The Hidden Hindenburg - Book Review - Military Review
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The Hidden Hindenburg

The Untold Story of the Tragedy, the Nazi Secrets, and the Quest to Rule the Skies

Michael McCarthy

Lyons Press, Guilford, Connecticut, 2020, 328 pages

Book Review published on: September 17, 2021

The Hidden Hindenburg: The Untold Story of the Tragedy, the Nazi Secrets, and the Quest to Rule the Skies presents a detailed account of Hugo Eckener’s influence on Germany’s lighter-than-air aircraft during the 1930s and his secretive association with the Nazi regime. The tale focuses on the efforts of Eckener, who championed the dirigible. Eckener, with a PhD in psychology, started out as a reporter assigned to write a story on the zeppelin. Fascinated with the craft, he became an advisor to the group building them, and later an airship captain that had a stake in the company. The story follows his exploits as a fanatical advocate of lighter-than-air machines and exposes his unquenchable desire for fame and increasingly bigger and better airships.

Michael McCarthy seeks to educate the reader on the people that were crucial to the zeppelin program, the prestige that came with having a cutting-edge technology, and the strategic advantages that gigantic airships provided in the interwar years. In effect, this work is an unauthorized biography of an international hero. His exploits were broadcasted by radio around the world. When he landed the giant airship to debark his passengers, he could draw a crowd of a quarter of a million people. Eckener was an aviation “rock star” of his day.

The overwhelming success of the zeppelin was a source of national pride to a beaten country. The lighter-than-air program showed the world that Germany was at the cutting edge of technology. The Germans were able to fly over a million miles in their airships during the 1920s and 1930s using the flammable gas hydrogen for lift. Great Britain and France all but abandoned their programs due to catastrophic accidents with their airships. They did not produce commercial use dirigibles.

The initial thrust of the story is about the dirigible as a means of providing safe and speedy long-range transportation. During the 1920s, commercial aviation was in its infancy, and airships had been used as terror weapons in the war. Zeppelins bombed major allied cities during the First World War. Eckener strove to change that image. He set flight duration and distance records in passenger- and cargo-carrying zeppelins throughout the 1920s, culminating in a 1929 around-the-world trip. Eckener was the most successful airship commander of the day, completing hundreds of trans-Atlantic flights with his company’s zeppelins throughout the 1930s. However, he was not satisfied with this success and sought to create bigger airships that could haul more passengers and cargo.

Eckener cultivated relationships with American airship advocates to include a number of U.S. presidents. He even built a zeppelin for the United States immediately after World War I, which allowed him to keep his zeppelin company from dissolution, as specified by the Treaty of Versailles. These ties began to fray when the German government gradually became more militaristic under the guidance of Chancellor Adolf Hitler. Eckener had a difficult time providing the appearance of neutrality while meeting the Nazi Party’s objectives. The Nazi Party was quick to grasp the propaganda and intimidation value that these gigantic airships could command.

Despite the fame and spectacle, Eckener’s airship company was only ever marginally profitable. He was always angling for financial resources. Initially starting with Graf Zeppelin, he moved on to the even larger Hindenburg with the financial backing of the Nazi Party. McCarthy carefully documents the extent of Eckener’s duplicity in both the investigation of the Hindenburg disaster and his collaboration with the Nazi Party. The latter was critical to keeping the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin company solvent. McCarthy explores Eckener’s character with excerpts of correspondence from numerous sources and transcripts all carefully documented by the author. Many of these documents were declassified in the 1990s such as the Operation Paperclip documents. When Eckener was called to testify on the destruction of the Hindenburg, he sought to mislead the investigation into thinking that a bomb had been planted on the craft. He stated this lie rather than admit that he had discovered a design flaw that previous winter during a maintenance overhaul. The flaw involved abrasion of the wires vibrating against the outer layer of the hydrogen-filled gas bags during strong winds. The bags would then rupture and be subject to explosion. Later in the Hindenburg inquiry, Eckener was caught in a lie when he stated that America would not sell him helium when the craft was first built. Eckener chose to use hydrogen in his craft because of the higher lift potential than helium and the operating cost savings.

Eckener conducted secret missions for the Nazis. After the crash, the Hindenburg’s sister ship LZ-130 was used to conduct signals intelligence, gathering missions and photographic reconnaissance prior to the invasion of Czechoslovakia. As the war progressed, the author describes a man that is desperate to once again be in the limelight and enrich his personal fortune. Eckener lobbied his contacts in the Nazi war ministry to assist in turning their test V2 missile into a mass-produced weapon. The secret V2 ballistic missile project needed a production facility. Eckener offered up his zeppelin company. During the war, most of the company’s workers had been sent to fight at the Russian front. Eckener actively lobbied Hitler’s Schutzstaffel to obtain skilled prisoners of war as workers to make the V2. Many of these prisoners were maltreated, tortured, and killed during their work at his factory. When the reckoning came at the end of the war, Eckener was able to portray himself as a reluctant associate of the Nazis. He avoided prosecution at a Nuremberg military tribunal. Instead, he was forced to pay a large fine.

The book is an engaging and easy read. It is a study in character, leadership, and obsession. It illustrates how a man acclaimed by the world for his daring and vision could become a consummate manipulator and liar. In fact, McCarthy reveals that Eckener was a man who cultivated the image of a hero while undercutting his friends, refusing to admit that he had inadvertently created a design error that ultimately destroyed the Hindenburg, and by becoming a committed Nazi collaborator to further his own ambitions.

Book Review written by: Eric McGraw, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas