The planned baptismal name no longer fits the mood of the time, as Albert Ballin's idea awaits completion. Actually, the director general of the Hamburg shipping company Hapag decided to name the world's largest express steamer "Europe". But Kaiser Wilhelm II expresses a wish: "Imperator" should be the name of the giant, the first ship that is longer than 900 feet (276 meters) and weighs more than 50,000 tons. And, contrary to all custom, the name of the ship is not "the 'Imperator'" but "the 'Imperator'" - to be used the other way around.
Of course, Ballin cannot ignore the monarch's vehemently expressed wish. Neither does the Catholic-bourgeois "Kölnische Zeitung" and not even the social-democratic "Vorwarts". The opposing leaves both celebrate the new flagship of the German Merchant Navy.
"The 'Imperator'" - the largest ship in the world!", the newspaper from the Rhine rejoiced at the end of May 1912. "It lies ready to sail on the giant slipway of the Vulcan in Hamburg, the most impressive sign of a new German shipping epoch. The Kaiser himself will give him the demanding name on Thursday, which his later achievements will no doubt fully prove.”
The SPD newspaper cannot escape the fascination either: “The ocean liner will be equipped with the most sophisticated luxury.” The “Vorwärts” editorial team cannot resist an envious afterthought: “So that the solvent public does not get anything even during the sea voyage deviates from the usual way of life.” In the ten decks, it is further said, “not only elegant restaurants, winter gardens, dance and ballrooms” will be installed: “A gym and a luxuriously furnished swimming pool will also help to banish boredom.”
However, the description of the relaxation room with paintings "according to the Pompeian model" proves that the reporter is enthusiastic, as is the list of other offers for first-class passengers: "Many electric light baths, carbonic acid baths, massage rooms, steam and hot-air baths, ladies' and gentlemen's hairdressers state-of-the-art equipment complete the facility.”
The ship is the self-confidence of the Empire that has become steel – although Ballin did not intend it to be that way. The new building is the first of three sister (or is it “brother”?) ships with which Hapag – the actual name Hamburg-Amerinische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft has long ceased to be used – wants to defend its position as the world’s leading shipping company.
The German-Jewish general manager has three competitors in mind: the British shipping company Cunard, which benefits from British state money; the formally British White Star Line, which has been owned by the US since 1901 and is correspondingly well-funded, and North German Lloyd from Bremen.
When Ballin designed his three giant liners, he had no intention of remaining in the Cunard and Lloyd race for the fastest transatlantic crossing, unofficially known as the 'Blue Riband' - what he was looking for was the best combination of speed and comfort. White Star followed the same approach in the late first decade of the 20th century. But their youngest ship, the RMS Titanic, went down in the North Atlantic just four weeks before the Emperor was launched, killing one and a half thousand passengers and crew. Ballin feels compassion, not glee. Because he knows that even his colossi can sink.
And also that a war between the continental power Germany and the sea power Great Britain will destroy the basis of the Hapag business. So Ballin uses his contacts to mediate between the two countries. "But his efforts to make a contribution to the preservation of the Anglo-German peace, together with his friend Sir Ernest Cassel, the Cologne-born financial adviser and secret chamberlain of the British King Edward VII, are thwarted in Berlin," writes the publicist Kai-Axel Aanderud in his book "175 Years Hapag-Lloyd" (Koehler Verlag Hamburg. 388 p., 49.95 euros).
And also very plastic. Because when, one year to the day after the launch and christening at the end of May 1912, the "Imperator" was put into service, a nine-meter-tall crowned eagle adorned the bow. His fangs enclose a globe on which Hapag's motto can be read: "My field is the world."
What appears self-confident but not aggressive as an advertising slogan for a shipping company develops an aftertaste in combination with the figurehead. In March 1914, during a hurricane, a torrential sea tore the eagle into the sea - "a warning sign that Ballin knows how to interpret," says Aanderud. Because the shipowner foresees “the stupidest and bloodiest war that world history has ever seen”.
And is right. From August 1914, the “Imperator” lay idle in the port of Hamburg for more than four years. The Royal Navy's naval blockade made it impossible for Hapag's pride to operate the liner service to the still neutral United States. A similar fate befalls the second ship of the "Imperator class", the "Vaterland". When the war started, it was in New York and was shut down here until it was confiscated after the USA entered the war in 1917 and converted into a troop transport. The third ship, the "Bismarck", is no longer put into service for Hapag.
After all, none of the three Hapag giant steamers suffered a catastrophic end. After the armistice in November 1918, the "Imperator" first went into US service and from 1920 sailed as the RMS "Berengia" for the Cunard Line, after all for 16 years. The "Vaterland" is operated by the state-owned United States Line and served the transatlantic traffic from 1923 to 1934. White Star completes the "Bismarck" as the RMS "Majestic". The largest ship in the world at the time remained in service until 1936 and completed a total of 207 double Atlantic crossings; Cruises are added.
Albert Ballin saves himself from having to witness the fate of his three giants. He dies on November 9, 1918 in a Hamburg clinic after drinking a mixture of sleeping pills and other substances the night before. It is probably a question of suicide, but the traces are covered in order not to lose the right to a life insurance payment.
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