1919 - 1945
"The worst of all the war years," complain German shipowners. In June the Peace Treaty of Versailles is signed, with all German ships of over 1,600 grt being allocated to the victorious powers, as well as half of all vessels between 1,000 grt and 1,600 grt. Hapag and North German Lloyd, five years previously the world’s largest shipping companies, no longer possess any fleets.
The flagship of the NDL fleet is now the 781-grt excursion steamer "Grüßgott". The Bremen company looks for American partners to facilitate a return to its old trades. They negotiate in New York with the United Mail Steamship Company, and a US delegation arrives in Bremerhaven on the "Susquehanna", the first post-war steamer. An item of war booty, she is well known there, but as NDL’s SS "Rhein".
In spring, Dr. Wilhelm Cuno, Ballin’s successor at the head of Hapag, signs a cooperation deal with the Harriman Group’s United American Lines, brokered by the banking house Warburg. This covers all the pre-war trades except East Asia. As a start, the liner service to New York is resumed. In January the "Mount Clay", the former NDL steamship "Prinz Eitel Friedrich", calls in Cuxhaven for the first time.
White Star Line puts the "Homeric" into service. NDL had had her built in Danzig as the "Columbus", then managing to prolong fitting out for eight years so as to defer her delivery. This only transpires thanks to a discreet barter deal, the "Columbus Agreement". NDL receives six steamships back for the finally completed luxury liner and is able to resume the liner service to South America and East Asia.
Amid chaos and inflation, the German merchant fleet’s first new top-of-the-line ship, Hapag’s "Albert Ballin" sails on her maiden voyage to New York. Of 20,815 grt, she is barely half the size of the "Imperator". Nevertheless, she is seen as a symbol of hope and the will to survive, like Fritz Höger’s Hapag House on Alsterdamm, completed in 1921.
"The most astonishing resurrections in the history of world shipping": Hapag and NDL are back in their old trades. With the second "Columbus", NDL once again dispatches a luxury liner to New York. With the USA drastically tightening up immigration requirements and emigration sharply falling, Hapag relies on a quartet of less spectacular, yet viable ships. NDL aims to return to the top.
Hapag and NDL also commit themselves to civil aviation. The result of the merger between Deutsche Luft-Reederei and Lloyd-Luftverkehr, "Deutsche Aero Lloyd AG" is already flying more than 6,000 kilometres a day on liner services in Europe. In 1926 the company merges with other airlines to form Deutsche Luft Hansa AG. As the name reveals, both Hanseatic shipping companies hold stakes in the company.
Sensation at the coast: NDL orders the turbine-driven express steamers "Bremen" and "Europa". With the combination of around 46,000 grt and a maximum speed of 29 knots, these are intended to regain supremacy in the North Atlantic business. The spectacular flagship "Bremen" is even being built in its native city of Bremen. Even while still on the slipways of AG Weser, this gem becomes the region’s much admired star turn.
"Political Funnels": After the merger with Austral-Kosmos-Linien, Hapag adopts its black-white-red funnel markings. This marks a controversial but unassailable comeback for the "black-white-red flag". Even during the republic, German shipping stubbornly retained these colours, regarding them as a symbol of past glory. Atop the yellow funnel, they now become a Hapag hallmark.
Planned and accompanied by Ehrenfried Günther Freiherr von Hünefeld, NDL’s 'propaganda chief', the first east-west transatlantic flight is achieved by a single-engine Junkers aircraft called "Bremen". It lasts 36 hours and the pioneers are ecstatically honoured in two continents. Euphoria reigns at NDL: Named by President Paul von Hindenburg, the "Bremen" is launched in August, followed next day by the "Europa" in Hamburg.
The maiden voyage of the "Bremen" proves a complete success and for the first time since 1908 a German liner holds the Blue Riband. She is an ambassadress and a symbol of the resurrection, adored in her home port as no other ship ever has been or ever will be. With her futuristic silhouette, she embodies technology, momentum and glamour in equal measure and is depicted in exciting modern poster art, becoming the icon, embodiment and highlight of the brief "golden" Twenties.
The world economic crisis, recession and depression hit also shipping so hard that Hapag and NDL have to decide on closer cooperation. A union pact is agreed. This is designed to achieve the economic effects of a merger without formally sealing this. The two companies do not wish to forgo "their own individual existence and the publicity value of their long-standing organizations" at any price. The pact lasted only a few years.
"A crisis year of maximum dimensions" for NDL, and similarly for Hapag. Of the German merchant fleet’s total tonnage of 4.2 million grt, 650,000 grt is laid up unemployed. An eerie calm haunts the ports, mass unemployment rages - and both economically and politically, the downward trend continues. Internal frictions between Hapag and NDL intensify to such an extent that lifting of the union agreement is considered.
Brisk business during the crisis: Hapag and NDL had re-started the cruise and tourism business in 1926. The "small-scale tourism" of the services to German seaside resorts booms without interruption and so do the dream voyages for an international clientele. The range is meanwhile exclusive and varied, from Hapag’s world cruises commencing in New York to NDL’s first combined sea-air cruises.
Hapag and NDL, partly state-owned, are brought into line by the Nazis. Max Warburg, Ballin’s best friend and especially close to Hapag for decades, is thrown off the supervisory board. The banker retains his dignity, delivering a passionate farewell speech to an embarrassed auditorium, sarcastically settling scores with the new top managers. His tremendous departure makes international headlines.
Already interrupted by the war, the vast flow of emigrants has almost entirely ebbed away since the USA’s rigorous tightening up of the immigration laws in 1924. The extensive emigrant town in Hamburg, before 1914 used annually by 170,000 emigrants from large parts of Europe, had been reduced in size for German post-war emigrants and re-named "Überseeheim". Even this is meanwhile almost empty. Hapag returns the site to the city.
A glittering image and a disastrous financial situation: The North Atlantic passenger trade brings Hapag and NDL heavy losses, all the more so since ships under the swastika flag are shunned by sections of the international public and more modern foreign competition is coming into service. Hitler insists that for reasons of prestige the loss-making service should be maintained "somehow". The Reich therefore takes over the entire financial risk.
The Olympic Games in Berlin bring a boom for North Atlantic passenger trade. 700 Lloyd staff look after the athletes in Berlin. The party organization "Kraft durch Freude" (Strength through Joy – KdF) charters Hapag and NDL steamships, to offer deserving "comrades" low-cost cruises, party propaganda invariably included. The success of the KdF programme means the start of mass tourism at sea.
The "Potsdam", "Scharnhorst" and "Gneisenau" sail for the NDL to the Far East on the most important route apart from the Atlantic. The fastest and most modern passenger ships on this route, two of them are fitted with turbo-electric propulsion plants. These smart ships with their luxurious appointments, also built as floating advertising media for the Third Reich, cause a stir in all their ports of call but soon prove unviable.
Horror at Hapag: Its first sail training ship, built as the "L'avenir" in 1908 and acquired by Hapag in 1937, the four-masted barque "Admiral Karpfanger" fails to return from her first voyage to Australia. Her last telegram reaches Norddeich-Radio on 12 March, then she disappears near Cape Horn, and with her the 60 men on board, among them 44 youngsters aged between fifteen and nineteen, Hapag’s next generation of officers.
Hapag’s SS "St. Louis" remains out at sea with more than 900 Jewish refugees on board. No country is prepared to grant them entry and they cannot return. Finally, the passengers are rescued by the moral courage of Captain Gustav Schröder and his crew. After a five-week odyssey, they are permitted to land in Antwerp. As Germany invades Poland and war breaks out, 858 German vessels are still at sea.
An uncanny premiere in Hamburg: The first and only wartime launch of a large passenger ship. Hapag’s second "Vaterland" of 41,000 grt is noticeably smaller than her famed predecessor that with 54,282 grt remains the largest liner ever to operate under the German flag. The newbuilding, also built by Blohm & Voss, is never to sail. Initially she serves as a timber store, and in 1943 she is destroyed by bombs at the quay.
Death of a legend: The "great 'Bremen'", lying alongside in Bremerhaven and awaiting refit as troopship, is gutted by fire in March. After an inferno lasting two days, the most popular ship ever to operate under the NDL flag is no more than a burnt-out wreck. A mentally retarded ship’s boy (16), who later accuses himself of the crime, is executed as the fire raiser. Whether he was really the arsonist was never clarified.
Hapag and NDL are re-privatized and once again independent companies. In the previous year the shares had at the request of the central government in Berlin been disposed of to "suitable, mainly Hanseatic business circles". The NDL executive board, Dr. Johannes Kulenkampff and Richard Bertram, sells the excessively "splendid" head office building in downtown Bremen, but NDL remains there as the tenant.
"Operation Gomorrah", the devastating allied bombing raids lasting days, transforms Hamburg into a wasteland of ruins. The port is destroyed and full of sunken ships. A year later a major raid on the centre of Bremen follows, and NDL head office is lost, along with all the business files, stores and silver. The gutted building designed by Poppe is later demolished.
The "total war" nears its end. With the triumphal advance of the Red Army, in autumn the mass exodus from Germany’s eastern territories begins. While the "Thousand-Year Reich" is sinking, many Hapag and Lloyd ships, crammed with people, help to rescue refugees from East Prussian and Pomeranian ports.
Defeat under the swastika. More than two million people are successfully brought to safety across the Baltic ahead of the Red Army, yet tens of thousands of refugees, seafarers and soldiers perish. On board the "Steuben" alone, in happier days the pride of the NDL cruise fleet as the "white swan" but now torpedoed off Pillau, more than 5,000 people drown in icy waters.