CI Article: Hitler's cruise line (15.09.16)

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Or how cruising became a tool for National Socialist ideology and ambition in the 1930’s – a closer look at the Kraft durch Freude cruise empire

Transcript of CI Article: Hitler's cruise line (15.09.16)

Page 1: CI Article: Hitler's cruise line (15.09.16)

Or how cruising became a tool for National Socialist ideology and ambition in the 1930’s – a closer look at the Kraft durch Freude cruise empire

Page 2: CI Article: Hitler's cruise line (15.09.16)


Hitler’s Cruise Line

The 11.492 GRT steamer Sierra Cordoba in KdF livery (illustration 1937)

D approved onboard leisure activi-ties. More charters followed to more exotic locales during the 1930’s and by 1937 the KdF were regularly operating nine ships 1930during

In 1938-39 the KdF launched two custom-built cruise ships, the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Robert Ley – both around 26.000GRT, 205m long and with room for approx. 1500 guests and 440 crew. No longer bound by using chartered commercial ships, the KdF was free to pursue their ideal of true classless travel and both ships were built without the traditional 3-tiered class struc-ture of ocean liners; all cabins were basically the same, all facilities and services were avail-able to all guests, and everyone paid the same price for a cruise, regardless of class. Previously, on the chartered ships, KdF had to sidestep the class structure of the ships, by assigning cabins by lottery, giving everyone a fair and equal chance at getting a 1st or 2nd class cabin, but with the newbuilds fairness and equality was assured from the start. Given their classless nature and mass appeal KdF ships were not about luxury and high-society. The ships were in fact quite modest compared to other liners of the day, especially those custom-built or refitted for KdF use.

id you know the Nazis used to run a cruise line?

Not only that! For a while there in the 1930’s, the Nazis operated the largest tourism organization in the world. That also goes a long way towards explaining why Indiana Jones kept bumping into them all over the world. But seriously, the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) leisure or-ganization, a part of the national German labour organization, was dedicated to instilling and strengthening National Socialist ideals and unity by providing affordable class-less leisure and travel opportunities for the Ger-man masses. One of many leisure and travel activities within KdF was a cruise brand – starting in 1934 with chartered ships from the Ham-burg-Süd line, operating out of German ports on the Baltic and North Sea. Initial itineraries inclu-ded the fjords of Norway, the isle of Wight and Madeira but – inte-restingly enough – destination exploration seems to have been of secondary concern. Many Norway cruises did not even have any ports of call – merely scenic cruising and lots and lots of bonding National Socialist – of and

(bought or chartered) with desti-nations all around the Baltic / Scandinavian area, Western Eu-rope and the Mediterranean. Clearly, the concept had proven popular enough to warrant its own fleet.

Vintage travel poster for the KdF ‘Urlaubs-fahrten’ (holiday cruises)

Cover: The Wilhelm Gustloff sets sail from Hamburg under the KdF logo

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Hitler’s Cruise Line

use. The dining options were li-mited and far from haute cuisine, the cabins and public areas were spartan and functional, rather than elegant and opulent, but to German working class families – having struggled through the dark years of post-World War I depression – that did not matter in the least. To them, the ships were fantastic, exotic and repre-sented a family vacation experi-ence they could have never af-forded otherwise, courtesy of the National Socialist Party. Life onboard was not unlike that of other contemporary cruise ships – there was a daily activi-ties program, heavy on commu-nal, bonding sports- and leisure activities, music and entertain-ment options and enrichment / destination lectures – all of course sanctioned and super-vised in accordance with National Socialist philosophies and ideals. However, other aspects of the experience were significantly more disciplined and authorita-rian; everyone had to wake up by 8am at the latest and by mid-night latest there had to be ‘Ruhe im Schiff’ – peace & quiet on-board. Despite the overall ideological agenda of the organization, the KdF (wisely) chose never to force politics overtly on their cruise guests – though the ship format was eminently suited for hosting ideological indoctrination events (talk about a captive audience), that was never practiced. The Kdf was indeed all about the fun, enjoyment and relaxation of the working class, while subtly ma-king sure the workers knew very well who to thank for the privi-lege. In commercial terms, the KdF cruise organization had little in common with other cruise lines of the day. As partially govern-ment-funded enterprises they were not aimed at turning a profit. Rather, they were tools of propaganda (to the Germans themselves and to the world at large)

The 14.000 GRT Monte Sarmiento on a KdF-charter in the Norwegian Fjords in 1934

May 1937; the custom-built 25.500 GRT cruise ship Wilhelm Gustloff is launched

A group of German women presenting the Nazi salute on the deck of a KdF ship

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Hitler’s Cruise Line

large), a means of forging nation-al and ideological identity and ideal vessels for cultivating social unity under Nazi leadership. But in terms of sheer numbers of passengers introduced to vaca-tions on the high seas, it was every bit as influential as some of the largest of the traditional cruise brands in the 1930’s. The Nazi cruise adventure ended abruptly in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Plans to build more kdF ships were mothballed and the existing ships drafted into war service. Incidentally, the flagship Wilhelm Gustloff went on to tragic fame. In late January 1945 she was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea, while evacu-ating German settler families and soldiers from the territory of East Prussia. Due to chaos and panic during embarkation, no one had an exact count of how many refugees the ship was carrying but estimates range wildly between 8.000 and 10.000. Only 1.239 of them were saved from the dark, cold waters of the Baltic, making the Wilhelm Gust-loff the biggest death toll in any maritime disaster in history.

From April 1938; a welcome pamphlet from a KdF cruise, detailing dining schedule..

..and a Daily Program, detailing a (mostly musical) day at sea in the Atlantic Ocean

By Jacob Lyngsøe a.k.a. the Cruise Insider

September 2016

Want to learn more about the fascina-ting history of crui-ses and passenger shipping, contact the Cruise Insider!

‘Spartan and functional’ interior decor on the Wilhelm Gustloff A packed sun deck on a KdF Norway cruise