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The Ballin era


The new Hapag board ends the rate war and engages Albert Ballin, initially as head of the passage department. This is a more than just unorthodox personnel decision, yet it is to prove one of the most fortunate in commercial history. Almost 29, the highly intelligent outsider, in equal measure visionary and pragmatist, has found his life’s task. He is to lead Hapag to top place in the world.


Carl Laeisz, the Hamburg shipowner operating sailing ships and the decisive man on Hapag’s supervisory board, supports and encourages Ballin as he presses forwards, and his dynamism carries the company along with it. The company’s share capital is increased substantially, two modern twin-screw steamers are ordered. Also new is the fact that with Vulcan yard in Stettin, a German shipyard will for the first time be building one of the top ships.


Wilhelm II., the new German Emperor, is not just the most high-ranking ship lover in the Empire, but also the most influential trendsetter: Ocean shipping becomes very fashionable in Germany. The shipping companies discover the sovereign as a commercial factor. Favour from the sovereign, after all, is an unbeatable advertising argument. Hapag and NDL vie for this and soon attain a semi-official status extending far beyond their commercial role.


In honour of the Empress of Germany, the first Hapag express steamer is named "Augusta Victoria" and breaks a record on her maiden voyage: In seven days from Southampton to New York! The ship, furnished by NDL’s company architect Johann Poppe in rococo design in accordance with the motto "uninterrupted decoration of everything that can be decorated", is enthusiastically feted. This despite one fauxpas: Her Majesty’s correct name is Auguste Victoria.


Taken by surprise by Hapag’s rapid comeback, NDL’s director Lohmann makes the most crucial mistake in the whole history of the firm: He ordered two new ships but stuck by the obsolete single-screw type, thus robbing NDL of its entire technical and commercial edge on the toughly contested North Atlantic route. A series of accidents with express steamers bring further setbacks for the Bremen company.


Ballin, since 1888 Hapag’s youngest director, despatches the flagship "Augusta Victoria" on a pleasure cruise to the Mediterranean in January. His colleagues declare him to be mad. Accompanied by Ballin himself as the host, however, the expedition, lasting several weeks and with organized shore excursions at thirteen ports, becomes a tremendous success. This also marks the premiere of the modern cruise, the birth of the "sea tourism" that Hapag is to offer from now on.


A turbulent spring in Bremen: NDL director Johann Georg Lohmann collapses and dies at a preparatory meal for the traditional Bremen seafarers’ banquet. Hermann Henrich Meier, now 83, who had left the company as a protest against the business policy of the director of "his" company, returns in triumph. Dr. Heinrich Wiegand, a lawyer of 37 and NDL’s legal adviser, is appointed as Lohmann’s successor.


After the previous year’s appalling cholera epidemic the Senate in Hamburg imposes rigid restrictions on Eastern European emigrants. Ballin initially threatens to move with Hapag to Bremen, then he radically alters corporate policy: Hapag, also calling itself "Hamburg-Amerika Linie" after the Senate relents, is no longer to go primarily for the passenger trade so vulnerable to the economic climate, but instead for freight business. 


Hapag and NDL sign an agreement covering a joint liner service between Mediterranean ports and New York. Competitive Italian shipping still lies in the future, and many emigrants from the Balkan countries prefer the connection via the "Sunshine route" to the long journey to Northern ports. It is also popular among Americans wishing to visit their former homelands or to travel in Europe.


Horror at the coast: The "Elbe", once North German Lloyd’s most famous ship, is rammed in the Channel by a British collier on the night of 29-30 January. The large NDL steamship sinks within fifteen minutes, more than 200 lives are lost. There are just 20 survivors, five of them passengers. One of the consequences of the accident is a Reichstag debate about ship safety.


The "Pennsylvania" is launched for Hapag, a combined passenger-freight ship, of 12,261 grt the world’s largest ship for a while. She can transport over 2,800 passengers and 14,488 tons of cargo, or just one of the two categories. A series of highly profitable "P" steamships of different sizes from now on form the solid commercial backbone of the Hapag fleet, with its big luxury liners ensuring a brilliant image.


Heinrich Wiegand, reforming NDL, continues to make express passenger shipping the priority and has ordered a four-funnel express steamship. This is launched at the Vulcan yard in Stettin, being named "Kaiser Wilhelm der Große" after the reigning monarch’s grandfather and is the first of a whole quartet of Hohenzollerns, with which NDL aims to regain supremacy on the North Atlantic.


With a service speed of over 22 knots, the "Great Kaiser" breaks all records: In five days from the Needles to Sandy Hook! In New York she is feted as no previous ship has been. This voyage marks the beginning of the "German Decade" in the struggle to achieve the fastest Atlantic crossing and the four-funnel express steamers become NDL’s pride and its trademark. In Bremen a legend dies as he approaches the age of 90: company founder Hermann Henrich Meier.


At Hapag and NDL existing conditions are in some sense legalized, Albert Ballin and Heinrich Wiegand are named directors-general. The time of the patriarchs is past. At the turn of the century the two companies are headed by modern managers, looking beyond the city boundaries and capable of acting on a large stage, of putting over Hapag and NDL cooperating on a greater scale than previously.


A British shipping magazine coins the term "Blue Riband", derived from the blue sash of a Derby winner. The first holder of the intangible yet highly prestigious trophy is the new Hapag express steamer "Deutschland". The season is overshadowed by a serious fire at the NDL pier in Hoboken, killing over 300 people, destroying the facilities and reaching several ships that drift, still on fire, down the Hudson.


For Hapag and NDL, the world is their oyster. Their liner networks span the globe. Hapag owns the largest fleet worldwide, NDL transports the largest number of passengers. Both are status symbols of the aspiring German Empire, ambassadors of an ambitious, industrious nation. On one of Hapag’s steamships, Wilhelm II utters the legendary words: "Germany’s future lies on the water".


Hapag and NDL jointly conclude an agreement with the powerful Morgan Trust of the USA that is striving for a monopoly in the North Atlantic trade, having taken over White Star Line in Britain, among other companies. Ballin negotiates so skilfully that the Germans are able to defend their independence and avoid cut-throat competition. The "Lion of Wall Street" has failed in his bid for a North Atlantic monopoly.


In Hamburg, Wilhelm II dedicates not just a monument to his grandfather Wilhelm I, but also the new Hapag port facilities at Kaiser-Wilhelm-Hafen and Ellerholzhafen, each with ten metres water depth at high tide. Three kilometres of quays have been equipped with 140 mobile cranes and three heavy goods cranes, seven warehouses and 22 kilometres of railway tracks - the facility occupies a considerable part of the total area of the Port of Hamburg, of both the water and land.


After the great success of the cruises the Hapag board decides to become more heavily engaged in tourism. At the beginning of 1905 it takes over the renowned Carl Stangen travel agency in Berlin, carrying on the business as "Hamburg-Amerika Linie Reisebüro". The company thus becomes a leading supplier of tourism. NDL follows with the "Weltreisebüro Union". The two are based on Unter den Linden, a top address.


Luxury instead of record speed: Hapag withdraws from the Atlantic contest. Its new flagship "Amerika" is more economical than the coal-guzzling express steamers, rolls less, and offers extra space and comfort for all classes. For the first time emigrants could book cabins in the third class, barely more expensive than tweendeck. Passengers react with enthusiasm; the "palatial ship" is a resounding success.


Just a few years after the emigrant halls on the Veddel had been opened, Hapag has to considerably extend them. This last stop on the old continent is an internationally award-winning "emigrant town" covering 50,000 square metres. This year 180 Hapag employees look after almost 102,000 travellers from all over Europe there. Demand for this all-round service for emigrants, unique in the world, continues to grow.


Bremen celebrates North German Lloyd’s 50th anniversary. It has its self-assurance and prosperity perpetuated in stone with a new head office building, with the foundation stone for the last stage of the building now being laid. Designed by Johann Poppe, the creator of the "steamship style", this Neo-Renaissance fortress is almost completely covered by ornamentation. It is to occupy almost an entire district of the city around Papenstrasse, to incorporate the city’s highest tower offering an ascent to the top, and to be completed in 1910.


A serious shipping recession hits NDL as a passenger shipping company very hard, especially as more and more travellers are preferring the comfort of Hapag’s ships to the Bremen express steamers with their speed records. For a long time – too long? – NDL has remained loyal to its trademark. With the "George Washington", it now has a slower and particularly luxurious flagship launched.


Heinrich Wiegand dies in March at the age of only 53. Besides heading NDL, this versatile manager had also energetically pursued his second major interest, the development and industrialization of Bremen, Bremerhaven and the Lower Weser area. The NDL had co-founded companies or acquired stakes in others, and Wiegand had campaigned intensively for securing better canal and rail links. His successor is Philipp Heineken.


A sensation in Hapag’s Annual Report and a new dimension in the civilian arms race on the North Atlantic: The Hamburgians wish to place orders for three luxury liners of gigantic dimensions, unprecedentedly luxurious and at around 50,000 gross register tons larger than anything sailing anywhere in the world, indeed twice the size of the flagship of the German merchant fleet, the "George Washington" from Bremen.


The third dimension: a planetoid is discovered, being given the name "Hapag" two years later. That is fitting, with the Hamburgians being among the pioneers of civil aviation. Ballin has been trying since 1908 "to make the airship serviceable for practical transport purposes." Hapag backs Graf Zeppelin, while its travel agencies have been selling tickets for Deutsche Luftschiffahrts AG (Delag)’s four airships since 1910, with 42,000 passengers by 1914.


An ambiguous highlight: With the "Imperator", the first of Hapag’s leviathans, Wilhelm II names the world’s largest ship. A superb product "made in Germany", a floating grand hotel, setting the pace in technology, navigational equipment and service, on board which even the emigrants are accommodated in cabins instead of shared quarters. Yet a symbol of political arrogance bestrides the bow, a giant bronze eagle with its claws resting on a tiny globe.


Optimism accompanies an economic boom in Europe. Yet Albert Ballin, at the zenith of success as Hapag’s top manager, is aware of the cracks under the glittering surface. He is increasingly concerned by the political tension between Germany and Great Britain and fears that the arms race in Europe could lead to an appalling war. On semi-official missions, therefore, ever since 1908 he has been seeking to mediate.


Christening of the "Bismarck", Hapag’s third giant steamship, for which Wilhelm II has again made the journey to Hamburg, becomes the German Empire’s farewell gala. Eight days later, shots ring out in Sarajevo. Ballin travels secretly to London on a last, desperate attempt at mediation. In vain, for at the beginning of August what the head of Hapag condemns as "the most stupid and bloody war in world history" prevails.


Survival is now the main priority; overseas traffic has collapsed. Hapag and NDL ships not required by the navy lie at anchor rusting in German or foreign ports, many of the staff have been called up for military service. Numerous other employees and the facilities of both companies serve the German Empire. Port warehouses become provision stores, the emigrants’ halls become hospitals and NDL fits out hospital trains.


Great excitement in the USA: "German U-boat in Baltimore!" Built and equipped in secret by NDL, the diving freighter "Deutschland", 65 metres long, with a crew of 29 under Lloyd’s Captain Paul König, had broken through the British North Sea blockade. She loads rubber and nickel and also completes the dangerous return trip lasting at least three weeks. The "Bremen", the second merchant U-boat, was less fortunate, disappearing on her first outbound voyage.


The USA enters the war. The Hapag flagship "Vaterland", with a book value of 34 million marks, has been laid up in New York since 1914 and is now seized. "Not much will remain of the Hamburg-Amerika Linie," says a resigned Ballin. Along with NDL director Heineken he nevertheless fights for a long time for a shipping compensation act. This comes into force in the autumn and provides for large newbuilding loans after the cessation of hostilities.


The war is lost. Ballin, who has for years been seriously discredited by circles in Berlin as a pacifist, is suddenly requested by the general staff to conduct the peace negotiations. He himself is still prepared to do so, but he can no longer bear the collapse of his world and his life’s work. Ballin poisons himself as the revolution reaches Hamburg, and dies at the age of 61, along with the German Empire, on 9 November about noon.