Bitter Memories

The year was 1915. The great ship Lusitania, built in 1906 and touted as the largest ship in the world, had crossed the seas between Liverpool and New York every month for seven successful years, all thirty thousand tons of her. But on May 7 of 1915, the Lusitania was torpedoed without warning by a German U-Boat and sank within eighteen minutes. 761 people were rescued. 1198 died. For you history buffs, there are additional photos and postcards about the Lusitania available at During the four years of World War I, fourteen British ships representing nine million gross tons were sunk by German U-Boats. A far larger number of U.S. Naval ships were destroyed as well.

People were afraid to cross the seas. Robert Fay, a lieutenant in the Imperial German Army, decided that smuggling bombs onto ships was too haphazard a process, so he put together a plan to attach explosives to the rudders beneath. (Fay was caught before he could do any damage, thanks to a tip to the FBI). Frank Holt, who taught German at Cornell University, was determined to stop the US from supplying arms to the Allies. He successfully planted a bomb which exploded in the reception area near Vice President Marshall's office, then proceeded to the home of J. P. Morgan and attempted to assassinate the banker. (Holt was foiled by Morgan's wife and their childrens' nurse. Later it was determined that his true name was Erich Muenter who had once been an instructor at Harvard and was suspected of poisoning his wife.)

Spies and counterspies were everywhere. Fear was palpable.

It was also a time of great excesses. Newly-minted millionaires were making fortunes in banking, railroads, and steel. They were eager to show off their wealth and establish their credentials by paying extravagant prices at auction in New York and London for European art and antiquities, and the art dealers were only too happy to oblige.

Terrorism? Transportation fears? Outrageous prices for "name" artists, preferably dead? Does this sound familiar? Instead of newly-rich Americans needing to validate themselves with European culture, today we have the Asian entrepreneurs, the Russians who have escaped with their funds to London, the Middle Eastern moguls, all bidding extravagantly for art at Sotheby's and Christie's auction houses. Christie's recently announced that it had set a record of $866 million USD in just two sessions. Friends of the current administration have profited handsomely in the past six years, but these are largely people who don't have to take off their shoes at airports. The rest of us watch in horror as the President tells us that his successor will still be fighting the war in Iraq. Even the esteemed Baker Commission report, with its pre-eminent authorship, even the trouncing at the recent elections - nothing seems to penetrate the stubborn refusal at the top levels of government to face what is happening and how the American people feel about it.

It is instructive to visit the Metropolitan Museum online for their exhibition entitled "Glitter and Doom: German Portraits from the 1920's". In seven galleries with over 100 paintings and drawings, the Met shows us a decadent society in the face of the thriving art and culture scene in Berlin at the time. Roberta Smith, in the New York Times, writes of "headless advisors" and "works that chronicle the world as it slides from one cataclysm to the next". It doesn't take a Ph. D. in art to be struck by the arrogance of these faces: the Met's own description speaks of artists who looked "soberly, cynically, and even ferociously at their fellow citizens".

I have no difficulty in imagining some contemporary faces superimposed on these sharp and bitter portraits. Nor should you. George Kamiya has written in, "War itself is a terrible thing, and making war is almost always a sign of total failure, the ultimate defeat of the human spirit". It is said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. What is Bush the Weaker doing while Baghdad burns? And what will it take to pull this administration out of denial?

c. Corinne Whitaker 2007