Remembering the Sinking of the Lusitania

Lusitania copy
British propaganda medal depicting the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915 (DHS object collection)

May 7, 2015 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, a pivotal event that helped nudge the United States into World War I. The Lusitania, a passenger liner launched in 1906 by the Cunard line, was torpedoed and sunk off the coast of Ireland by a German submarine on May 7, 1915, resulting in the deaths of 1,198 passengers and crew. The incident sparked international outrage and shortly afterwards, when German medal maker, Karl Goetz, produced a small number of satirical commemorative medals about the event, the British government was quick to produce its own copies for propaganda purposes.

One side of the medal depicts the Lusitania going down with “Keine Bann Warr” (no contraband) above, while the reverse shows the figure of Death selling tickets to a crowd of passengers at the Cunard Line booking office with “Geschaft űber Alles” (business above everything) above. Goetz objected to what he saw as Britain and America’s careless “business as usual” attitude during a wartime situation, but the British were quick to commandeer the medal’s imagery for their own ends. The British version of the medal, such as this one originally owned by T. Coleman DuPont (1863-1930) of Greenville, Delaware, was a near-exact copy of the German medal, except that it came attractively boxed and included a specially produced propaganda leaflet which made the bold claim (among others) that: “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.” This medal, which was sold quite inexpensively, represented a propaganda coup and effectively galvanized anti-German sentiment during the war.


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