Object of the Month

"Business Above All": a German Medalist Commemorates the Lusitania Disaster

Sinking of the Lusitania, [second version of obverse], 1915 Cast iron medal

Sinking of the Lusitania, [second version of obverse], 1915


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  • by Anne Bentley, Curator of Art

    This satirical medal, inspired by a German newspaper account of the sinking of the Cunard ocean liner Lusitania on 7 May 1915, was privately issued in Munich by noted German medalist Karl X. Goetz to castigate the British for placing business before innocent lives. The obverse displays the legend KEINE BANNWARE! (No Contraband!) above the Lusitania sinking stern first, war contraband visible on her fore deck. The reverse reads DER GROSSDAMPFER / LUSITANIA / DVRCH EIN DEUTSCHES / TAUCHBOOT VERSENHT / 7. MAI 1915 (The British liner Lusitania sunk by German submarine 7 May 1915). The reverse shows men buying passage from skeletal Death at the Cunard ticket office labeled FAHRKARTE/ AUSGRABE (Booking Office) with a man at far left reading a newspaper and warning of U-Boats. Behind him the top-hatted German ambassador to the United States raises a finger in warning, all under the legend GESCHAFT VBER ALLES (Business above all).

    The Doomed Voyage

    On 4 February 1915, the German government declared the waters around Great Britain to be a war zone and that, as of 18 February, Allied ships would be sunk without warning. The Imperial German Embassy published this declaration beside the Cunard schedule in fifty American newspapers on the morning of 1 May, warning that travelers on British-flagged ships sailed at their own risk. While this caused some to cancel their passage, the Lusitania sailed from New York for Liverpool that afternoon with 1,960 passengers and crew aboard.

    A luxury passenger liner equipped with four immense steam turbines, Lusitania held the Blue Riband for fastest crossing of the Atlantic. While she had been built with modifications to transform her into an armed cruiser at need, she was deemed too large and costly to effectively operate as such, so Cunard was permitted to continue her service as a passenger liner. As a wartime economy, Lusitania's fourth boiler room was shut down, reducing her speed—although she was still faster than German U-Boats, which Captain William Thomas Turner believed would enable her to elude them.

    As the Lusitania neared the British Isles, Walther Schwieger, Lieutenant-Captain of U-20 cruising just off the coast of Ireland, had already sunk three ships and was returning to base. Heavy losses of ships to German attacks had prompted the British Admiralty to issue submarine warnings, and Captain Turner received two on 6 May, leading him to take basic precautions and double his lookouts. But he failed to adopt the Admiralty’s recommended zig-zag pattern, believing that Lusitania's speed could outrun any pursuit. A third Admiralty warning the morning of 7 May caused Turner to alter his course northeast towards the coastline, under the impression that submarines would keep to the open sea. This action would place Lusitania squarely within U-20’s sights within a matter of hours.

    A heavy morning fog had lifted by 11:00 A.M. and the Lusitania sailed on a calm sea under clear skies towards Queenstown, Ireland. Schwieger first spotted the Lusitania around 1:00 P.M. and began to shadow her, waiting for an opportunity to strike. At 2:10 P.M. as she crossed his bow, Schwieger gave the order to fire one of his remaining three torpedoes, hitting Lusitania below the bridge on the starboard side, an impact immediately followed by a second explosion (currently believed to be a steam explosion of one of her boilers). The ship failed to respond as Turner promptly tried to steer her towards the coast in an effort to beach her. The engines continued to impel the ship forward, flooding her hull so quickly that her bow slipped under water within six minutes of the torpedo hit. A severe listing lost many lifeboats to the sea, and caused filled boats to spill passengers while launching, crushing them between lifeboat and ship. Eighteen minutes after the torpedo hit, Lusitania was completely gone, taking with her 1,197 passengers and crew: only 763 survived the harrowing ordeal.

    The Aftermath

    While Germany roundly blamed the British for not heeding the warnings of submarine warfare and loudly proclaimed its right to attack Lusitania as a cruiser transporting military cargo, the extreme loss of civilian lives—especially the horrifying numbers of children and infants killed, brought swift international condemnation of Germany and its allies. Goetz, reading of the event in a newspaper that erroneously dated the sinking on 5 May instead of the 7th, used that date in his original medal, thereby creating a golden propaganda opportunity for Great Britain. Surprised by the world's reaction to the attack, the War Office of the Kingdom of Bavaria banned further manufacture of the medal and ordered existing examples to be confiscated—but examples had already reached England, where it was promoted as proof that the attack had been planned in Berlin and the medals published before the actual act had been committed.

    The British Foreign Office created die-cast iron replicas of the May 5th medal and sold them for a shilling each in boxes featuring an image of the ship and accompanied by a propaganda leaflet designed to further inflame public opinion against Germany. The head of the Lusitania Souvenir Medal Committee later estimated that a quarter million were sold with proceeds going to the Red Cross and St. Dunstan's Blinded Soldiers and Sailors Hostel. Americans Gustave Sandstrom and Clarence Mahood also created and sold white metal versions of the medal. These are second only to Goetz's original in rarity, and are easily identified by what is commonly called the "goofy pumpkin head" on the skeleton selling tickets, as illustrated in the second view of the replica medal.

    The ruthless sinking of the Lusitania, with its attendant loss of 124 Americans and 94 children among the nearly 1,200 victims, irreparably altered American public opinion of Germany, although it would be several more years before President Wilson would finally ask Congress to declare war on Germany, which it did on 6 April 1917.

    For further reading

    To learn more about the medals of Karl Goetz:

    Burns, Greg. Commemoration of Death: The Medals of the Lusitania Murders. Upland, CA: Private press: 2012.

    Kienast, Gunter W. The Medals of Karl Goetz. Cleveland: Artus Co., 1967.

    For a complete account of the final voyage:

    Larson, Erik. Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania. New York: Crown/Archetype, 2015.

    Lauriat, Charles E. Jr. (one of the survivors). The Lusitania’s Last Voyage. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1915.

    To discover more Lusitania facts, figures, speculation and to access official documents regarding her final voyage, see The Lusitania Resource.