May 6th in German History: The Hindenburg Disaster

Hindenburg disaster - Wikipedia
The Hindenburg Disaster: Image Credit: Wikipedia

Before there were passenger airplanes, massive Zeppelins traveled between continents and countries carrying passengers and cargo. The Zeppelin Era lasted for decades, but would have been ended simply because of advances in airplane technology and the inherent inefficiency of the Zeppelin. Its demise, however, was hastened by the destruction of the Hindenburg which occurred on May 6th, 1937.

The Zeppelin was invented by Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin and patented in 1895. The Zeppelin was first used commercially and made successful flights. The Deutsche Luftschiffahrts was the first airline. Over 10,000 passengers had been carried by 1914. During World War I, the German Empire used Zeppelins in bombing campaigns over the British Isles and as reconnaissance aircraft. The Zeppelins were at first very difficult to combat due to their construction and altitude. However, the invention of the phosphorus bullet allowed British fighters to shoot down Zeppelins with relative ease. Ultimately, the expensiveness of the Zeppelin and its vulnerability to planes armed with such bullets limited its usefulness as a weapon of war. After Germany was defeated, DELAG had to surrender its airships and was banned from building airships with the exception of one for the US Army. In 1926, the restrictions were lifted and in the 1930s the large Zeppelin LZ 129 Hindenburg made transatlantic flights. By this time, the Zeppelin had become a Nazi propaganda symbol and displayed the swastika on their fins. However, this Golden Age would end in 1937. The Hindenburg had been designed to use non flammable helium but the US controlled the supplies of the gas and so it was filled with hydrogen. On May 6th, while the ship was landing in Lakehurst its tail caught fire and the ship was destroyed in the ensuing fire. Thirteen passengers and 22 crew were killed. Following the destruction of the Hindenburg, Zeppelins declined massively in popularity and few flights were conducted. A couple more Zeppelins were constructed but they saw limited use. In 1939, one Zeppelin, the graf Zeppelin II, was used for reconnaissance. However against Poland and Britain in 1940 all of the remaining Zeppelins were scrapped on the order of Hermann Goering.

Zeppelins are perhaps history’s most famous fad. They were romanticized at the time and still feature in popular culture. Zeppelins, however, were a fundamentally flawed concept for air travel, and would never have been able to adopt the mass travel role that airplanes have today. Zeppelins are simply too slow, cannot carry enough passengers, and are too dangerous. Further, they use helium which is a truly limited resource. The Hindenburg disaster merely hastened the inevitable. That being said, there was a time when they were the pinnacle of human transportation innovation, and that should be remembered. In a time before the airplane had been sufficiently developed, the comparability simple Zeppelin allowed humans to travel the skies in comparative luxury and, inefficiently, rain death upon their enemies.

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