Blame Cruise Ships on the Nazis

If you’re not a fan of the modern cruise ship, you may be surprised by who you have to blame: the Nazi Party.

Of course, the Nazis didn’t invent the idea of the commercial pleasure cruiser. According to Philip Dawson’s Cruise Ships: An Evolution in Design, the first known commercial cruise advertisement appeared in the Leipzig Illustrated News in 1845. The first purpose-built ship for cruising was the yacht St Sunniva, built for the North of Scotland & Orkney & Shetland Steam Navigation Company in 1887 for ten-day cruises along the Norwegian fjords. (Not coincidentally, it was the Norwegians who brought the modern cruise liner to the Caribbean in the 1960s.) Between the 1890s and the 1930s, cruising was something done mostly by older ocean liners in the off-season, when there weren’t enough regular bookings.

The problem was that in regular ocean liner service passengers were segregated into two or three classes which were confined to their own parts of the ship: separate dining rooms, separate recreation areas, separate cabins and decks. Cruising, on the other hand, involved single-class service where all passengers had similar accommodations and the run of the ship, which made the duplication of services and the wide variation in cabin type wasteful.

Enter the Nazis, or specifically the Strength through Joy, or Kraft durch Freude (KdF) movement. KdF was the recreation wing of the German Labour Front, and whose offerings to German workers included cruises in the Baltic, Atlantic, and Mediterranean. The cruises began in 1934 using otherwise unemployed German liners, but KdF soon began planing for a massive fleet of specially-designed cruise ships.

The first, and only, two to be laid down were the Robert Ley and the Wilhelm Gustloff. They featured standardized two- and four-person cabins, all featuring portholes to the outside. There were no inside cabins on either ship, a major change from usual liner design. Both the Robert Ley and the Wilhelm Gustloff also had large public spaces, substantial recreation facilities for swimming and exercise, and no segregation into classes or even between passengers and crew since everyone was supposedly equal members of the KdF. Of course, as a Nazi ship some were more equal than others: the Robert Ley featured a sixteen-room suite for the Führer that could be isolated from the rest of the ship.

To compensate for all of this, the ships also dropped many common ocean liner features. There was no baggage or cargo space, since the cruises were short, and maximum speed was only 15.5 knots (at a time when the Queen Mary could do 30+ knots).

Launched in 1938 and 1939, the two ships had very short careers as cruise liners. At the outbreak of the war, both were taken over by the German navy and neither survived the war. Their features, though, lived on in postwar designs. Many of them turned up in the East German worker’s cruise ship Fritz Heckert, which offered a very similar service to the KdF ships, and then in the Soviet Alexandr Pushkin ocean liners, as well as in West Germany’s first postwar dual-purpose liner–cruise ship, the Hamburg. More generally, the idea of a lower-speed, single-class ship would become the basis for modern cruise ships introduced by Norwegian Caribbean, Royal Caribbean, and Royal Viking in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, the idea of “all outside cabins” would become a major design concept again in the 1980s.

And there you have it: how the Nazis embraced the cruise ship, and the design ideas they pioneered in the Robert Ley and the Wilhelm Gustloff ended up as the basis for today’s 17+ million passenger industry.

Source Note: I’m deeply indebted for this story to Philip Dawson’s Cruise Ships: An Evolution in Design, which is an incredibly extensive resource on the design, construction, and operation of cruise ships throughout the twentieth-century.

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