In its heyday during the 1920s and ’30s the Hamburg-based ocean liner Cap Arcona was one of the most recognizable ships in the world. Built between July 21, 1926 and October 29, 1927, the 676-foot-long ship was modeled, in large part, on the ill-fated HMS Titanic, setting new standards in terms of luxury and engineering. So it’s no surprise that on its maiden voyage—to South America in November 1927, the first of ninety-one transatlantic crossings—the passenger manifest was filled with people from moneyed families around the world, with American actor Clark Gable among the most recognizable names on board. Or that the Cap Arcona would soon earn the nickname “Queen of the South Atlantic,” owing to its status as the largest and most celebrated ocean liner traveling to and from South America.
But when World War II broke out the Cap Arcona was commandeered by the German navy and utilized as a floating barracks. Then, in 1942, it was cast as the “star” of an epic, big budget propaganda film, Titanic—a movie commissioned by German minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels—hence the nickname the Nazi Titanic. Though the ship was near-perfect for its role in Titanic, the film—both the production process and the final product—was a colossal failure in the eyes of Goebbels, hardly what he had in mind when he authorized a budget of four million reichsmarks (roughly $180 million in today’s dollars), making it the most expensive movie made to date. More notably, still, Titanic ended the career—and life—of director Herbert Selpin, who died under very suspicious circumstances while in the custody of the Gestapo after a tense face-to-face meeting with Goebbels.
But the story doesn’t end there. Near the end of the war the Cap Arcona was utilized as an evacuation ship and floating concentration camp. And when the Nazis realized the war was all but lost, they devised a plan to scuttle the ship with the prisoners aboard. But they didn’t get the chance, as the liner was mistakenly bombed by the Royal Air Force. In the recent book “The Nazi Titanic” (DaCapo), author Robert P. Watson tells the life story of the Cap Arcona, from its construction at the Blohm+Voss shipyards to the day it capsized and burned in the Bay of Lübeck in the southwestern Baltic Sea. In the following Failure Interview, Watson explains why British pilots accidentally bombed the ship and why the tragedy of the Cap Arcona—not to mention Herbert Selpin’s Titanic (1943)—have largely been forgotten by history.
Why isn’t the Cap Arcona tragedy better remembered?
A couple things: Days earlier Adolf Hitler committed suicide, and just days afterward came VE Day—the end of the war in Europe. So it was sandwiched between these two momentous events that sucked up all the media coverage. Second, as soon as the war ended [in Europe], all eyes were focused on Japan. We had the dropping of the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and then you had the looming, pending crisis of millions of displaced people throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Pacific. So people were distracted by other things.
But the main reason we missed the story is because the British sealed the records. It appears that they were so embarrassed by this event—perhaps the worst example of friendly fire in world history—that they sealed the records in the basement of their national archives. Scholars and veterans of the war didn’t know where the documents were, and didn’t make the kind of requests necessary to get access to them.
Who built the Cap Arcona and was it modeled after Titanic?
It was built by a German company named Blohm+Voss, which is still in business today and one of the world’s greatest ship builders. And it was operated by Hamburg-South America, which is known as Hamburg Süd, which is also still in business. They modeled the ship after Titanic, though they put more lifeboats on the Cap Arcona and it had a much stronger hull. They also made it to look [similar to] Titanic, although there is a one funnel difference in terms of the smokestacks. The two ships were also similar in opulence. Wealthy families from Argentina to Canada, not to mention monarchs from Europe—a real Who’s Who—sailed on the Cap Arcona.
But when World War II broke out, all German all ships were commandeered by the Kriegsmarine. The Cap Arcona was sent to the Polish coast in 1939 after the Nazis invaded Poland and it was used as a floating barracks and naval training platform, rusting away during the war.
Then in 1942 it was spruced up and played the role of Titanic in director Herbert Selpin’s movie. I understand the filmmakers didn’t plan to utilize a real ocean liner until it became clear that the sinking scenes would not look realistic without a full-size ship.
They had their best model makers make models of Titanic, but the scenes didn’t look realistic enough. At one point Selpin requested that Germany build a replica of Titanic. Then it dawned on the Nazis that they already had a ship that could star in the movie.
Towards the end of the war the Cap Arcona was used to evacuate soldiers and civilians, right?
It had two roles at the end of the war. The first was Operation Hannibal. While the Red Army was marching from the east, Admiral Karl Brennans sent ships to the Polish coast and loaded them up with over two million soldiers and civilians and raced them across the southern Baltic into Nazi occupied territory. Cap Arcona was one of these ships. These must have been harrowing missions because there were Russian submarines sitting in the Baltic waiting for them.
And then at the end of the war Cap Arcona became, in effect, a floating concentration camp?
In March 1945 Hitler informed Heimlich Himmler and Goebbels that they had to “destroy the concentration camps and their inmates rather than allow them to fall into enemy hands.” The following month Himmler released his own decree. It read “To all Commanders of concentration camps. There will be no surrender. The camp has to be evacuated immediately. No prisoner may fall into the hands of the enemy alive.” Meanwhile, Himmler concocted a plan to move tens of thousands of Holocaust survivors. He couldn’t move them south, east, or west, because the Allies were coming. The only place not overrun yet was north-central Germany. What he wanted to do was to give the prisoners to Dwight Eisenhower and Bernard Montgomery in exchange for his own life and the possibility of a separate negotiated surrender on the western front so the Nazis could move their troops to the eastern front and fight the Russians. Prisoners were first moved to Neuengamme, near Hamburg, in north-central Germany, and from there they were marched sixty kilometers north to the Baltic coast.
There were thousands of concentration camp survivors at the port [where the Cap Arcona and other ships were anchored] and there was little food or water so prisoners were dying by the dozens or hundreds a day. There were also thousands of prisoners aboard the Cap Arcona who had little food and water. That’s when the Nazis recognized that the British were only days away from overwhelming the coast and decided to load as many prisoners as they could aboard the ship before sinking it. That way they would kill all the prisoners, like Hitler wanted, and deny the Allies from getting the Cap Arcona. But before they could scuttle the ship British planes bombed it.
Why did they make that mistake?
Anyone would recognize the difference between an ocean liner and a warship but there had been rumors swirling that the Nazis were going to try to make a run for it and make one last stand. The most obvious scenario would be that they would load everyone up on ships and flee to Norway. The Nazis still held Norway, and the geographic isolation—the mountains, the deep fjords, the cold winters—would make Norway the perfect place to dig in. The British had seen U-boats fleeing to Norway, so the pilots may have felt that the Cap Arcona was set to transport soldiers.