Titanic disasters - or stories of successful, sustainable life?
11th April: A hundred years ago, the pride of the White Star Line, RMS Titanic, was steaming westward on its maiden voyage to the New World. What happened around midnight between the 14th and the 15th of April has become part of our collective archetypal memory: a titanic disaster, caused by a blend of arrogance and ignorance, and a false feeling of safety.
Why has this tragic accident achieved such an epic status? The 20th century has seen so many human tragedies and disasters – why this one? It happened even before the First World War that showed how effective and efficient industrialized nations were in killing enemy soldiers, and how ineffective and inefficient they were in solving political problems.
It happened before the Second World War that not only brought an unprecedented amount, but also unprecedented qualities of distress and suffering to humans.
How could the sinking of RMS Titanic create or keep its fame as an archetypal disaster of the 20th century?
Many people have speculated about this question. Let me try it anyway: First of all, it was not a 100% man-made disaster. Travelling by ship was almost as safe back then as it is today. What if the Iceberg had been drifting by the ship at safe distance? To a certain extent, it was just bad luck. It was a risk most of us would have taken. It was an accumulation of unfortunate circumstances that (hopefully doesn’t, but) could happen to any of us.
Second – and even more important – I think it was the moment when the 20th century lost its innocence. The RMS Titanic was a symbol of the achievements of a new area: High tech, top luxury, giant size, top speed; it seemed that man-made technology could break the chains of the old ages, reach new horizons and open the doors to a new quality of life.
The big cities of the early century offered a modern, urban lifestyle that brought an end to old fashioned traditions and gave freedom to the individual. The Titanic was a symbol of a new lifestyle. It offered fast and comfortable travelling to business people, back and forth across the Atlantic Ocean. And it offered affordable transfer to people on the third class decks: emigrants of Old Europe on their way to the pursuit of happiness in the New World.
Literally “out of the blue”, within less than a few hours, all these visions, dreams, lifestyles and hopes that had shown a way into the new century, were destroyed. The unthinkable had happened, the unbreakable was broken, and the unsinkable had sunken to the ocean floor: a titanic disaster disenchanted the young century. The reasons – Ambition? Unthoughtfulness? We will never really now. What we do know: It was the absence of true leadership - the ability to responsibly use the possibilities of a new technology, to adapt to changing external conditions, to take responsibility for human lives.
Many ships have crossed the sea since then. And a new century is about to leave its childhood behind. Has it lost its innocence yet? The archetypal incident must have been 9-11 2001.
While the Titanic disaster was the moment of truth with respect to the limits of new industrial technologies, 9-11 was the moment of truth with respect to the limits of new communication technologies in a global village. Hate and fanaticism keeps mankind from becoming global sisters and brothers through internet, mail and social media.
New technologies, new opportunities, new ages and centuries don’t automatically lead us into a bright future. It takes leadership: responsibility, respect and regardfulness, to make this world a better place, and to create collective archetypal memories which tell us stories of successful, sustainable life.