The Nazi Titanic, The Third Reich’s Disaster Film
The Nazi Titanic: The Incredible Untold Story of a Doomed Ship in World War II By Robert P. Watson (Da Capo Press, 312 pp. $25.99 hardcover, $16.99 paperback)
While attempting to piece together the last days of World War II, historian Robert P. Watson found a letter from a British officer about the ship Cap Arcona, whose bizarre history had been sealed in British military archives.
In straightforward prose, Watson tells the fascinating story of the German vessel many call the Nazi Titanic. It is a tale of Hitlerian hubris in attempting to establish a “Hollywood on the Rhine” film industry, even as the Third Reich’s war effort was faltering in the face of Soviet and British advances.
Built in 1927, the luxury liner made 91 crossings from Europe to South America. When Joseph Goebbels, the Nazi minister of propaganda and a film buff, decided to make a film about the Titanic’s sinking—just when the Germans were opening an air assault against Britain—the Cap Arcona was used as a stand-in. The film (also titled Titanic), completed in 1943, was intended to show the British liner’s captain as cowardly, greedy and unconcerned for his passengers’ safety.
Goebbels enlisted Herbert Selpin, a director of great ego and extravagance, to make the film whose budget grew to $180 million (in today’s dollars). Eventually, Goebbels lost patience with Selpin as the project began falling apart. The cast, crew and sailors were getting drunk, as was Selpin, who began to spew angry tirades against the Gestapo, a regular presence on the set. He was arrested, charged with treason—and hanged with his own suspenders. (Goebbels tried to cover it up as a suicide.)
When Goebbels saw the final film—it was finished by Werner Klingler, who was not credited—he determined that it would demoralize the German people, then under constant Allied attack. In the ultimate twist of irony, “a film about helpless people on a sinking ship commandeered by a foolish leader mirrored the situation in Germany,” Watson writes.
In April 1945, the Cap Arcona was one of many vessels moored in Lübeck Bay, a Baltic port. After Hitler ordered Heinrich Himmler and Goebbels to destroy the concentration camps in an attempt to cover up the atrocities, Watson writes, the Neuengamme camp near Hamburg, which largely held Scandinavian Jews, was emptied.
The Nazis marched the thousands of prisoners 60 miles to the Cap Arcona with the intention that they would be transferred to Swedish ships and brought to Denmark as part of a deal Himmler had made with the Swedish Red Cross. Some 2,800 inmates who survived the march boarded the Cap Arcona along with 1,700 prisoners from other camps.
On May 3, 200 British planes sunk 29 vessels, including the Cap Arcona. In a lack of communication, the Royal Air Force did not notify the fighter pilots that the unmarked ship was carrying prisoners. “Mindful of the grave mistakes made, the British government ordered the records from the RAF’s flight operations and postwar investigations to be sealed for one hundred years,” Watson writes. They were declassified in 1975.
Stewart Kampel is a former editor at The New York Times.