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Thursday, October 7, 2021

October 7, 2021: AmericanFires: The Hindenburg

[October 8-10 marks the 150th anniversary of the Great Chicago Fire of 1871. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy that tragedy and four other historic fires, leading up to a somber special post on our current crops of horrific wildfires.]

On a justifiably famous context for the airship disaster, and a more ambiguous but equally compelling one.

Eighty years ago, the German passenger airship LZ 129 Hindenburg caught fire while docking in Manchester Township, New Jersey, a horrific, tragic accident that produced thirty-six fatalities among passengers and crew. Much like the Titanic a couple decades earlier, the Hindenburg was a famous, groundbreaking vehicle that had left Europe to a great deal of fanfare, on the first of what were to be ten round-trip transatlantic flights that year; its scheduled return trip to Germany was already sold out. Yet while the Titanic’s disaster did not (as I understand it) lead to any immediate or significant change in the popularity of nautical travel, the Hindenburg crash marked the beginning of the end of the brief dominance of airships as a preferred option for passenger travel. Partly that striking effect was due to the particularly horrific idea of being caught on an airship in flight when it catches fire, of course; but I would argue that even more significant was the fact that for potential passengers all over the United States and the world, the Hindenburg fire was far more than just an idea: it was a series of infamous, viral images, videos, and radio broadcasts.

A still image, photographer Sam Shere’s shot of an inflamed and crashing Hindenburg behind the mooring mast, became the defining depiction of the disaster. But it was through the newer video and audio technologies that the story of the crash truly went viral. Four different American and international organizations (Pathé News, Movietone News, Hearst News of the Day, and Paramount News) had representatives present for the landing and captured extensive newsreel footage, allowing viewers around the world to watch clips of an unfolding disaster for the first time in history (although, as those hyperlinks reflect, the clips were part of thoroughly produced and narrated pieces). But most striking of all was Herbert Morrison’s eyewitness radio report, recorded live and broadcast on Chicago’s WLS station the following day. Morrison was already a prominent figure in the industry (and would go on to become one in early television news as well), but his visceral reaction to witnessing the crash—epitomized by the phrase “Oh, the humanity!”—both propelled him to international fame and became inextricably linked with images and stories of the Hindenburg. If we’re now entirely accustomed to associating disasters with the media coverage of them, that link began with the Hindenburg.

Far less famous than that media context, and far more ambiguous to be sure, were the connections between the Hindenburg crash and Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime. The airship itself was entirely linked to Hitler, as its first public flight, alongside another airship the Graf Zeppelin in March 1936, served as propaganda for the regime; the two airships traveled around Germany broadcasting pro-Hitler messages and helped sway German public opinion in favor of reoccupying the Rhineland ahead of a referendum on the question. Most of the numerous, never proven theories of sabotage as the cause of the Hindenburg fire were based on various permutations of these Nazi ties: from A.A. Hoehling’s book Who Destroyed the Hindenburg? (1962), which named crew member Erich Spehl the saboteur in part because his girlfriend was a communist with anti-Nazi contacts; to more outlandish theories such as one that names Hitler himself as the culprit, in order to punish the German airship pioneer Hugo Eckener for his failure to support the regime. Historians and scientists have largely countered all of these theories; but even if the Hindenburg crash was simply an accident, it seems important to me to remember that the airship had prominent swastikas on its tailfins. The Hindenburg might have become a symbol of disasters for a new media age, that is, but it also embodied the relationship (at least as of 1937) between Nazi Germany and the United States.

The Chicago fire tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Fires or other historic disasters you’d analyze?

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