If the name of the Nazi cruise liner Wilhelm Gustloff registers a flicker of recognition with readers, it willmost probably be because of the grim circumstances of the vessel’s demise during the Second World War. Torpedoed by a Soviet submarine on 30 January 1945, the ship sank into the icy waters of the eastern Baltic within an hour.
Of the estimated 10,000 refugees and wounded crammed aboard, barely 1,200 would survive the night.
It is in this guise then, as modern history’s deadliest maritime disaster, that the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff – if it is known at all – is remembered. Alongside a few history books, the drama of her sinking has spawned a film and a couple of German TV dramas. It also featured prominently in one of Günter Grass’s later novels, Crabwalk (2002). Yet, there is much else in the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff that is of interest, not least its origins as the Third Reich’s most famous cruise liner.
Launched in May 1937, from the slipway at Blohm and Voss in Hamburg, the Wilhelm Gustloff (named after the founder of the Swiss Nazi party, who was assassinated in 1936) was state of the art. Weighing in at more than 25,000 tonnes, and measuring more than 200 metres from stem to stern, she was larger and considerably heavier than Hitler’s so-called ‘pocket battleships’, the Deutschland, the Admiral Scheer and the Graf Spee.
In line with the ‘national socialist’ ethos of the regime, the Gustloff was described as a ‘classless’ ship. Her 616 cabins – spread over four decks and able to accommodate more than 1,400 passengers – were all constructed to two basic patterns, two or four-berth, and all had a sea view, with toilet facilities shared. In addition, her seven bars, two restaurants, two dance halls, concert hall, library, hairdressing salon and swimming pool were all accessible to all passengers. As the Nazi minister Robert Ley boasted at her launch: “We Germans do not use any old crate for our working men and women. Only the best is good enough.”
So, what, one might ask, was Nazi Germany doing building cruise ships for its working men and women? It is a good question. Our usual assumption about the Third Reich is that it functioned primarily on fear: fear of the Gestapo, fear of the concentration camps, fear of stepping out of line. While this is not entirely inaccurate, it does rather obscure the fact that Nazi Germany was as much a state built on seduction as on threats.
An essential part of that seduction was provided by the Nazi leisure organisation that had commissioned the Wilhelm Gustloff – the improbably named Kraft durch Freude, or Strength Through Joy, usually shortened to KdF. Established in 1933 as a subdivision of the German Labour Front, the KdF had a simple premise: state-organised leisure.
Just as Nazism sought to woo the ordinary German worker away from socialism towards ‘National Socialism’, so the KdF promised holidays, cultural enrichment and sporting activities as part of the appeal. In essence, it was offering cruises and concerts in place of collective bargaining and class struggle.
The pulse of blood
It was not an entirely cynical exercise. Indeed, it was an expression of the socialist impulse that had been part of the Nazi ethos since the party’s foundation, and which, though diluted in the years that followed, had never been extinguished entirely. It came to be expressed via the concept of the Volksgemeinschaft, the idea that all Germans were members of a ‘national community’ that transcended class or regional divides. As KdF officials proclaimed in 1933, the organisation was to serve as a “cultural tutor”, teaching all Germans – whether Bavarians or Frisians, East Prussians or Württembergers – to become part of the nation, to “feel the pulse of their own blood”.
The KdF and the Volksgemeinschaft were not afterthoughts or simply eyewash to seduce the gullible; they were an integral part of Nazi Germany’s vision for its new society. Every German worker was encouraged to become a member, and by 1939 around 25 million of them had signed up. Each paid a 50-pfennig monthly subscription, which entitled them to apply for tickets to subsidised sporting and cultural events, such as theatre showings, concerts, chess tournaments, weekend rambles or swimming lessons. It was no sideshow. In 1937, the year the Wilhelm Gustloff was launched, the KdF staged more than 600,000 cultural and sporting events across Germany, which were attended by nearly 50 million participants. By 1939, the last year in which the organisation was fully operative, those figures had almost doubled.
Aside from weekend and evening activities, the KdF also expanded into providing holidays for German workers. It had been one of its key commitments to provide an annual holiday for every German worker, and it was seriously meant: holiday provision quickly accounted for a fifth of the organisation’s total expenditure. In one of the first of such excursions, a thousand Berlin workers were sent on a chartered train to Bavaria in February 1934.
In the five years to 1939, the KdF organised around 7 million holidays, potentially encompassing one in 10 of the German population. Such trips, predominantly within Germany itself, were for the first time made affordable for ordinary working-class Germans, many of whom had never been ‘on holiday’ before. They could be paid for piecemeal by purchasing stamps in a savings book and were heavily subsidised.
It was in this spirit that the vast resort complex at Prora on the Baltic island of Rügen was conceived – as a place where all Germans would mix and mingle and enjoy the bracing sea air – and all for the bargain price of 18 Reichsmarks (RM, the currency in Germany from 1924–48) per week.
Though the outbreak of war meant it would never receive any holidaymakers, Prora’s huge 3 mile building was constructed to house 20,000 at a time and was to serve as a showpiece of the ‘New Germany’. It was planned to be one of four such resorts.
The same logic applied to the construction of the KdF fleet, including the Wilhelm Gustloff: that of providing the ordinary German worker with the possibility of enjoying a sea-cruise, something that had previously only been available to the very wealthy. In 1937, the year that the Gustloff was being fitted out and was yet to enter service, the KdF fleet of nine vessels made 146 cruises, carrying more than 130,000 passengers to destinations from the Baltic Sea to Madeira.
Costs, subsidised of course, were affordable, with 59 RM charged for a five-day tour of the Norwegian fjords and 63 RM for a week in the Mediterranean, rising to 150 RM for a 12-day tour around Italy and 155 RM for a two-week voyage to Lisbon and Madeira. With average weekly wages at around 30 RM per week, it is easy to see the enormous popular appeal that such trips had.
Naturally, there was a catch. Indoctrination and propaganda were never far from the surface on a KdF cruise. The tour leader doubled as a Nazi propagandist, imparting political messages with the daily briefing. Destinations, too, were carefully chosen, including either ‘friendly’ countries, such as Spain or Italy, or those such as Libya and Morocco that wouldn’t dent Germany’s sense of Aryan superiority. Even the ship’s tannoy would be harnessed to broadcast patriotic music or speeches by party grandees. For those people who resisted such blandishments, each cruise carried aboard it a small team of plain clothes Gestapo men to report on any ‘misdemeanours’.
They needn’t have worried. Aside from perennial concerns about the ‘gentrification’ of what were supposed to be cruises for German workers – the prevalence of the middle and upper classes among the Gustloff’s passengers – the KdF fleet was a huge success. Demand swiftly outstripped supply, and a sister ship to the Gustloff, the Robert Ley, entered service in 1939 shortly before the clouds of war gathered again over Europe.
In late August of that year, the Wilhelm Gustloff was briefly intercepted by a Royal Navy destroyer on her return from the Norwegian fjords, a sign of the heightened tensions. A few days later, she was redesignated as a hospital ship and confined to port. Her cruising days were over. According to the KdF’s own statistics, more than 75,000 passengers had sailed on her, one in 10 of the organisation’s total. One might surmise that the German people had been suitably seduced.
Of course, the logic behind the KdF’s activities – whether on land, or on the high seas – was never altruistic. It was brutally political. Aside from embodying the totalitarian desire to infiltrate and control every aspect of the individual’s life, the KdF’s offerings were also a crude bid for the workers’ allegiance, an attempt to undermine their traditional loyalty to socialism.
A propaganda picture from 1938 summed up the approach. Beneath an image of flat-capped workers relaxing in the sunshine on the deck of the Gustloff, the caption read: “Marxism only talks about it, but National Socialism delivers the worker’s dearest wish: a carefree annual holiday in which to laze to your heart’s content.”
Beyond this, there was also an important economic rationale – that of maximising production by fostering a contented and, above all, motivated workforce. “We do not send our workers to holiday on cruise ships, or build them enormous seaside resorts just for the sake of it,” one KdF report explained. “We do it only to maintain and strengthen the labour potential of the individual, and to allow him to return to his workplace with renewed focus.”
Hitler’s attitude towards the KdF was more cynical still. As he made clear to one of his ministers in 1934, an important motive behind the programme was to ensure German workers were tempered, militarised, ready for any eventuality – even war. “Make sure for me,” he said, “that the people hold their nerve, for only with a people with strong nerves can we pursue politics.” ‘Pursuing politics’ was one of Hitler’s favourite euphemisms.
The Wilhelm Gustloff was never just another cruise liner; she was always a symbol. Most obviously perhaps, her sinking in 1945 – on the very day that Hitler had risen to power, 12 years earlier – was highly symbolic, a microcosm of the bloody demise that would soon engulf Germany. Despite being the deadliest maritime disaster in modern history, her 9,000-odd dead hardly registered in the slaughter of the final months of the Second World War.
Yet, there is another, rather more profound, symbolism at play. With our focus fixed on the overarching narrative of Nazi persecution and genocide, we forget that, for a generation of Germans, the Wilhelm Gustloff was a symbol of the bright shining future that the Third Reich appeared to be offering them – a world of opportunity, community and modernity. She was an essential part of Nazism’s seductive appeal and a vital reminder to later generations that Nazi Germany did not live on threats alone.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of several books on modern German history, including Berlin at War (Vintage, 2011).