The Flight Before the Ill-fated Voyage

The Hindenburg crashing
National Archives

Most of us know the basic story of the Hindenburg disaster, but a lesser-known voyage by the craft, a year earlier, casts an eerie shadow all its own.

The basic story is clear: Hindenburg was an enormous German rigid airship that famously burst into flames just moments before landing at a naval air station in New Jersey in 1937. Thirty-six people died and, somewhat miraculously, 62 people survived. It was on the cusp of completing a transatlantic journey when the horrific explosion occurred.

Even though the Hindenburg can sometimes get lumped in our minds with the Titanic as a transatlantic travel disaster, unlike the Titanic, this wasn't the airship's maiden voyage. It had some history, though not a lot. It was the first airliner that had ever provided regular flights between Europe and North America. Before the crash, rigid airship travel was considered a fast, elegant means of getting across the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, German commercial "zeppelins" (named for the original airship designer, Ferdinand von Zeppelin), had already been running for many years. After the crash, the 30-year history of rigid airship travel came to a halt.

The Hindenburg made its first flight a bit more than a year before the crash. On March 4, 1936, the maiden flight -- a test run -- lasted about three hours. It was around this time that the Hindenburg was pressed into service for an assignment: a propaganda flight for the Nazis. It seemed Adolf Hitler and his propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, thought the Hindenburg (and a companion airship, the Graf Zeppelin) would be a perfect way to promote a Nazi Rhineland re-militarization referendum that was soon to be voted on by the German people. So the Hindenburg spent several days looming over the German landscape, raining pro-Nazi pamphlets and swastikas down on the countryside and towns. The ship bore swastikas of its own, on its fins, and became visually associated with the Nazi party. The flight would not be its only propaganda mission: Appearances at the Berlin Olympics and a Nuremberg Nazi rally would soon follow.

Just more than three years after that first propaganda flight, Hitler invaded Poland and World War II began, bringing with it countless deaths. Knowledge of these earlier flights adds another shade of gray to the already eerie black and white Hindenburg crash footage we know so well.

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