By Dan Grossman, Cheryl Ganz and Patrick Russell
The History Press/IPG, $55, 192 pages, illustrated
The 20th century history being filled with disasters, it is not surprising that we seem to be buffeted by one melancholy anniversary after another. But there are disasters and disasters, many of them like the terrible battles of World War I where hundreds of thousands died and were horribly wounded that dwarf the subject of this book.
But the fiery crash landing that destroyed the eponymous airship at Lakehurst, N.J., after its trans-Atlantic crossing 80 years ago this month has the great virtue of being easy to grasp.
Although each death and maiming in those military clashes was a catastrophe for the person involved, the sheer numbers make them blur. But who can forget the anguished voice of the radio commentator Herb Morrison as he described the horrific inferno? Although his cry "This is one of the worst catastrophes in the world" was undeniably hyperbolic even back in those more innocent days.
This lavishly illustrated book on the ill-fated dirigible is also packed with informative text by three experts, one of whom, Cheryl Ganz, is recently retired as a curator at the Smithsonian. There are also diagrams and, all in all, there cannot be much relevant information that is not included in this handsome volume, which covers all aspects: historical and political, aeronautic and more broadly scientific among many others. It also puts things into context, especially important in a subject as fraught as this.
Even if you've seen the movies and television programs and read all the literature on the subject, I'd bet that there are still things in here that will be new to you, as they were to me.
In the Olympic year of 1936, Zeppelin Hindenburg had been adorned with the Games' logo, as it circled the stadiums. In the fall, it crossed the Atlantic as in a combination test run and propaganda tour, including a "Millionaires Cruise" over the Hudson River Valley and England to enjoy unparalleled views of the fall foliage, as future New York Gov. and U.S. Vice President Nelson Rockefeller is pictured doing. Earlier in 1937, a sister ship had made several voyages between Germany and Brazil.
The Hindenburg was very much the Concorde of its day, its to us modest top speed of just below 84 miles per hour still allowing it to cross the Atlantic in two days without stopping, more than twice the speed of the fastest ships. There was no airplane service between Europe and North America before 1939, but as advertisements in these pages show, American Airlines was partnered to provide connecting service between Lakehurst and Chicago and in Europe, passengers could continue on by plane.
Like the Concorde, advertising focused on luxury as well as speed. But although the illustrations here of public rooms and menus show they did the best they could, inevitably they lacked what the grand ocean liners of the day could offer. And, also like the Concorde, accommodation was very cramped.
The huge size of the Zeppelin is misleading until we realize that the huge bulk contained the gas (ideally helium but in this case, because of U.S. refusal to sell it to Nazi Germany, fatally highly flammable hydrogen) which enabled it to float. Passenger and crew quarters were in the relatively tiny gondola underneath, all but obscured in many exterior shots.
Even eight decades ago, that loaded red and black logo featuring the swastika which adorned the dirigible's tail fins tempered many Americans' joy in its arrival; and of course with hindsight that bitter taste has only grown. To their credit, the authors of this book do not shy away from this aspect of the Hindenburg's story. Their chapter titled "Flying the Nazi Flag" begins with the bald statement:
"The swastikas on Hindenburg's vertical stabilizers provided billboard sized advertising for Adolf Hitler's National Socialism. The Nazification of the beloved Zeppelin icon made it clear to German citizens and to the rest of the world that Hindenburg was not free from politics even as it flew international commercial service."
Sadly, we learn the Nazis had hijacked Hindenburg from its owners and indeed its mission:
"Dr. Hugo Eckener, chairman of the Zeppelin Company, had envisioned that the global services provided by the company would promote co-operation, commerce and peace among nations; Eckener's ideals clashed with those of the Nazi Party, which venerated nationalism, power, domination and violence. Eckener himself was no fan of National Socialists; he refused to fly the national swastika flag or write a loyalty letter and had been reprimanded for his failure to use the Nazi salute in 1933."
In a totalitarian nation, who would prevail was a foregone conclusion and so it is unsurprising to read, "The tension between Eckener and the regime inspired the German government to reduce Eckener's influence over the Zeppelin enterprise."
So that rebarbative emblem is there for all posterity to make our reaction to the Hindenburg disaster more complex than it otherwise would have been.
• Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, California.