The Lusitania Medal and Propaganda War

Proof of premeditated murder or merely publicity hoopla? This medallion may seem innocuous at first glance but in fact it was a propaganda tool used by both the Germans and the Allies during the First World War.

The sinking of RMS Lusitania was a significant event in WWI. The German torpedoing of the passenger liner in the Irish Sea on 7 May 1915, with the loss of 1198 lives, caused outrage amongst the allied nations and was a factor in prompting America to enter the war. Germans argued that the ship was fair-game as it was carrying war munitions and was travelling in a declared “war zone”; they had even issued warnings to passengers beforehand not to travel on the Lusitania.

In August 1915, a few months after the sinking of the Lusitania, a medal was designed by the German artist, Karl Goetz, as a satirical attack on the Cunard Line for trying to continue business as usual during wartime. One side shows a skeleton selling tickets with the words “Business above all”; the other side depicts the ship sinking with the deck laden with guns with the words “No Contraband!”. The date was incorrectly added as 5 May 1915 which Goetz later put down to an error in a newspaper story.

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This small mistake led to further controversy. News of the medal was picked up by the British Foreign Office who, believing it in their interests to keep US citizens aware of German actions and attitudes, sent photographs to the Americans. In the US, the story was widely promulgated, including the false report that the medal was awarded to the U-boat crew, and, due to the incorrect date on this medal, conspiracy theories were put forward that the sinking was premeditated.

The British Propaganda Office saw that the situation could be used for their own purposes and generated a reproduction medal in 1916 which was sold with a propaganda leaflet to develop anti-German feeling. It was estimated 250,000 were sold. This medallion is one of the British reproductions.