Updated: Apr 27, 2021
In the 1930’s arose a cruise company – literally out of nowhere – that went on to dominate the European cruise market in terms of volume. They were innovative, progressive and squarely focused on the developing mainstream market. At the height of their success they operated a fleet of 10 ships (including some of the newest and biggest cruise ships in the world), carried almost 750.000 passengers throughout the thirties and operated everywhere between the North Cape and the Mediterranean. But by 1940 their entire operation was gone without a trace. Don’t know who I am talking about? Well, maybe not by company name, but you have heard about the Nazis, right? And I am not using ‘Nazis’ as lazy shorthand for ‘some German company’ – I literally mean that the National Socialist Party of Germany ran the largest cruise operation of the 1930’s.
The global cruise scene of the early 1930’s was very much the domain of Great Britain – Germany had been dethroned from its previous lead position by the events of World War I and the ensuing recession. Whatever ships of the German merchant shipping fleet were not destroyed in the Great War (WWI) or confiscated as prizes of war were now old and outdated. Purpose-built cruise ships had been around since 1900 but the most common cruise vessel was the dual-purpose liner – long-distance ocean liners designed with occasional off-season cruise operations in mind. Designated ‘cruise lines’ still did not exist and cruising remained a seasonal offshoot of the transoceanic passenger industry. But societal changes in the Western world were starting to impact the age-old class system of liners. The growth and prosperity of the middle class in the interwar period was shifting focus away from the traditionally wealthy target groups towards middle class passengers. The lowest category of accommodation, Third Class or ‘Steerage’ - traditionally reserved for poor immigrant families - was phased out on new liners in favor of a 2-tier structure with 1st Class and Tourist Class, also making it easier and more lucrative to employ them as cruise vessels. So the stage was set for a boom in ‘mainstream cruising’, but it was not the Brits who jumped at that market. It was the Germans, and it was not for commercial reasons, but for ideological ones.
Shortly after the National Socialists took over the German government in 1933 the national German labor organization, Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labor Front), instituted the Kraft durch Freude (Strength through Joy) program - a state-operated leisure organization designed to provide affordable travel and leisure activities to the German working class to boost morale and bolster the domestic tourism industry. The program was meant to win the hearts and minds of the German people to the Nationalsocialist cause by providing them activities and tangibles they could otherwise never have afforded by themselves in the depression-ravaged Germany of the 1930’s.
One of many such activities within the Kraft durch Freude (KdF) was a cruise brand – starting in 1934 with the acquisition of ships and a pre-existing low-budget cruise concept from the Hamburg-Süd line, operating out of Hamburg. The KdF cruises were intended as cruises ‘for the people’, based on a National Socialist principle of equality; there were no class divisions onboard (at least not in concept), everyone paid the same for their cruise ticket (rates were heavily subsidized to make them literally affordable for all) and all amenities and services were available to everyone. The only problem was that most of the German passenger tonnage available was constructed with the standard 3-tiered passenger hierarchy which made it challenging to practice equality when one guest could get a luxurious and spacious first-class cabin and others had to contend with a cramped, window-less steerage cabin. KdF had neither the time nor the funds to completely refit these ships. The solution was a compromise; cabins were assigned by lottery so everyone stood an equal chance of enjoying first-class accommodations. This probably did not eliminate issues of jealousy and resentment but was a reasonably Solomonic solution for the moment.
Life onboard was not unlike that of other contemporary cruise ships – there was a daily activities program, heavy on communal, bonding activities like sports (in accordance with National Socialist ideals of health and fitness), games and leisure activities, music and entertainment options as well as enrichment / travel lectures. Dancing was big in the evenings – from 8:30PM each evening orchestra(s) would strike up and the dance floors would be packed until lights out. The first ships featured the standard amenities of 1930’s ocean liners; dining rooms, various lounges, libraries, gyms etc. There were 3 square meals a day in the dining room – primarily traditional German food rather than haute cuisine but plenty of it - and beverages were available at an affordable surcharge. To purchase your beverages and extras with, you had Bordgeld – an onboard currency, that you exchanged for Reichsmark at the beginning and end of the journey. Sort of an early forerunner of the charge account system of modern ships. As standard and laid back as all that sounds, other aspects of the experience were significantly more disciplined and authoritarian; everyone had to wake up by 8am and by midnight latest there had to be ‘Ruhe im Schiff’ – peace and quiet onboard.
Above: Impressions from KdF-cruising aboard Norddeutscher Lloyd's Der Deutsche, YouTube/Ballins Dampfer Welt
The cruises quickly became the public relations showcase of the KdF holiday organization because of the enticing imagery leisure cruises could produce. Film diaries and reports were showing in German movie theatres and print magazines ran full-page photo spreads of the fantastic voyages, drawing in more and more passengers. As an organization of political ideology, the KdF recognized the benefit of a captive audience. Political and national indoctrination was pervasive onboard and all activities soaked in national socialist ideology and propaganda; from the onboard entertainment which was always 100% wholesome German talent and culture, to the destination lecturers / shore excursion guides who were KdF-trained to convey a politically vetted narrative of the destination countries, to the speeches by der Führer transmitted through the tannoy system. While today’s cruise ships cultivate their onboard atmosphere to produce an enticing air of ‘relaxation, enjoyment and entertainment’ to encourage spending, you could say that KdF did the same but for the purpose of generating loyalty and commitment to the Nazi Party and cultivating German pride. And if you were a guest onboard, you had better be quick and enthusiastic about expressing your fealty and appreciation for the Nazi party – Gestapo spies were embedded with the guests onboard and would rat on anyone deemed of questionable loyalty or zeal.
The cruises mostly operated mostly out of Hamburg, staying close to their source market and enabling German rail to act as transit system. Initial itineraries included the fjords of Norway and the isle of Wight but actual ports of call were not a feature to begin with. Most of the early cruises did not have any calls outside of Germany – merely scenic cruising through fjords and along coastlines. It was likely concern for ‘ideological contamination’ or defection or maybe a way to cut costs by avoiding port fees, but landfall and organized shore excursions did not become common practice until the late 1930’s and even then, only in ideologically sympathetic countries like Italy and Spain (and their colonies).
These initial voyages were very reasonably priced – a 5-day Norway cruise out of Hamburg cost 60 Reichsmark, only about 40% of a German blue-collar workers monthly salary, and that included the train fare to and from Hamburg. Even as the cruises grew longer and more wide-ranging from 1935 onwards, the prices remained reasonable. Even a 12-day ‘All-Italy’ itinerary out of Venice only ran about 150 Reichsmark incl. the train fare to and from Venice – roughly the equivalent of the monthly wage of a blue-collar worker. More ships and more charters followed to more exotic locales during the late 1930’s and by 1937 the KdF were regularly operating nine ships (bought or chartered from German shipping companies, like Norddeutscher Lloyd, HAPAG or Hamburg-Südamerika Linie) with capacities ranging from 700 to 1500 guests per ship and with itineraries all around the Baltic / Scandinavian area, Western Europe, Atlantic Isles and the Mediterranean. Clearly, the concept had proven popular enough to warrant its own customized ships.
In the late 1930’s the KdF drew up plans for an ambitious long-term ship building program to ultimately result in 30 purpose-built cruise ships with the capacity to take 2 million Germans cruising per year. The design criteria for these ships introduced a revolutionary new cruise ship type, not previously seen in cruise history; the first full-time, purpose-built, all-Tourist-Class cruise ships. All cabins would be of near-identical layout and configuration, either two- or four-berth formats, and all would be exterior cabins with a porthole. These ships would not require a lottery to determine who got the best cabin – fairness and equality were baked into the concept. Furthermore, the new class of ship were to have large public rooms (lounges and dining rooms) capable of seating/hosting all guests at the same time and open spacious decks with plenty space for sports and leisure activities. A drawback of the early chartered liners was that their many lounges and public areas scattered and divided on three different class levels did not provide the event space to host all guests at once – something the KdF very much wanted to be able to do to cultivate community spirit and social unity – but the new ships were to make up for that.
For the decor of cabins and public rooms the KdF settled on a design style of ‘functional elegance’ – considerably more modest than the lavish and palatial first-class lounges of ocean liners but also more elegant than the average steerage facilities. The cabins may have been on the spartan side, but to German working-class families – having struggled through the dark years of post-World War I reconstruction and economic depression – that did not matter in the least. To them, the ships were fantastic and represented a family vacation experience they could have never afforded otherwise.
Quite revolutionary for its day, the designs also required crew to have the same standard of cabins and public spaces as the passengers as they were in National Socialist parlance Arbeitskameraden (work comrades) rather than service staff. This philosophy also allowed the ship designers to omit a lot of interior passageways and backstage work areas as there was no concern about keeping passengers and crew separated. Lastly, though not explicit in the official specs, the ships were also to be constructed in such a way as to be easily convertible into wartime roles as troop carriers, hospital ships, auxiliary cruisers etc. because by the late 1930’s the KdF knew quite well which direction Germany was going.
In 1938-39 they launched the first two custom-built cruise ships, the Wilhelm Gustloff and the Robert Ley. Though the two ships were outwardly very similar, there were substantial differences in dimensions and layout – the result of having been commissioned from two different shipyards. First to launch out of the Blohm & Voss shipyard was the Wilhelm Gustloff, which should have been named Adolf Hitler, but ended up taking the name of the recently assassinated leader of the Swiss Nazi Party. She was around 25.500 GRT, 195 m / 640 ft long, 23,5 m / 77 ft wide with 5 decks and room for approx. 1465 guests and 440 crew. A year later the Robert Ley emerged from the Howaldtswerken AG, named (modestly) for the still-living leader of the Deutsche Arbeitsfront (German Labour Front) – the mother organization of the KdF. She was slightly heavier at 27.300 GRT, but more compact at 190 m / 623 ft length and 24 m / 78 ft beam – a difference made by the addition of an additional deck, giving her space for up to 1.760 guests. These were the biggest custom-built cruise ships in history up until this point, but to put them into perspective against today’s ships it would only have made them roughly equivalent to a mid-size luxury class vessel (like Seabourn’s Odyssey-class) or about 9 times smaller than the biggest cruise ship afloat today (Symphony of the Seas).
As envisioned both ships featured an abundance of clear and unobstructed passenger spaces, made possible by the complete elimination of passenger class barriers and the minimization of functional segregation between passengers and crew; broad uncluttered decks and large, spacious public rooms, offering the KdF all the space they could want to do what they did best - manipulate the masses. Public rooms onboard both ships included a massive ballroom, a dining room, several lounges and bars, a library, a movie theater and an indoor swimming pool. The accommodation on both ships was completely standardized 2- and 4-berth outside cabins on all decks – with one exception. Both ships had a huge ‘state suite’ with multiple rooms for the exclusive use of der Führer, because as George Orwell would remark not long after; ‘all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others’ (save for a brief PR-visit on the Robert Ley, the Führer never did get to sail on either ship). The Wilhelm Gustloff quickly settled into a popular schedule of mostly Mediterranean and Atlantic cruising and operated for about a year before World War II broke out – the Robert Ley barely even managed a few months of operation before peace-time leisure cruising came to an end.
It is tempting to become enamored with the concept of ‘cruises for all’ as a progressive and egalitarian concept but like so much else out of the Nazi ideology machine, it was all smoke and mirrors. Obviously, there was a stern and politically biased selection process for guests ensuring that only Germans of the right ethnicity and political persuasion got to enjoy these vacations. And the Nazis did not stay true to their own principles of class equality either: while demographics on the early cruises were quite representative of Germany society with a large share of working class, they quickly shifted to favor the middle class and the more ideologically loyal groups: party apparatchiks, civil servants and Nazi toadies. By the late 1930’s only about 1/5 of guests could be said to be true working-class Germans.
Above: A color picture spread from Life Magazine on the MV Robert Ley, 1939
In commercial terms, the KdF cruise operation had little in common with other cruise operations of the day. As a partially government-funded enterprise it was not aimed at turning a profit. Rather, it was a tool of propaganda (to the Germans themselves and to the world at large), a politicized form of tourism meant to forge and showcase national and ideological identity and ideal vessels for cultivating social unity under Nazi leadership. But in terms of sheer numbers of passengers introduced to vacations on the high seas, it was every bit as influential as some of the largest traditional cruise operators of the 1930’s and a large part of the reason why Germany continues to be one of the world’s biggest cruise markets to this day.
Above: A German newsreel segment about Adolf Hitler visiting the Robert Ley on her maiden voyage, April 1939, YouTube/British Pathé
The Nazi cruise empire ended abruptly in September 1939 with the German invasion of Poland. Plans to build more KdF ships were mothballed and the ships drafted into war service. The Robert Ley ended up a burned-out hulk in Hamburg harbor after Allied aerial bombing and the Wilhelm Gustloff met a particularly tragic fate. In late January 1945 she was torpedoed by a Soviet submarine in the Baltic Sea, while evacuating German refugees and soldiers from the territory of East Prussia (present-day Poland). Due to chaos and panic during embarkation, no one had an exact count of how many people the ship was carrying but estimates range wildly between 9.000 and 11.000. She sank in less than an hour and only 1.239 people were saved from the dark, cold waters of the Baltic, making the Wilhelm Gustloff the biggest death toll in any maritime disaster in history.
This is the eleventh article in a series of historical retrospectives on the history of cruising prior to the industry formation in the 1960's. Although not academic papers, the articles are researched to the extent of my resources and abilities and strive to be as historically factual as possible. If you enjoyed it, feel free to like, share or comment and follow me (or The Cruise Insider) for more instalments.