The Tragedy of the Nazi Titanic

Rewriting history may not be uncommon if one wants to bring people to their side or belief. That was true of the 1943 propaganda film Titanic. Popular German director Hebert Selpin directed the film. He had recently became a popular in the world of German propaganda films. The production had a clear goal to reimagine history as Nazi Germany saw fit. This gave birth to the Nazi Titanic, an infamous piece of cinema.

the RMS Titanic
The real Titanic at sea trials

A tragedy within production

The production was expensive, painful and overrun. The film meant to help the Nazis win, and show that German film making was superior to Hollywood and American films. However, it all fell apart. The man who commissioned the film ended up banning it from showing it in Germany.

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Titanic commissioner
The man who commissioned the film, Joseph Goebbels

180 million dollars today would be the cost for this movie. Hitler himself, a film lover, visited the set in Berlin.

While at the time, most Germans went hungry or lived under constant bombing, the production had 9 luxurious sets for the movie. A 20 foot model of the Titanic slipped into a nearby lake for filming. The director had soldiers taken out of the war to play extras. Joseph Goebbels, the man who commissioned the film, allowed this to happen. Filming continued even when Germany entered a serious state of war.

Hitler on the set of Titanic
Hitler on the set of Titanic

The film does not take its adaptations to the sinking of the Titanic as being artistic liberties, nor stylistic choices, but much rather, the film completely twists the narrative of the sinking to fit their message.

By twisting this narrative, the goal with the Nazis retelling of the Titanic tragedy is to display the British as being amoral, horrible people who care more about speed and success than human lives. And they do that by changing one of the most important historical figures in the sinking.

Changes Made to history

Titanic had 6 officers aboard, and the 1st officer was William McMaster Murdoch. In the Nazi retelling, Murdoch is replaced with a kind hearted German officer. 1st Officer Peterson (the German replacement of Murdoch) is the only moral crew member aboard.

The Englishmen, namely J. Bruce Ismay, pressure the captain into going faster which ends up endangering those aboard. Although it is believed to be true that the real Ismay did want the Captain to speed up the engines, it’s not for the reason presented in the film. But in the Nazi retelling, it is to win the Blue Ribbon. The Blue Ribbon is a prize awarded to the fastest ships. However, Titanic was not trying to win the ribbon. The White Star Line already realized that their ships would not be the fastest around, and instead focused on luxury. It was a better thing to do, considering that their competitor Cunard had faster ships.

The real Bruce Ismay, portrayed as an evil capitalist in Nazi Titanic
The Real Bruce Ismay

The film also wants to make sure that the audience feels pity for the poor German officer and those who suffered because of the British. Peterson is frequently shown as being discriminated against for being the only German officer. At the beginning of the film, at the London Stock Exchange, the cost of the loss of the Titanic is going to make the White Star Line go bankrupt. They are selling final stocks until the kind German officer steps up and offers to tell a story.

William Murdoch was replaced in Nazi Titanic
Titanic’s real 1st officer

Accuracy of Nazi Titanic

There are quite a few historical inaccuracies with the film, such as Ismay having a girlfriend aboard. Ismay in real life, married, his wife did not join him on the Titanic voyage.

Ismay, in the film also quite publicly announces how fast the Titanic in the movie is.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it is my honor to welcome you aboard our newest ship. You already know that at 46,000 tons, the Titanic is the world’s largest ship. You also know that English experts say she is the world’s safest ship. But I’d like to inform you of a third feature of the Titanic: She is also the fastest ship that has ever sailed the Atlantic. At this very moment, what you are experiencing…is the Titanic cruising at 261/2 knots…a world-record speed.” Ismay explains to a crowd in the film, giving the perfect set up for English arrogance at its finest.

They go with ending the film with a written message that those aboard died due to English greed.

As inaccurate as the film itself is, the production is a far more terrifying story.

Nazi Titanic’s Production falls Apart

Cap Arcona was German ship that was in port in Russia. The movie crew brought her to Poland to play the Titanic in the sinking scenes. Originally a luxurious ship that carried Germans to South Africa in the 1920s, Selpin demanded that Cap Arcona appeared in his movie. While on board Cap Arcona, Selpin and the actors drank freely and fought verbally with crew members. Drunken actors would frequently forget their lines and disgruntled ex-soldiers would argue with Selpin.

Joseph Goebbels, who commissioned Nazi Titanic
Goebbels, who commanded large parts of the production

Selpin ended up mocking the Iron Cross and denouncing the Nazi effort in the war. He complained about the war getting in the way of his movie, and that parts of the Nazi war machine were pathetic and cowardly. Sent to Berlin for questioning, the once famous director became considered an enemy of the state. Germany sent Selpin to jail, and 2 days later found him hanging in his cell. No one is sure if his death was a suicide or a murder.

The Cap Arcona was in the Nazi Titanic
The Cap Arcona

The film, however, was finished. The sinking scenes showed violent imagery and worried Goebbels about how German citizens, under attack from air strikes, would react to the panicking passengers on the sinking Titanic. It weirdly mirrored 1940s Germany in a way. Not only that, the film blamed a tragedy and a loss of life on a greedy dictator like man, which almost exactly resembled Nazi Germany. Goebbels saw himself and the state of his country too closely in the film, and thus banned the movie.

Cap Arcona Sinks

The film did not first premiere in Germany, but in Prague. Shortly after the film’s release in 1944, the Cap Arcona, now a floating concentration camp, sunk due to British airstrikes. The attack killed 5,000 people aboard. It was more than those who died on the Titanic. During the attack, the Cap Arcona burst into flames and capsized. Skeletons were uncovered in 1971 on the nearby beach, giving a grisly reminder of the Nazi Titanic tragedy.

Nazi Titanic tragedy
Cap Arcona grave. Translation: Here rests 810 political refugees from 16 nationalities who died on the Cap Arcona in the Neustadt bay May 3rd 1945

Nazi Titanic isn’t completely forgotten though. It was restored in 2005 and is on Classic Turner Movies. In the 1958 British film A Night to Remember, sinking scenes from the 1943 film are used for their realistic quality. Rewritten history seems to have become a part of history.

Sources:

https://nypost.com/2016/04/24/hitlers-titanic-movie-about-a-heroic-german-was-a-disaster/

https://www.timesofisrael.com/goebbels-titanic-cinematic-disaster-turns-70/

https://www.pri.org/stories/2012-04-12/nazi-titanic

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