THE HINDENBURG DISASTER
(May 6, 1937 – Lakehurst Naval Air Station, New Jersey)
The Official Story
(The Trip to Germany)
Although designed and built for commercial transatlantic passenger, air freight, and mail service, at the behest of the Reich Ministry for Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Hindenburg was first pressed into use by the Air Ministry (its DLZ co-operator) as a vehicle for the delivery of Nazi propaganda. On March 7, 1936, ground forces of the German Reich had entered and occupied the Rhineland, a region bordering France, which had been designated in the 1919 Treaty of Versailles as a de-militarized zone established to provide a buffer between Germany and that neighboring country.
In order to justify its remilitarization—which was also a violation of the 1925 Locarno Pact—a post hoc referendum was quickly called by Hitler for March 29 to “ask the German people” to both ratify the Rhineland’s occupation by the German Army, and to approve a single party list composed exclusively of Nazi candidates to sit in the new Reichstag. The Hindenburg and the Graf Zeppelin were designated by the government as a key part of the process.
As a public relations ploy, Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels demanded that the Zeppelin Company make the two airships available to fly “in tandem” around Germany over the four-day period prior to the voting with a joint departure from Löwenthal on the morning of March 26. While gusty wind conditions that morning would prove to make the process of safely launching the new airship a difficult one, Hindenburg‘s commander, Captain Ernst Lehmann, was determined to impress the politicians, Nazi party officials, and press present at the airfield with an “on time” departure and thus proceeded with its launch despite the adverse conditions. As the massive airship began to rise under full engine power she was caught by a 35-degree crosswind gust, causing her lower vertical tail fin to strike and be dragged across the ground, resulting in significant damage to the bottom portion of the airfoil and its attached rudder. Zeppelin Company chairman Eckener, who had opposed the joint flight both because it politicized the airships and had forced the cancellation of an essential final endurance test for Hindenburg, was furious and rebuked Lehmann.
Graf Zeppelin, which had been hovering above the airfield waiting for Hindenburg to join it, had to start off on the propaganda mission alone while LZ 129 returned to her hangar. There temporary repairs were quickly made to its empennage before joining up with the smaller airship several hours later. As millions of Germans watched from below, the two giants of the sky sailed over Germany for the next four days and three nights, dropping propaganda leaflets, blaring martial music and slogans from large loudspeakers, and broadcasting political speeches from a makeshift radio studio aboard Hindenburg.