Introduction: Liners and Nationalism

The first decade of the twentieth century was an era of intense nationalistic competition between England and Germany: Germany was building a colonial empire and expanding its military and commercial influence and Great Britain struggled to maintain the imperial glory of the Victorian age.

The sea — for political, cultural, and military reasons — was an important arena for Anglo-German competition, and the naval race between the two countries was one of the origins of World War I. The maritime rivalry between Britain and Germany was not limited to battleships, however. The ocean liner was as powerful a symbol as the dreadnought and it was in the decade preceding the First World War that the great age of the transatlantic liner was born. During this period British and German steamship companies launched a series of ships, each larger, faster, and more luxurious than the one before.

Ostensibly the tools of private enterprise, the liners were seen by the public as powerful national symbols whose significance transcended the commercial interests of their owners.

Contemporary and current histories of the period generally cast the development of the modern ocean liner in the light of the Anglo-German rivalry and stress the public symbolism of the liners as the driving force behind their construction. A study of the ships and the companies that operated them, however, suggests that the steamship lines were more concerned with commercial considerations than nationalistic impulses. Because the era placed such a high value on symbols of national prestige the lines tried to cultivate a public image of “€œcorporate patriotism,” but their main concern was to appeal to passengers whose interests were often far removed from the nationalism of era.

The Mauretania may have been financed by the British government and portrayed as a symbol of Britain at sea, but her dining room was sixteenth century French, her grand staircase and smoking room were fifteenth century Italian, and her lounge and library were modeled on Versailles.  And the Imperator may have had a giant German eagle on her bow and and giant portrait of Kaiser Wilhelm II but its interiors were heavily French.

Next Page: England and the Anglo-German Rivalry

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