The personality of Walter Schwieger


Jun 10, 2004
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I am surprised that there is not more discussion/controversy over the kind of guy Schwieger was. In one book I read he was portrayed as utterly callous, so unmoved by the vision of the sinking liner that one of his own men grabbed a revolver and attempted to shoot him. In another book his reaction at the time is restrained. There is no mention of any attempt to shoot him. This time he is said to have been appalled by the loss of life.
I suspect he did not expect to sink the ship with a single torpedo. His previous attacks on much smaller ships had all ended up with the torpedoes failing to inflict terminal harm on the ships attacked and his having to surface to finish them with gunfire. So it must have been almost unbelievable to watch this great liner just heel over and sink in less than 20 minutes.
Maybe the answer is that, at the time, he couldn't grasp that a single torpedo, striking a vulnerable point, could sink even a great ship very quickly.
What's the view on this? A brute? Or a technocrat applying new technology and being emotionally overwhelmed by the consequences of a "lucky" (or unlucky) shot?
Would appreciate some views and more anecdotes from his life.
 

Jack Devine

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From what I've read about him, he was neither a brute nor a technocrat. He strikes me as a professional in his country's navy, doing his duty. He surely could not have anticipated that the Lusitania would go down so quickly, with no time to for an orderly evacuation. The results of this single shot were horrific, but not a war crime. It's surprising how the wartime attempts to demonize the u-boat captains still affect our perceptions today.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>What's the view on this? A brute? Or a technocrat applying new technology and being emotionally overwhelmed by the consequences of a "lucky" (or unlucky) shot?<<

Probably the latter. Kapitänleutnant Walter Schweiger never really impressed me as a brute and his comments in the wake of the sinking tend to put the lie to the whole premise.
"2.10 pm. Pure bowshot at 700 meters range, angle of intersection 90 degrees, estimated speed 22 knots. Shot strikes starboard side right behind the bridge. An unusually heavy detonation takes place with a very strong explosion cloud (far beyond front funnel). The explosion of the torpedo must have been followed by a second one (boiler or coal or powder?). The superstructure above the point of impact and the bridge are torn asunder, fire breaks out, smoke envelops the high bridge. The ship stops immediately and heels over to starboard quickly, immersing simultaneously at the bow. It appears as if the ship is going to capsize very shortly. Great confusion is rife on board; the boats are made ready and some of them lowered into the water. Great panic must have reigned; some boats, full to capacity, are rushed from above, touch the water with either stem or stern first, and founder immediately. I could not have launched a second torpedo into that struggling throng of humanity........"
Hardly the sort of thing one would expect a callous brute to pen into his war diary. He was a professional naval officer who probably didn't like his job but did what he had to according to whatever oath he swore to king and country.

FWIW, it's something I understand.
 

Dave Moran

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It's an interesting question - had he not been killed in action, would Schweiger have been tried as a war criminal ? Post-war the Entente powers left it up to the German civil authorities to pursue criminals - with the ultimate result that a few served time in prison ( months rather than years at that ) and the majority were left unmolested.

But Schweiger ?- somehow I think he would have been a test-case for the victors - the outrage and long-term consequences of his actions would have led to heavy public pressure.

Schweiger is also an interesting contrast with that other German submariner Otto Weddigen. He is still admired for sinking three out-of-date British armoured cruisers crammed with reservists recently recalled to action - many of whom died. Or indeed, Gunther Prien in World War 2.
 

rob scott

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wow- great topic- a handful of neat-o issues upon which to offer:

First: the troops called up, transporting... would it not be the duty of any officer and battle unit to act against the enemy troops either already upon the battlefield or en route to it? You can see all through Preston's book how Herr Kommandant (and thus all Imperial German officers and I would be sure to include Imperial British officers too) viewed preventing troops from killing the home team, including preventing the enemy from forming battle-ready upon the line; (in other words, attacking en-route troops is fair game).

Second: the crew-gun part- I myself would find it rather unbelievable in the Prussian system of Imperial Army and Navy, a soldier or crewman, under prevailing indoctrination, grabbing up a gun to shoot Herr Kommandant (read: 'God') upon His Majesty's ship, or Prussian Army battalion. I would have to see three solid primary sources to begin to conceive of that! ;)

Third: the 'callous' part- besides the warrior traditions fused into the Prussian military system... the German Navy officers were well aware of the high command's and the government's reactions to and policies toward the British use of large merchant craft as armed auxiliary vessels, but also carrying mucho war material including even weapons and ammo to war zones for supplying the enemy. If crew aboard such ships died, well that would be a fair thing, and if passengers were 'foolish' enough to ride upon such auxiliary vessels or into the war zone, well that would be 'their fault' so to speak. 'Duty, honor, country,' may be the way it is said in the US military, but those notions prevailed in the German systems too, heck they read Clauswitz too like at West Point and Annapolis. But of course that would be a very different viewpoint to that of the American press, or of the civilian populations in most western countries; but then it would be a non-issue in, say your average lives-pretty-cheap rural Russian village, or any rougher place in the world.
Preston illustrates how the German government and command were highly irked at the supposedly civilian or neutral vessels aiding the British war effort unchecked... so they decided they had the right to check them even if it meant a two-way street.
A lot of folks reading upon these issues today get a rather narrow view because most sources are not only 'Victorian-moralled Western' but also modern-intelligencia-press or highly-civilian academic. ;)

Fourth: war crimes- history is Full of the victor trying the defeated on war crimes, and those procedures including actions that really don't merit that except for the fact of the victors having the power and desire to assuage the feelings of their publics. Revenge can be a terrible thing. Remember that all war crimes issues and 'defendants' are determined by... the victors!

Good thread (but forgive me, I got a bit wordy, I just read a lot of military history and so find this thread interesting)
 

Jack Devine

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"would it not be the duty of any officer "
Absolutely, it was the duty of any German naval officer to attack enemy shipping whenever he had the opportunity. We tend to see the u-boat war as somehow sinister when it was perfectly legitimate. Most histories of the period give less attention to the effects of the British blockade of the Central Powers, with the resulting poverty and hunger throughout Germany. It got pretty ugly, from what I've read on the topic. Had the war gone the other way, we may have seen war crimes trials resulting.
 

Dave Moran

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Dear jack et al

The rules regarding submarine warfare at the start of the war were pretty clear and governed by, IIRC, the Hague Convention of 1899. Simply put - upon attacking any merchant vessel a naval vessel was supposed to give sufficient warning and time for the passengers and crew to take to the boats before the ship was sunk. Germany was a signatory to this convention.

Now, you could argue that this rather under mines the submarine's chief asset - it cannot be seen. But

(1) The Convention was put in place in 1899 and was still binding in 1915 and no-one had revised it. Thus, by its conventions, Schweiger was in breach and guilty of a criminal act.

(2) To say - well, both sides were bad whilst historically honest, is not a valid defence. if I come round to your house and murder your wife, and you come round to my house and murder me - we are both murderers

I agree with your point about the blockade of the Central Powers - and indeed far from being ignored it is seen by most historians as one major reason for the collapse of the German war effort - the other being the collapse of the army. And certainly it also contravened the Hague Convention by seizing foodstuffs as well as weapons. It's continuation in 1919 was unforgiveably heavy handed - but then, the peace treaty itself was not signed until mid-1919 and there were genuine fears that the Germans might resume hostilities.


Nevertheless - it was the German army that invaded Belgium in August 1914, that bombarded Liege, and first deployed poison gas. Some of Ludendorff's intentions for the eastern territiories seized at Brest-Litovsk smack of Nazi attitudes - resettlement of popualtions and such like.

My main point is this - in 1915 it was NOT the duty of a German officer to attack shipping wherever he found it. Tha Hague Convention laid on him higher duties to humanity - as it did on all combatant officers. Now, by 1915 these conventions were breaking down, a process complete by late 1916 when the war became a total war. The sinking of the Lusitania was a major turning point in this process - a signal that the war was no longer between fighting forces but would inflict civilian deaths as well. For this, Schweiger bears some degree of responsibility - something I think he did recognise.
 
Sep 22, 2003
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I cant Say I blame Germany for the Start of WW1. I Do However think that Austria and Russia caused WW1, though i suppose it doesn't count as a WW Until a World Power is Involved or A Power w/ Colonies Flung Around Almost Every corner of the globe. Germany Meets the 1st, though not the 2nd. Great Britain and France met Both At the Time.
 

Jack Devine

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Dave,
I agree with you on the Hague Convention "controlling" submarine warfare, but do you suppose the British would have made so much noise about it if they were in Germany's position, i.e. able to seriously harm their enemy's homeland through unrestricted submarine warfare? I'm not making a point, I would like to hear what you (or anyone) thinks. In my opinion, the Convention was superseded by technology and Germany would have been entirely within her rights to renounce it. They did publish a warning about sailing in the war zone - I'm sure we've all seen copies of it - and anyone who ignored the risk may have had an unrealistic romantic view of modern warfare.

Your other points about German actions are right on, especially their treatment of Belgium. For that matter, I believe the German government was the only power capable of preventing the war, had they used their influence to restrain the Austrians in their actions against Serbia, especially after the Serbian capitulation to the Austrian ultimatum. Their failure to do so places a great deal of blame on them for starting the war.

Excellent post, by the way!
Regards,
 

Dave Moran

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Thank you jack - very kind words.

Oh, the British close blockade that was instigated in 1914 also breached the conventions of warfare, particularly since it also stopped the importing of food-stuffs into German. They were only legally allowed to blockade war materials but argued that food constituted a war material - a spiritual breach of the Treaty provisions.

Niall Ferguson in " The Pity of War" has also indicated that, in the event of a continental war, Britain would have descended on Belgium to seize its ports and thus block German food imports. So the starvation of the German population was a part of pre-war British strategy.

Does this mean that the British were as immoral as the Germans ?

To some extent - had, for example, Sir Edward Grey been less equivocal in late-July early-August about British intentions then the Germans would not have convinced themselves that the British were going to keep out of the war and would not have launched the Schlieffen Plan. And, as you probably know, as soon as the Kaiser realised that the British WERE going to come in he called Moltke in on 1st August and attempted to stop this part of the mobilisation.

However

(1) Moltke told the Kaiser that it was too late to prevent the deployment of the troops in the West- which was little short of a dirty great fib.

(2) The Kaiser still intended to attack the Russians in the East - which had been the driving obsession of German foreign and military policy since at least December 1912. In those last days of July it was the only thing Reich Chancellor Bethmann-Hollweg talked about.

(3) The Germans not only did not use their influence to restrain Austria - Berlin pushed Austria into taking action against Serbia ( not that the Austrians were reluctant, it must be said ). The Germans were in a position analagous to one of those sleekit sods who used to manipulate the school bully into beating up folk they didn't like.

Schweiger was a German naval officer. the German Navy had a tradition that, in the evnt of war, the High Seas Fleet would venture out and attack the British fleet. however, it never worked out exactly how it was to go about doing that. When war started Tirpitz discovered that his fleet had no place in the Kaiser's war plans - he and his generals saw victory as a product of simply winning enough battles. They had no wider strategy for a war outside the Continent and for the next few months the ships swung about their anchors, occassionally bombarding British sea-side resorts.

Their adoption of submarine warfare, I would suggest, sprung out of frustration at being denied an offensive role.

Would the British have done the same ? Having regard to the offensive spirit of the Royal Navy, and the frustrations of what was proving to be a long war - yes, I rather think they would have.
 
Jun 10, 2004
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I have just been reading Diana Preston's book "Wilful Murder". She accuses Schwieger of wilful murder by the standards of May 1915 - but I think she is being rather harsh. To sustain the charge, she would have to establish that Schwieger had every expectation that a single torpedo would have sunk such a large ship so quickly, or even at all. I do not think she could have done this. Schwieger had attacked and sunk three (I think) ships on the same patrol, all ships much smaller than Lusiatania, yet torpedoes had not been efefctive to sink any of them - he had to surface and sink them by gunfire. So I don't think Schwieger had any expectation of doing more than bring Lusitania to a stop. A point Preston fails to address is quite how the captain of a little U-boat is supposed to stop a giant liner. Does she really think Turner would have meekly brought his liner to a halt just because Schwieger had surfaced and was making threatening hand gestures? Equally, he could not have allowed the liner just to pass by. So firing one torpedo to inflict damage, say flooding a boiler room, to force the ship to a halt, looks to me like all he could do. Had he fired all three available torpedoes at the ship, that would have been more obviously aggressive intent. His firing of just the one at such a large target suggests, if anything, restraint. It was not until later in the war that the extreme vulnerability to pre-war liners to torpedo attack was understood. In fairness, Preston does acknowledge that Schwieger was deeply troubled by the loss of life. A final point is that by May 1915, there were already four million war dead, according to Preston. Already the war was slaughter - life had ceased to mean anything to governments deranged by their own blind arrogance. I don't see why Schwieger should take the charge of wilful murder. The dead can't sue for libel, however.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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>>His firing of just the one at such a large target suggests, if anything, restraint.<<

There were some very practical reasons for such restraint too. Early torpedos were not known to be overly reliable, were very expensive, and the capacity of the early submarines was extremely limited. The U-20, IIRC, could carry five and no reloads, so they just couldn't be wasted on targets of reletively low value.

For myself, I think the charge of "murder" is more then just a bit of a stretch. The Lustitania was transiting a declared war zone, flew the flag of a belligerent, was able to be converted over to an armed merchent cruiser, had enormous potential as a troopship, and the German spy network in New York City was hardly unaware of the fact that British ships were loading munitions while local inspectors were struck with selective blindness. Also, while the provanance of that "Warning" from the German Embassy is questionable (I've seen some arguements that it didn't come from them.) it was still correct about the state of war existing and the liabilty of ships entering said war zone to attack and destruction. There were no unknowns in this respect.

If somebody wants to call me cold blooded for this, I'll take it, but had I been in Schwieger's place, I would have taken the shot too. I wouldn't have liked it, but I would have done it.
 

Arne Mjåland

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Here is an extract from an article in the Norwegian paper Christianssands Tidende 1.2.1929;
Lusitania s butcher how the punishment hit him.
The maritime writer Hector Bywater in "Daily Telegraph" wrote in an article some interesting and unknown information about a single episode during the war. He wrote about how the German officer who torpedoed Lusitania found his death. It was on August 9 1918 the story was known.
The British admirality had known it for long, but due to important reasons decided not to make it public. The Germnman autorities wanted to keep the name of him who sinked Lusitania secret.
At last it was known that it was Schwieger who some months before, had got command of U 20 which was wrecked outside Jylland. Denmark s west coast.
On February 1 1915 Schwieger had tried to sink the British hospital ship Asturies. Fortunately the torpedo did not hit. When U 20 later came back to Germany, Schwieger received the iron cross of first class. Later he was transferred to Østersjøen which was a quiet area. During the summer 1917 Schwieger got command of the submarine U 88. In the Channel he saw numerious coffard ships. On September 1917 when he was situated at 49/42 13/18 he saw on long distance a small coffardi ship. He did not realize it was a British orlog ship. Commander Blackwood was in command. The ship was well eqipped. Schwieger thought is was an easy victim, fired from long distance. Blackwood used the cannon, but ordered ceasefire. He wanted the ship to come closer. but Schweiger was suspisious, and examined the ship through a periscope. He became satisfied with his research and came up to the surface 450 meeters away The British ship fired with its large cannon and nearly all shots hit. It was believed that Schwieger was killed while he was near the periscope, The U 88 sank within few minutes. The British ship remanined in the area for some time to pick up any survivors, but all disappeared.
When the German government some months later became aware of Schwieger s death, they announced that the submarine had hit a mine and sunk. The British government carefully avoided to correct this information. It would have been like to inform about the secret about the ships in the O group was on sea to hit submarines.
 

Arun Vajpey

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>>>>>>>From what I've read about him, he was neither a brute nor a technocrat. He strikes me as a professional in his country's navy, doing his duty. He surely could not have anticipated that the Lusitania would go down so quickly, with no time to for an orderly evacuation. The results of this single shot were horrific, but not a war crime. It's surprising how the wartime attempts to demonize the u-boat captains still affect our perceptions today. <<<<<<

I think that is a perfect description of the man. He was just a very good U-boat commander who did what he considered was his duty at the time. The Lusitania was listed as as Armed Merchant Cruiser and was carrying at least some contraband (even if it was only rifle shells and gun cotton - those things are not exactly supplies, are they?). That would make the ship a perfectly legitimate target in Schwieger's....or anyone else's view. Schwieger's misfortune was that the situation made him end up as a fall guy on both sides. The presence and death of a large number of Americans on the Lusitania would ensure that the already strained relationship between Germany and the USA would only get worse, culminating in the entry of the latter into WW1. The British media, spurred on by the likes of Churchill, foresaw this very well and did their best to demonise the Germans with Schwieger at the helm. The Germans, realising that what was initially seen as a major naval success was becoming an international embarassment to them, decided to wash their hands off Schwieger and tried to portray his actions as that of a runaway brigand. It was only later, with the USA firmly on the Allies side, that Schwieger belatedly regained his hero status.
 
Dec 2, 2000
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In fairness, Kapitänleutnant Schweiger wouldn't have known the specifics of the cargo the Lusitania was carrying. That sort of detailed intelligence seldom makes it down to the level of operational commanders in the field. He wouldn't have even known specifically when the ship would have been in the area. Most all encounters with the ships of hostiles were a matter of random chance rather then deliberate planning.

It was enough for him to know what the ship was built and could be used for along with the fact that it belonged to a belligerent.
 

Jim Kalafus

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Then, too, there is the entire question of the legitimacy of his account.

Schwieger witnessed things widely reported in the newspapers at the time that did not, in fact, happen.

1)"Fire breaks out and envelopes the bridge." He reported that a fire broke out. However, at least four people survived who were on the boat deck directly over the impact point when the torpedo struck. Two were at the rail, and saw the torpedo disappear under the side of the ship. They all used similar language in describing the explosion, the rain of water and debris that destroyed lifeboat #5, and the scene ofthe deck immediately afterwards. They did not see fire. None of the MANY witnesses watching from aft saw a fire break out although, again, they used similar language to describe the other events in the sequence. None of the MANY survivor accounts by passengers or crew on the forward boat deck mention externally visible fire. Dwight Harris climbed down the superstructure from the boat deck, starboard. Laura Martin was hauled up it at literally the same point. Both left detailed accounts. His amazingly detailed. Hers amazingly annoying. Neither saw fire near or at the bridge. Yet, lurid newspaper portrayals occasionally DID claim fire and, oddly, Schwieger sees one where no one else did. So, either 100 or so witnesses, all writing within days of the event, made horrible observers or Schwieger was coloring his story.

2) "Many boats crowded come down either bow or stern first in the water and immediately fill and sink"

Uhhh... no. Two starboard boats were overturned in launching, early on. One was refilled and, eventually, survived. Another boat, filled at the last minute, was driven up under its davits by the rising water, and crushed. Nothing resembling this claim happened on the starboard side. Something vaguely resembling this DID happen on the port side where, of course, he could not see it.

3)"Great confusion on board" again does not correspond to what actually happened. And, the majority of those on board were on the port side, where Schwieger could not see them anyway. The starboard boat deck, although not empty or deserted, was far from crowded. Those people on the port side did a lot of milling and jostling but, again, no panic. Schwieger's account reads a lot like certain lurid newaspaper versions of the story, populated by hysterical women, panicking foreigners and third class passengers, brave officers, etc.

4) "Many boats cannot get clear because of the slant of the boat." The severe list was gone before the lowering process began. Even if one believes the list story wholeheartedly, he could not have seen the "uphill" side of the ship from his perspective. The only boat destroyed by the list was one that was struck and overturned by the port side hull as she began to heel again, around minute 12 or 13. The other boats were destroyed by equipment malfunctions. Portside: the last boat aft in first class had its bow line run thru the tackle while the heads of the passengers seated in it were level with the boat deck. All were thrown out as the bow free fell. A second port boat did the same thing, only while much closer to he water. Within seconds, the next boat aft had both sets of lines run thru the davits, and it fell on top of those thrown out of the forward boat. There is a vague account of a fourth port boat being lost, but details are harder to pin down. But, after this rapid succession of disasters, the order was passed back to offload the remaining port boats. In all cases, the wrecking of the boats and the list had nothing to do with one another. And, again, even if they HAD, he could not have seen it.

But, lurid accounts NOT written by survivors did talk about the catastrophic list, boats being pushed uphill, etc.

5) "Submerge 24 meters and go to sea. I could not fire a second torpedo...." Not only bad, melodramatic character shading BUT, puzzling in light of his entirely omitting that he surfaced after the sinking, amomg the carnage he had wrought, and surveyed it in person. Again, scores of accounts of this, remarkably similar, were left by survivors who were writing too soon after the event to have compared notes. He reduced it to "Go to 11 meters and take a look around" when, in fact, he was close enough to see the people who he had killed a few minutes before.

So, either Schwieger and the more hysterical newspapers got the story correct, and at least 400 other witnesses were wrong, or there is something VERY suspect about that log account.

Would like to read what he ACTUALLY wrote. As it stands, the log reads like something constructed by a bad novelist using later, hysterical, newspaper accounts iof the sinking.

>Even the best of the best occasionally roll snake eyes

He tried to kill one of the nicest people I ever met. I hope that his snake eyes was long, protracted, and excruciatingly painful.

marc_loynd.jpg

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Arun Vajpey

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I wonder how Schwieger or anyone could have reported all those details from so far away and through a periscope? Maybe it was partly "reported" under pressure from the Naval High Command or simply embellishment by the media.
 

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