The Nazi Titanic: the luxurious German ship that starred in a story of propaganda, excesses and tragedy

The Nazi regime commissioned an expensive film about the Titanic tragedy for propaganda purposes

Eighty years ago, and decades before James Cameron’s multiple Oscar-winning production, Adolf Hitler’s regime financed an ambitious and expensive Titanic film. The famous shipwreck inspired a Nazi propaganda film, but that version was far from a box office success.

The SS Cap Arcona, nicknamed the “Queen of the South Atlantic”, was the great protagonist of the film, but also of one of the worst tragedies of World War II.

In early 1942, the once magnificent and luxurious ocean liner was rusting away at a German naval base in the Baltic Sea. Two years earlier, the ship had been requisitioned by Hitler’s Navy and turned into a barracks for sailors after being stripped of its dazzling accessories.

But that same year, the Cap Arcona would be plucked out of obscurity and literally thrown into the spotlight: thanks to its design similarities to the RMS Titanic, it was given the central role in a Nazi production of the infamous drama at sea.

The sinking of the Titanic was not a new topic even then: the first movies about the misfortune had hit the screen as early as 1912, the year the ship sank in the icy waters of the North Atlantic during its maiden voyage.

But Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s notorious Minister of Propaganda, came up with a script with a very different take on events: it depicted the accident as the result of British-American greed.

“Goebbels and the Nazis had produced hundreds of propaganda films by then, but this time they wanted something different,” Professor Robert Watson, an American historian and author of The Nazi Titanic, tells the BBC.

“In 1942, Germany was dealing with considerable setbacks in the war and Goebbels found it essential to achieve great successes on the propaganda front.”

sparing no expense
The prominent Nazi official had been specifically surprised by the success of “Casablanca.”

Released that same year, the Hollywood romantic drama popularized a powerful anti-fascist narrative, prompting the German propagandist to take action.

With his “Nazified” version of the Titanic tragedy, Goebbels dreamed of giving the Allies a taste of their own medicine. “He wanted to spare no expense in making this ‘answer’ to ‘Casablanca’ and that included using his own replica of the Titanic, Cap Arcona,” adds Professor Watson.

“The ships were basically the same, apart from the fact that Cap Arcona had three funnels, one less than the Titanic. But they put a fake one on him for filming. At a time of difficulty in the midst of the war effort, Goebbels allocated huge funds for the production.

In his book, Professor Watson claims that “Titanic” had a budget of four million Reichsmarks, the equivalent of approximately $180 million today, making it one of the most expensive films ever made. Hundreds of soldiers were pulled from the front lines to act as extras, and the film featured some of Germany’s most famous movie stars, including Sybille Schmitz. Production, however, was chaotic.

Soldiers harassed the actresses and there was a general panic that the lighting on the sets would make them a target for Allied bombing. There were also more serious matters: Herbert Selpin, the director assigned to the project, fell out of favor with Nazi officials after criticizing their interference in the shooting schedule, and was arrested and interrogated by Goebbels himself. He later found himself hanged in his cell.

a different story
But the movie was made nonetheless, with hard-hitting propaganda at the center of the plot: the accident was portrayed as a story of corporate greed on the part of the Titanic’s British owners.

The sinking occurred despite the efforts to prevent it from the only German crew member who tried to prevent the vessel from navigating the dangerous waters of the North Atlantic.

At the end, an epilogue message states that the deaths of more than 1,500 passengers is “an eternal doom of Britain’s endless greed.”

“There are Nazi propaganda films with a much more subtle message,” explains German historian Alex Von Lunen.

“This Titanic movie shows the delusion of some Nazis about what propaganda could do,” says Von Lunen.

“They really thought, ‘We can still win this war if we inspire people.’

“And what happened to the movie later on really makes it more interesting.”

Von Lunen is referring to how Goebbels, who had given the production the green light, ended up banning it from showing in German cinemas after seeing the final product.

The Nazi officer felt that the scenes of the tragedy were so realistic that they would foster panic at a time when German civilians lived in fear of air raids.

“What also became a problem was that the fictional German officer aboard the Titanic in the film disobeys his superiors because he believes that what they were doing was morally wrong. “That was not a message the Nazis wanted to send to real-life German officers,” says Von Lunen.

In his book, Professor Watson notes that the film was initially released only in German-occupied territories and was not shown within Germany until 1949, when it was rediscovered in the Nazi archives.

real life tragedy
The fact that the Nazi film flopped should have meant a return to oblivion for the Cap Arcona. But the ship would end up earning an even more notorious place in history.

After being used in the evacuation of more than 25,000 German soldiers and civilians from advancing Russian troops on the Eastern Front, in 1945 it became a prison ship moored in the Baltic for inmates transferred from various concentration camps in an attempt to hide the evidence of Nazi crimes.

According to Professor Watson, documents from both sides of the conflict estimate that at least 5,000 people were on board the Cap Arcona on May 3 when the ship was mistakenly attacked by Allied aircraft, with massive loss of life.