The Kaiser and German Ocean Liners

From the time of Bismarck until the outbreak of the Great War Germany struggled to win a “place in the sun” as a great imperial power.

Kaiser Wilhelm II

The late nineteenth century was a time of dramatic military, industrial, and colonial expansion and Germany emerged as a powerful force in world politics. The protection and expansion of Germany’s influence overseas required both a powerful Navy and a strong merchant fleet, and the Kaiser and those around him set out to implant dreams of maritime supremacy in the minds of the German people. In 1897, Wilhelm declared, “The Trident belongs in our hands.”1

In 1901, the Kaiser told an audience in Hamburg:

In spite of the fact that our fleet is not what it should be, we have gained a place in the sun for ourselves. It will be my duty to see that this place in the sun remains in our undisputed possession, in order that its rays may be fall fruitfully upon our activity and trade in foreign parts, that our industry and agriculture may develop at home and our sailing sports upon the water, for our future lies on the water. The more Germans who go upon the water, whether it be in races of regattas,… journeys across the ocean, or in the service of the battle-flag, so much the better will it be for us.2


The personality of the Kaiser was an important feature of German policy and Wilhelm II was deeply impressed with the significance of large, fast, and prestigious liners.  Wilhelm was a guest at the British naval review at Spithead in 1899, and while the review was an impressive display of British naval power the Kaiser seemed most interested in the new White Star Liner Teutonic. The German emperor spent nearly two hours touring the ship’s luxurious interior and announced: “We must have some of these.”3

The Kaiser saw the great German lines as symbols of Germany’s imperial glory: “In a world where the steam engine was still the prime mover in transport…the giant luxury liner was a colorful, sometimes awesome example of power, and Wilhelm was quick to grasp the implications of the national prestige attached to such ships.”4  A strong government supported program was initiated to build a German passenger fleet competitive with England’s, and eight years after the Kaiser’s tour of the Teutonic, the German liner Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse took the Blue Riband.5

The Kaiser was particularly interested in freeing the German shipping industry from its dependence on English shipyards, materials, and engineers.6 “His special interest centered round new construction, and in this matter he exerted his influence from an early time in favor of the German yards.”7   Even before his accession to the throne Wilhelm pressured German steamship lines to have their ships built in German shipyards. His direct intervention was responsible for the construction of the Hamburg Amerika liner Kaiserin Auguste Victoria at the Vulkan yard in Stettin in 1888, although its owners had intended to build it in the United Kingdom.  When Hamburg Amerika built the lmperator and her sisters, the government required that German yards receive the contracts.


Albert Ballin

The Kaiser paid close attention to the German mercantile marine and maintained a friendship with Albert Ballin, the Director of the Hamburg Amerika Line (known as HAPAG, the acronym for Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt Actien-Gesellschaft), so he could be personally involved in the operation of Germany’s largest shipping company.  Wilhelm saw Germany’s great liners as servants both of the nation and private enterprise and once instructed Ballin: “Make our countryman feel at home on the open sea, and both your company and the whole nation will reap the benefit.”8

Perhaps more significantly, Albert Ballin himself seemed to accept the idea that his ships existed for reasons other than just the profits of his company.  As Bernard Huldermann explained in his 1922 biography of Ballin, “Ballin often remarked that such huge concerns as the Hamburg Amerika Line were no longer private ventures purely and simply. The ties that bind them to the whole economic life of the nation are so close and so manifold that it would be disastrous to ignore or sever them. (HAPAG’s) hundreds of thousands of passengers and immigrants, and the huge volume of German made products and manufactured articles carried on board its vessels, spread the German name and German fame throughout the civilized world. Hence, to Albert Ballin, the national flag and that of HAPAG were two symbols expressive of but one idea.”  9

With hearty encouragement from the Kaiser, the Hamburg Amerika Line built several ships seen as tributes to German imperial glory, including Imperator (named for the Emperor), Vaterland (“Fatherland”), and Bismarck, which was launched in 1914 and still fitting out when war was declared.  As publicity for their new ship, Hamburg Amerika distributed posters showing a small British liner dwarfed by the shadow of the Imperator, whose German captain was flicking the ash of his cigar onto the deck of the British ships.10

Next Page: The Steamship Lines

  1. Michael Balfour. The Kaiser and His Times. (New York: 1972). Page 206.
  2. Gauss. Page 182
  3. John Malcolm Brinnin. The Sway of the Grand Saloon. (New York: 1971). Page 306.
  4. Wall.  Page 187.
  5. Maxtone-Graham. Page 84.
  6. 51 Hoffman. Page 211.
  7. Bernhard Huldermann. Albert Ballin.  (London: 1922). Page 195.
  8. Huldermann.  Page 197.
  9. Huldermann. Page 291.
  10. Coleman. Page 94.

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