On May 6, 1937, the German aircraft LZ 129, officially known as the Hindenburg, crashed upon landing in Lakehurst, New Jersey. The crash claimed the lives of thirty-two people. Sixty-two people survived the disaster and later gave statements regarding what they saw and heard in the air ship’s final moments. In Berlin, the Third Reich went into crisis mode and grounded all Zeppelin air ships until authorities could figure out what went wrong. The accepted explanation for the disaster is that an electrostatic discharge ignited hydrogen leaking through an outer cover which resulted in a fast-moving fire that caused the air ship’s demise. The case seemed open and shut but is there more to the story? Author Michael McCarthy addresses that question and others about the Hindenburg’s history, Nazi Germany’s rise to power and the aftermath of the Hindenburg’s final voyage to America.
I did have a fair amount of knowledge about the Hindenburg but like other historical events, there is more to the story. McCarthy’s account of the full story behind the disaster is spellbinding. As a primer, he provides the back story on the Zeppelins and their origin in Germany. What we learn is fascinating and reminded me of how far air travel has come since 1937. But it is not long before we move forward to the era of the Third Reich and the book takes a darker turn. In the title, the author mentions Nazi secrets. There are many of them revealed here showing the magnitude of Nazi Germany’s quest for world domination. Had the Nazis achieved their goal to develop an arsenal of mega weapons, World War II might have resulted in a different outcome.
The Treaty of Versailles following World War I had severely punished Germany for its actions in starting the conflict. Financially, Germany was in near ruin and politically, the people were ripe for change. That changed arrived in the form of an Austrian soldier who saw himself as the next leader of Germany. But to save the fatherland, he would have to resort to drastic measures. Adolf Hitler(1889-1945) seized power in 1933, ignored the treaty and commenced his plan to rebuild the German military. The Zeppelins caught the eye of the dictator and Reich Air Marshall Hermann Göring (1893-1946) took personal interest in the asset the Nazis believed would change history. However, the Zeppelins’ fate had already been decided and the decisions made by Hugo Eckener (1868-1954), the visionary behind the Zeppelin use, would have far reaching consequences for Germany and air travel.
Public interest in the Zeppelins allowed Eckener to enjoy publicity across the globe and the future seemed bright. However back in Germany, engineers knew that something was wrong the LZ-129’s design. In fact, the air ship had several issues that needed to be addressed and author does not mince words regarding them. What I read sent chills down my spine but this statement from McCarthy sets the tone for the remainder of the book:
“I found evidence that the 800-foot-long Hindenburg was on a path to self-destruction back to its blueprints. Today, it’s hard to imagine just how large the Hindenburg actually was. Eight Goodyear blimps could have easily fit inside of it.”
It is well-known that the Hindenburg used hydrogen to attain lift, yet engineers and German officials knew that helium was safer for commercial use. Sadly, the Hindenburg never used helium, nor did Zeppelin officials attempt to obtain it. But the full story behind the lack of helium for the Hindenburg and other air ships is laid bare in the book. Readers will be left to shake their heads as the truth is revealed. Further, several incidents involving air ships from other countries, that preceded the Hindenburg disaster should have served as a warning, but Eckener was determined to have his way and went as far to lure Captain Ernst A. Lehmann (1886-1937) away from the Goodyear Company in America to fly the Hindenburg. Lehmann would later become a victim of the disaster and a scapegoat for the tragic crash. Of all the people who were aware of the ship’s problems. Lehmann emerges as the most concerned and reveals his fears to a friend. And it becomes clear that when it came to the Hindenburg, the writing was on the wall.
In the afternoon of May 6, the Hindenburg attempted to make its landing in between thunderstorms and sharp winds. Before touching the ground, fire broke out in the rear of the air ship and within minutes all hell had broken loose. Emergency personnel raced to the scene, but many could not be saved. Others perished in the hospital and investigators were faced with the daunting task of determining what went wrong. Zeppelin officials knew that their company was on the line, and they could not let it take the fall. The actions and statements by those in positions of accountability left me speechless but as repulsive as they are, they pale in comparison to what we learn about the air ship’s production and its intended role in World War II.
Hitler’s thirst for dominance knew no bounds and whatever was needed to achieve it was given the green light. Nazi engineers had been building superweapons throughout the war and successfully tested at least one. But behind the weapons production were secrets the Nazis had hidden from the world. Jews that had been forced into concentration camps almost always face certain death through starvation, disease, and relentless manual labor. Engineers needed human labor and had thousands of “undesirables” that could perform the heavy manual tasks needed at production facilities. The Reich had no concerns about the prisoners’ health and thousands were conscripted into building the secret weapons that Hitler hoped would change the course of the war. It may be hard for some to accept that the magnificent Hindenburg had any nefarious purpose. But to remove all illusions about the Zeppelins, McCarthy explains that:
“The Zeppelin was conceived as a weapon. Of the 119 Zeppelins the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin built, 103 were for the military. And the V-1 and V-2 weapons were the fulfillment of Count Zeppelin’s long dream of a German attack weapon for aerial warfare. Eckener trained more than a thousand crew members for Zeppelin bombing missions.”
Washington was aware of the Nazi weapons programs and knew that if Hitler succeeded, the war would take a tragic turn making victory exponentially difficult. However, Hitler’s decision to attack the Soviet Union, doomed Germany and it was a matter of time before the Allied forces brought it to its knees. At the beginning of April 1945, American forces and the Red Army had closed in on Berlin and Hitler’s bunker. Unwilling to face justice himself, Hitler took his own life and escaped punishment at Nuremberg. But thousands of Nazi officials soon realized that they could be captured and executed for their actions. Those who had connections within the U.S. Government or value to American policy were secretly transported out of Germany. After settling in America, many received plush jobs and lived freely in the United States for the rest of their lives. Readers interested in the arrival of former Nazi officials to America, will enjoy Annie Jacobsen’s Operation Paperclip: The Secret Intelligence Program that Brought Nazi Scientists to America. Nazis who were not as fortunate soon realized that their ties to Hitler placed them in Allied crosshairs. And businessmen who had financial ties to the Reich also realized that they were fair game. Hugo Eckener knew that he too could face justice but was determined not to let that happen even if it meant re-writing history and leaving Germany. His time in America after the war is one more example of the U.S. Government willing to look the other way when it came to Nazi affiliates. Eckener was crafty and re-wrote history enough to keep his role in the Reich hidden for many years but as McCarthy points out, the truth about Eckener is:
“Into his eighties, Hugo Eckener became still more brazen in deceit, revising history and burying his sinister war record. Not only had he misled investigators at Lakehurst on the Hindenburg disaster, but his autobiography renewed his false charge that America was partly responsible for the deadly accident because it had denied him fireproof helium. And he continued to portray himself as anti-Nazi and safety-conscious, while painting his rival, the deceased Lehmann, as the opposite on both counts.”
Despite Eckener’s actions, German investigators were able to uncover his past deeds with the Reich as can be seen in the book. The results are scathing. Eckener and his son Knut could not cleanse themselves of the Nazi stain no matter how hard they tried. And the Nazi hunters would not stop until every page was turned over and every stone was lifted. To be sure, many Nazis did escape justice and re-settled in other parts of the globe. South America was a popular destination. But those who remained in Germany and were convicted of Nazi crimes had their lives turned upside down, yet their punishments were typically less severe than the death they dealt out to thousands of Jewish prisoners. Eckener had never worked at a camp nor was he assigned the task of overseer, but he did have ties to the camps and certainly knew what took place there.
As the book reached its conclusion, I found myself speechless at times as I learned of the relationship between the Zeppelin company and the Third Reich. Further, the actions by Eckener and others with knowledge of the air ship’s faults were reprehensible. Today they would be prosecuted, and the company would be dismantled. But in 1937, it was easier to keep secrets and the Hindenburg had many of them. Its creator and others who controlled its existence had ulterior motives and two of them were for Germany to rebuild itself into the country it once was and to make all other nations submit to its will. But fate had other plans and before it was done, Germany’s greatest air ship and its military would crash and burn. This is the true story of the Hindenburg and its relationship to the Nazi secrets behind World War II.