You don’t have to be a maritime history buff to appreciate the significance of April 14th.
Most people in this part of the world will know about that fateful date in 1912 when the Belfast-built Titanic hit an iceberg in the North Atlantic and sank on its maiden voyage, taking 1,500 souls with it.
However, few know that April 14 is also a defining date in the history of another huge luxury liner that became known as the “Hitler Titanic” and suffered a similar, tragic and infamously avoidable fate.
The SS Cap Arcona – among other unofficial names – “Queen of the South Atlantic” and “Floating Palace” – was the flagship of the pre-war German line Hamburg-South (South America) and a source of great pride for the Führer.
Although Adolf Hitler was not as awe-inspiring as the Titanic, Adolf Hitler considered Cap Arcona, which could carry 850 wealthy Germans (and even had its own full-size tennis court), the best ocean liner ever built. suitable evidence of vorsprung durch technik.
Launched in 1927, the ship carried passengers and cargo between Europe and South America until 1940, when it was transferred to the Kriegsmarine (German Navy) as a wartime accommodation vessel.
Then – on April 14, 1945 – the 207-meter liner was officially decommissioned and came under the control of the Gauleiter (regional leader) of the Nazi Party, Karl Kaufmann, who had a more sinister role in mind for her.
Desperate to hide evidence of their atrocities from the advancing Allies, in late April 1945, SS officers ferried 10,000 prisoners from the Neuengamme, Mittelbau-Dora, and Stutthof concentration camps to the port of Lübeck, where they boarded Cape Arkona and two small cargo ships. Tilbek and Athens.
The prisoners, who came from 28 countries, including the US, Poland and Russia, remained divided along national, religious, political and sexual lines (Jews, homosexuals, communists), but were united in the squalor of this dirty, floating hell that could not swim because for damage to a turbine during the evacuation of 26,000 Germans from East Prussia.
Initially, there were 7,000 people on board the Cap Arcona, and almost 3,000 people on the Tilbeck, many already chronically malnourished in the camps and dying of hunger, thirst and dysentery.
Horrified by the inhuman conditions he faced, Cap Arcona captain Heinrich Bertram eventually persuaded SS officers to transfer 2,000 prisoners to Athens.
The 26 Cap Arcona lifeboats were removed, and with newly acquired prison ships anchored far from shore, there was little chance of escape. There are no Red Cross markings indicating that civilians were on board this sitting duck.
On May 2, Red Cross delegates sent two warnings to British troops that thousands of death camp inmates had boarded the ships.
These messages were not, for reasons never properly explained, passed on to the people who mattered.
And on May 3, 1945—just four days before the Nazi surrender—five squadrons of RAF Hawker Typhoons carpet-bombed Cape Arkona, mistakenly believing it would be a Nazi crossing into Norway.
At least 4,650 people were burned alive or drowned that day, while many others, trying to escape from the fading hell, were shot to death by Typhoon artillery fire.
Those who made it to the shore were subsequently shot by German soldiers, who followed the last order of SS chief Heinrich Himmler: “No prisoner of the camp must fall alive into the hands of the enemy.”
The 2,000 men transferred to the Athens survived as she sailed back to port to take more captives. The Nazis’ plan, fortunately not carried out, was to tow the ships out to sea and sink them, killing everyone on board.
But only about 450 people who were aboard Cap Arcona and Thielbeck survived, and months later the bodies of the victims were still washed up on near and far shores. The victims were buried in a mass grave at Neustadt in Holstein.
The exact death toll from this catastrophic error may never be known, but it is estimated to be closer to 7,000; one of the largest human casualties in the history of navigation, many times more than on the Titanic.
The full horror of this attack was, perhaps unsurprisingly, obscured by the V-E Day celebrations that followed.
No one has ever been charged or prosecuted for the massacre of thousands of innocent civilians, and if you look up the history of the RAF during World War II on Wikipedia, you won’t find a single mention of the “friendly fire” disaster at Cape Arkona.
Indeed, it could be 2045 when wartime documents are declassified before we know why so many people were killed despite two warnings.
It later emerged that three years before it capsized in the Baltic Sea, Cap Arkona had been confiscated by Joseph Goebbels, the Reich Minister of Public Education, for Titanic, the most expensive propaganda film ever made.
The idea was born in 1940, when Hitler’s armies seemed unstoppable, and the film buff Goebbels, who was fascinated by the story of the Titanic, thought that a film about the demise of Harland & Wolff’s pride and joy would be a suitable vehicle to attack the enemy’s incompetence, with the 85-minute film about the corrupt, greedy capitalists of the US and UK, whose stupidity, arrogance and callous disregard for human life led to disaster.
Goebbels believed Titanic will be a powerful cinematic response to Hollywood’s Casablanca, which was hastily filmed to coincide with the Allied landings in North Africa in 1942.
The German film opens in London with Sir Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star Line, telling shareholders that the long-awaited maiden voyage of the Titanic will stop the company’s share price from plummeting.
Subsequently, Ismay bribes the ship’s magnificent captain, Edward J. Smith, to sail across the Atlantic at full speed; a dangerous move due to the large number of icebergs at this time of the year.
Wealthy American businessman John Jacob Astor appears as an accomplice who we are told is largely responsible for White Star’s stock market woes. Astor apparently wants share prices to fall in order to take over the company.
But every Titanic movie needs a hero, and in this version, First Officer Petersen — a German of good Ayran origin — begs nefarious capitalists to slow down the ship, and later helps rescue children abandoned by cowardly English parents who have run away. to the few available lifeboats.
This, of course, is complete nonsense: when the Titanic left Belfast, White Star stock prices did not fall at all, and Astor was not interested in the company.
Moreover, there is no evidence of Ismay’s betrayal; in any case, the Titanic was not capable of the Blue Ribbon-winning speed.
And Petersen was, surprisingly, a fictional character; the real first officer was William McMaster Murdoch, a Scot.
Even though Germany was on the brink of war and planning to invade the Soviet Union, Geobbels received the equivalent of £150 million to fund the project… about the same amount that Canadian director James Cameron spent over half on his record-breaking blockbuster. a century later, and more than it cost to build a legendary ship in Belfast.
The use of the Cap Arcona to reproduce the Titanic in the film, along with hundreds of Kriegsmarine sailors recalled from the front lines as extras, once again showed recklessness.
Bad weather and 38-year-old director Herbert Selpin’s insistence on filming only at night delayed the project by several months.
Meanwhile, when Cape Arkona docked off the coast of Poland, alcohol flowed like water, and female actors and extras were repeatedly harassed by drunken German sailors.
Then – 80 years ago this week – Selpin, who himself was familiar with the demonic drink, called a crisis meeting during which he criticized the Nazi war effort and denounced the Gestapo. Selpin was arrested and later found hanged in his cell; suicide, they said.
The troubled film was finished in October 1942 by another German director, Werner Klinger, and Goebbels was overwhelmed by what was on offer in the cinema hall.
As a propaganda vehicle, the Titanic clearly failed; many test spectators even sympathized with the British and Irish victims of the disaster, rather than rejoicing at their deaths.
Moreover, the crew of the most famous ship in the world, mostly English, were portrayed as more competent than they actually were.
Unfortunately for Goebbels, the scenes of mass panic aboard the Titanic mirrored the very real scenes taking place on the streets of the fatherland as Allied bombers and the Red Army approached.
There was also a disturbing scene in which third-class passengers are forcibly divided into two groups based on gender before being mercilessly abandoned to their fate; an unplanned cinematic nod to the Holocaust.
The Nazi leadership even considered the behavior of First Officer Petersen contrary to the ideology of the Führerprinzip, which required the Germans to follow orders without question.
Not only that, the Goebbels film was clearly a story about unyielding leaders bringing disaster to the people; an unintentional microcosm of Hitler’s Germany itself?
Ultimately, Goebbels found the finished product unacceptable to the German public for which it was created. It was shown in Nazi-occupied areas of Europe from late 1943 and was well received by the public as a source of escapist entertainment.
It is a bitter irony that the brutal sinking of Cape Arkona would, in the long run, be a more appropriate demonstration of Allied incompetence than any propaganda film.
Meanwhile, if you watch Titanic (1943) with English subtitles on YouTube today, you might be forgiven for thinking some of the scenes were a bit familiar.
That’s because several uncredited clips from the German film were secretly “borrowed” by the British makers of the 1958 Titanic epic A Night to Remember.
Joseph Goebbels would no doubt have enjoyed this small Pyrrhic victory, but for him, as for most things related to the Titanic, everything ended badly.