Liner tragedy worse than Titanic

This month the world marked the centennial of the sinking of the Titanic. As tragic as the loss of the most famous cruise in history was, however, there was another cruise liner whose story was even more horrific.

The Cap Arcona, named for a cape in the Baltic Sea, was launched in 1927 by Germany's Hamburg-South America Line. With the coming of the Second World War, ocean-faring passenger ships were either decommissioned or used to transport troops. The Cap Arcona became a floating home for the Kriegsmarine (Nazi sailors).

However, the Cap Arcona had a staring role in a Nazi propaganda film based on the story of the Titanic, playing the ill-fated liner. Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels commissioned the grand film in 1940 to coincide with the planned invasion of Britain. The film, which was the most expensive in German history at the time and included massive stage sets in Berlin, was designed to rally the German people and the world against the British.

In the movie, British and American shipping executives and financiers such as Sir Bruce Ismay, who owned the Titanic's mother company, the White Star Line, were skewered as greedy monsters that cared little for the passengers or safety. Ismay manipulates company stock to make more money on the voyage while bribing the captain to steam at full speed in order to arrive in New York early. Passengers on the sinking ship were portrayed as cowards who trampled one another to death.

The only hero of the ship was - you guessed it - a German officer who raises the warning about icebergs and safety.

The film encountered numerous problems. The model of the Titanic did not work, the weather in the Baltic was uncooperative, and Nazi soldiers, who were used as extras, were unruly. Production ran late and famed German director, Herbert Selpin, complained bitterly, even criticizing the Third Reich.

Selpin's comments resulted in a visit to Berlin with Herr Goebbels for interrogation. The director, who refused to recant, was later found hanged in his prison cell, most likely at the hands of the Gestapo. Another director, Werner Klinger, finished the now ill-fated film.

By the time the film was finishing production in late 1942 and early 1943, well behind schedule, the German people were near panic on account of a steadily increasing Allied air campaign. Goebbels decided that the scenes of hopelessness in the movie would only exacerbate the grim reality of the Allies' bombing. So, he scrapped the film. It was briefly shown in 1943 in France, then was largely forgotten by history.

In the closing months of WWII, ships such as the Cap Arcona were used by the Reikosee, the Nazi merchant marines, to evacuate refugees fleeing the advancing Soviet army. In the chaos that defined the last weeks of the war, Admiral Karl Donitz and the Kriegsmarine lost control of the shipping operations and a fateful decision was made by someone to commission the Cap Arcona as a floating prison in the Baltic.

Over 4,500 inmates from Neuengamme concentration camp near Hamburg were force-marched to the coast at Neustadt. From April 26-28, 1945 they were ordered onto the ship, which set sail on May 3. It was a needless decision. Adolf Hitler had committed suicide just three earlier.

While at sea, the Cap Arcona was attacked by Typhoon fighter-bombers from the Royal Air Force's Second Tactical Wing. The British had no idea the ship was a floating concentration camp. The Nazis had painted it to resemble a troop carrier and had even removed lifeboats and rations for the inmates.

The ship sustained several direct hits and burst into flames, killing many on board. Before the ship capsized, the SS guards on the Cap Arcona opened fire on the surviving Jews. Only a few hundred passengers made it into the water alive, but the RAF strafed those in the ocean.

In all, only 350 of the 4500 concentration camp survivors lived through the ordeal, a number far beyond the 1,500 losses of the Titanic, making the "imaginary Titanic" the most tragic naval disaster in history. Germany surrendered only days later on May 8.

Robert Watson, Ph.D. is Professor and Coordinator of American Studies at Lynn University

Featured Stories

Advertisement

PLAN AHEAD

Top Trending Videos