The Tragic Irony of the SS Cap Arcona

An Ambitious and Grievous Endeavor

The Cap Arcona (1927), a painting by Heribert Schroepfer

Preface

Like me, perhaps you also have heard enough and seen enough renditions about the Titanic disaster. This story is about the ship that played the Titanic in the Nazi-made movie about the undying legend.

The Cap Arcona was a large German luxury ocean liner, formerly of the Hamburg-South America line, and first launched in 1927. The 27,561 gross ton ship was named after Cape Arkona on the island of Rügen in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern. She was considered one of the most beautiful ships of the time, was the largest German ship on the South American run, and carried upper-class travelers and steerage-class emigrants, mostly to South America.

In 1940, the ship was taken over by the German Navy and used for the evacuation of Germans from East Prussia. These were dangerous journeys, as the Baltic Sea was heavily populated with Russian submarines and laden with mines. At least two other ships had already been sunk, with deaths in the tens of thousands. It has been recorded that prior to the Cap Arcona’s last journey, much of its machinery wearing down and on the verge of breakage, the captain shot himself rather than make the perilous voyage.

The Stage of a Ship

The good ship Cap Arcona apparently survived its last journey, was decommissioned, and sat in the Baltic port of Gotenhafen for a while.

Some time in 1941 or ’42, a film was commissioned by Joseph Goebbels, the Propaganda Minister of Nazi Germany, to tell again the story of the Titanic, which had sunk in 1912. Such a film had already been released by the British in 1929, and in German, but this new endeavor was intended to show the superiority of German filmmaking and would also expose the fallibility of capitalism and glorify and honor Hitler’s agenda. It would feature an entirely fictional heroic German officer in the ship's crew, intended to demonstrate the superior bravery and selflessness of German men as compared to the British officers.

In his vision to make the film the grandest ever, he ordered the building of a replica ship with exact dimensions, aboard which most of the filming was done, at Gotenhafen. The ship that was refitted for this purpose was the SS Cap Arcona.

It is of note that, at a time when the country was immersed in an all out war, hundreds (perhaps thousands) of servicemen and officers were brought in as extras and consultants, and no expense was denied for this project.

The original director of the film was Herbert Selpin. Not long into the first shootings, he became frustrated with the cast and crew. They were not experienced actors, they had little or no commitment, and the young officers were more interested in flirting with the actresses than they were in acting.

One night, Selpin embarked on a tirade of pent-up honest opinion and denigrated the party and its officers and the war and verily declared the foolhardiness and deception that was Hitler’s campaign. His best friend, Walter Zerlett-Olfenius, reported him to the Gestapo, whereupon Selpin was arrested and brought in for questioning. Shortly thereafter, he was found in his cell, appearing to have hung himself. It is well known, however, that Goebbels had arranged it.

Werner Klingler was then given the directorship. Neither of these men ever received credit for their work on the film. After many difficulties, the production was completed at the cost of almost $200 million, which today would calculate to well over $3 billion. Just before the grand opening, in 1943, it occurred to Goebbels that, after all the work and sacrifice, he had made a horrible mistake.

By this time, Germany had seen its own share of casualties, many of them people getting killed in ships and boats and dying in the sea. The film was supposed to have lifted the morale of the people, but now, Goebbels was thinking that all the great action and chaos, the scenes of panic and mass death, which he had fought so hard to produce, might actually have the opposite effect. And so, he banned the film in Germany.

The Concomitant Calamity of War

Joseph Goebbels

Strategic Losses

The film then premiered in November of 1943, in Paris where, supposedly, it was well received. It then toured the capitol cities of the Nazi occupied countries and was reported to have done well.

Towards the end of the war, in 1945, with the Allies closing in from one side and the Russians closing in from the other, it was decided by a high-ranking officer, possibly Heinrich Himmler, that the concentration camps had to be purged of evidence. People of perhaps a dozen different nationalities and/or orientations were forced into death marches of hundreds of miles and brought to the SS Cap Arcona and two other ships.

The Cap Arcona had been made to look like a German warship and rigged with explosives and accelerants, in anticipation of another raid by the RAF. There were 4,500-5,000 people on board the Cap Arcona alone when the bombing started. The sinking of the Cap Arcona and the two other ships was one of the biggest single-incident maritime losses of life during the war and, as such, one of the largest maritime losses of life in history. The total count is believed to have been close to 10,000.

With only 350 survivors, the fatality count of the Cap Arcona was three times higher than in the real Titanic disaster. And Germany surrendered only three days later. 

Addenda

An advertisement from the Arcona's better days.

Postlude

The film became obscured, rediscovered in 1949, and was immediately banned in most western countries. It emerged again in the 50s, and when Britain produced ‘A Night to Remember’ in 1958, some clips from Goebbels’ movie were used without any admission of it in the credits.

The original was shown in Russia as a ‘trophy film,’ became obscured again, and was reproduced in VHS in 1992. This latter version deleted the propaganda scenes, which caused the film to lose much of its controversial quality. The uncensored version was produced as a special edition DVD in 2005, completely restored, by Kino Video.

Most of the information related here came from the World Book Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica. Both sources were used so as to compare timelines and verify the historical accuracies. In a previous search for illustrations, I also came across some sites and blogs that provided some additional insights. There is a blog by Andere Tijden, which appears to be in German, but seems to offer some interesting revelations of the final tragedy with input from some of the survivors.

The picture of Joseph Goebbels is one of many. Goebbels is often depicted as a scholarly personage, or as kindly, and as a good family man. I selected a photo that held a good likeness with a more realistic character of the person that he was.

r. nuñez, 2/2013

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