotion to big business and the supposed impartiality of America. On the obverse side of the medal, the ship sinks below the waves, its deck is bristling with weapons. On the reverse side, unsuspecting passengers buy their tickets from a skeleton representing Death. In the background a newspaper headline warns of the ‘U-Boat Danger’ but goes unheeded by the queue. Above this scene an inscription reads ‘business above all’.
The British Government had subsidised the construction of Lusitania and its sister ship Mauretania and made an agreement with Cunard who owned the ship and John Brown and Company who built it, that in the event of war, the British Admiralty would be able to requisition the ships for use as armed merchant cruisers. As such both ships were listed in the 1914 edition of the ‘bible’ of warship reference, Jane’s ‘All the World’s Fighting Ships’. In fact the Lusitania was carrying munitions, although they were described as butter on the ship’s manifest, disproving Adolf Hitler’s dictum that (the German) people could have either guns or butter.