May 7, 2015 marked the centennial of the sinking of the Lusitania. The great European powers had been at war for almost a year with no end in sight. Until this point, the United States had maintained strict neutrality. But when a German U-boat fired a torpedo that sank the Lusitania, the United States was nudged into the war on the side of Great Britain and France. Of the 1,198 passengers and crew who died that day, 128 were Americans.
President Wilson, despite angry cries across the country, did all that he could to prevent America from entering the war. To that end, he sent strong protests to the German government against the sinking of unarmed ships without prior warning. In response to Wilson’s letters, the German government slowed down its policy of unrestricted submarine warfare until the winter of 1917. However, the damage was done. In hindsight, it is clear that with the sinking of the Lusitania it was only a matter of time until America entered the war. The die was cast on that fateful May afternoon.
In commemoration of this historic event a number of new books have recently been published. One of the most significant – and readable – is Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (2015) by Erik Larson. Larson manages to weave together the perspectives of multiple characters to capture and portray the tensions, pressures and fears prevalent at the time. What I found most interesting was the interplay between the important and “big” events with the ostensibly routine and small ones.
A clearly momentous occasion took place on April 2, 1917, when President Wilson convened a special session of Congress to ask for a declaration of war against Germany. Four days later, on April 6, the approved resolution was sent to Wilson to be signed. Larson points out that “Congress took so long not because there was any question whether the resolution would pass but because every senator and representative understood this to be a moment of great significance and wanted to have his remarks locked forever in the embrace of history” (pp.342-3).
This perspective of the legislators who knew full well the impact their actions would have contrasts in almost poetic fashion with the very narrow perspective of a U-boat commander Larson describes earlier in the book. In 1915, German U-boat commanders had been authorized to sink any ship if they thought it was British or French, even while submerged and without warning. Larson explains, “The most important effect of all this was to leave the determination as to which ships were to be spared, which to be sunk, to the discretion of the individual U-boat commanders. Thus a lone submarine captain, typically a young man in his twenties or thirties, ambitious, driven to accumulate as much sunk tonnage as possible, far from his base and unable to make wireless contact with superiors, his vision limited to the small and distant view afforded by a periscope, now held the power to make a mistake that could change the outcome of the entire war” (p.36). The German chancellor Theobald von Bethmann-Hollweg articulated this reality when he stated that, “Unhappily, it depends upon the attitude of a single submarine commander whether America will or will not declare war” (pp.36-7).
These contrasting perspectives provide an important lesson. Leaders must never forget that history is not only the product of “big moments.” History is just as likely to be the product of what seems, at the time, to be a relatively small and remote decision.
This important lesson can already be seen by looking at the beginning of both portions of this week’s Torah reading. Parshat Behar begins by mandating the observance of shemittah. The significance of this mitzvah (both with respect to the reward for its proper observance and to the punishment for its neglect) is obvious for all to see. Its association with Har Sinai immediately focuses our attention to its importance. The fact that it is connected to Eretz Yisrael, our homeland, serves to further emphasize its centrality to our national religious consciousness. And since its observance, or lack thereof, is obvious to everyone (it’s a mitzvah that by definition takes place in the public sphere), its potential impact is always on everybody’s radar.