The Official Story
THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(Cause of Ignition – Sabotage Hypothesis)
At the time of the disaster, sabotage was commonly put forward as the cause of the fire, initially by Hugo Eckener, former head of the Zeppelin Company and the “old man” of German airships. In initial reports, before inspecting the accident, Eckener mentioned the possibility of a shot as the cause of the disaster, because of threatening letters that had been received, but did not rule out other causes. Eckener later publicly endorsed the static spark hypothesis. At the time on a lecture tour in Austria, he was awakened at about 2:30 in the morning (8:30 p.m. Lakehurst time, or approximately an hour after the crash) by the ringing of his bedside telephone. It was a Berlin representative of The New York Times with news that the Hindenburg “exploded yesterday evening at 7 p.m. [sic] above the airfield at Lakehurst”. By the time he left the hotel the next morning to travel to Berlin for a briefing on the disaster, the only answer that he had for the reporters waiting outside to question him was that based on what he knew, the Hindenburg had “exploded over the airfield”; sabotage might be a possibility. However, as he learned more about the disaster, particularly that the airship had burned rather than actually “exploded”, he grew more and more convinced that static discharge, rather than sabotage, was the cause.
Commander Charles Rosendahl, commander of the Naval Air Station at Lakehurst and the man in overall charge of the ground-based portion of the Hindenburg’s landing maneuver, also came to believe that the Hindenburg had been sabotaged. He laid out a general case for sabotage in his book What About the Airship? (1938), which was as much an extended argument for the further development of the rigid airship as it was an historical overview of the airship concept.
Another proponent of the sabotage hypothesis was Max Pruss, commander of the Hindenburg throughout the airship’s career. Pruss flew on nearly every flight of the Graf Zeppelin until the Hindenburg was ready. In a 1960 interview conducted by Kenneth Leish for Columbia University’s Oral History Research Office, Pruss said early dirigible travel was safe, and therefore he strongly believed that sabotage was to blame. He stated that on trips to South America, which was a popular destination for German tourists, both airships passed through thunderstorms and were struck by lightning but remained unharmed.
Most members of the crew refused to believe that one of them would commit an act of sabotage, insisting only a passenger could have destroyed the airship. A suspect favored by Commander Rosendahl, Captain Pruss, and others among the Hindenburg’s crew, was passenger Joseph Späh, a German acrobat who survived the fire. He brought with him a dog, a German shepherd named Ulla, as a surprise for his children. He reportedly made a number of unaccompanied visits to feed his dog, who was being kept in a freight room near the stern of the ship. Those who suspected Späh based their suspicions primarily on those trips into the ship’s interior to feed his dog, that according to some of the stewards Späh had told anti-Nazi jokes during the flight, recollections by stewards that Späh had seemed agitated by the repeated delays in landing, and that he was an acrobat who could conceivably climb into the airship’s rigging to plant a bomb.
In 1962, A. A. Hoehling published Who Destroyed the Hindenburg?, in which he rejected all theories but sabotage, and named a crew member as the suspect. Erich Spehl, a rigger on the Hindenburg who died in the fire, was named as a potential saboteur. Ten years later, Michael MacDonald Mooney’s book The Hindenburg, which was based heavily on Hoehling’s sabotage hypothesis, also identified Spehl as a possible saboteur; Mooney’s book was made into the movie The Hindenburg (1975). The producers of the film were sued by Hoehling for plagiarism, but Hoehling’s case was dismissed because he had presented his sabotage hypothesis as historical fact, and it is not possible to claim ownership of historical facts.
Hoehling claimed the following in naming Spehl as the culprit:
Spehl’s girlfriend had communist beliefs and anti-Nazi connections.
The fire’s origin was near the catwalk running through Gas Cell 4, which was an area of the ship generally off-limits to anyone other than Spehl and his fellow riggers.
Hoehling’s claim that Chief Steward Heinrich Kubis told him the Chief Rigger Ludwig Knorr noticed damage of Cell 4 shortly before the disaster.
Rumors that the Gestapo had investigated Spehl’s possible involvement in 1938.
Spehl’s interest in amateur photography, making him familiar with flashbulbs that could have served as an igniter.
The discovery by representatives of the New York Police Department (NYPD) Bomb Squad of a substance that was later determined to likely be “the insoluble residue from the depolarizing element of a small, dry battery”. (Hoehling postulated that a dry cell battery could have powered a flashbulb in an incendiary device.)
The discovery by Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) agents of a yellow substance on the valve cap of the airship between cells 4 and 5 where the fire was first reported. Although initially suspected to be sulfur, which can ignite hydrogen, it was later determined that the residue was actually from a fire extinguisher.
A flash or a bright reflection in gas cell 4, that crew members near the lower fin had seen just before the fire.
Hoehling’s (and later Mooney’s) hypothesis goes on to say that it is unlikely that Spehl wanted to kill people, and that he intended the airship to burn after the landing. However, with the ship already over 12 hours late, Spehl was unable to find an excuse to reset the timer on his bomb.
It has been suggested that Adolf Hitler himself ordered the Hindenburg to be destroyed in retaliation for Eckener’s anti-Nazi opinions.
Since the publication of Hoehling’s book, most airship historians, including Dr. Douglas Robinson, have dismissed Hoehling’s sabotage hypothesis because no solid evidence was ever presented to support it. No pieces of a bomb were ever discovered (and there is no evidence in existing documentation that the sample collected from the wreckage, and determined to be residue from a dry cell battery, was found anywhere near the stern of the airship), and on closer examination, the evidence against Spehl and his girlfriend turned out to be rather weak. Additionally, it is unlikely that Rigger Knorr would not remain at cell 4 to further assess the purported damage claimed by Kubis. In an interview with the TV show Secrets & Mysteries, Hoehling himself asserted it was only his theory and also suggested a short circuit could be another potential cause of the fire. Additionally, Mooney’s book has been criticized as having numerous fictional elements, and it has been suggested that the plot was created for the then-upcoming 1975 film. Although Mooney alleges that three Luftwaffe officers were aboard to investigate a potential bomb threat, there is no evidence they were on board to do so, and military observers were present on previous flights to study navigational techniques and weather forecasting practices of the airship crew.
However, opponents of the sabotage hypothesis argued that only speculation supported sabotage as a cause of the fire, and no credible evidence of sabotage was produced at any of the formal hearings. Erich Spehl died in the fire and was therefore unable to refute the accusations that surfaced a quarter of a century later. The FBI investigated Joseph Späh and reported finding no evidence of Späh having any connection to a sabotage plot. According to his wife, Evelyn, Späh was quite upset over the accusations – she later recalled that her husband was outside their home cleaning windows when he first learned that he was suspected of sabotaging the Hindenburg, and was so shocked by the news that he almost fell off the ladder on which he was standing.
Neither the German, nor the American investigation, endorsed any of the sabotage theories. Proponents of the sabotage hypothesis argue that any finding of sabotage would have been an embarrassment for the Nazi regime, and they speculate that such a finding by the German investigation was suppressed for political reasons. However, it has also been suggested that numerous crewmen subscribed to the sabotage hypothesis because they refused to accept any flaws with the airship or pilot error.
Some more sensational newspapers claimed that a Luger pistol with one round fired was found among the wreckage and speculated that a person on board committed suicide or shot the airship. However, there is no evidence suggesting an attempted suicide or official report confirming the presence of a Luger pistol. Initially, before inspecting the scene himself, Eckener mentioned the possibility for a shot as the cause of the disaster, because of threatening letters they received. At the German enquiry Eckener discounted a shot – among many possibilities – as the cause as nearly impossible and highly improbable.