A sunny day during a Nordic cruise.

Quite a few people think that ships that cater for the mass market were developed by Carnival Cruise Lines or Royal Caribbean back in the 1970,s. But no, this happened much longer ago. In Germany in the 1930’s to be precise. During the dark years of Nazi Germany, Hitlers party the NSDAP embarked upon a large program offering cheap holidays to the German working classes. Part of this program were excursions by ship to various area’s in Europe. First by means of chartered ships but as the popularity of these cruises soared, the Nazi’s built ships exclusively designed for this purpose..

Hitler came to power in 1933. He won his election in a democratic way by offering a way out of the depression and putting behind the trauma’s of the First world war. But soon as the Nazi party controlled the government, it turned Germany into a one party state. Part of this effort was abolishing all the labour unions in the country and to offer a – state controlled – alternative instead. This labour movement came to be known as the “Kraft durch Freude” or Strength through joy” organisation or KdF for short. It got very much involved in offering the German workers organised diversions to make work and living more pleasant. As well as on land, as at sea. In 1934 the first ship was chartered and in June of the same year a 2nd ship was bought that could carry a maximum of 1000 guests. By the end of the summer a total of six ships had been chartered to carry German workers on shorter or longer vacations. In 1935 seven ships were chartered and this success resulted in the order of a purpose built KdF ship in 1936.

The Wilhelm gustloff, shortly after delivery

This was the Wilhlem Gustloff. (Named after the murdered Swiss Nazi party leader) The ship entered service in March 1938 with a capacity of 1463 guests in one class. On a ship of the size of 25.500 tons they were looked after by 417 crew. The maiden voyage went from Hamburg to Maderia followed by summer cruises to Scandinavia. These vacations were only available to those approved by the party and tickets were sold via the local party distribution system. For most of the Germans it was their first chance to go abroad and to get away from the difficult life at home. The Nazi party made their dream, travel for the little man, come true. People from the German South who had never seen the sea could now visit Scandinavia or Spain. Those in the northern ports who always saw the ships sail by, where now themselves on that ship. It was great propaganda for the Nazi’s.


The ship was a high density ship but it all worked as everything was regimented from morning to evening. Much emphasis was placed on plays, lectures, physical exercise and quite a bit of political indoctrination as well. Sold out, week after week, the Gustloff and the other KdF ships took thousands of German workers on an affordable holiday until the outbreak of the Second World War put a stop to it.

Here we see the ship in the port of Stettin in early 1940 in use as a hospital ship

In September 1939,at the commencement of the second world war, the ship is converted into a hospital ship for the German navy and is employed in the Baltic sea bringing wounded back to Germany and acting as a stationary hospital. End 1940 it becomes an accommodation ship for the Submarine service in Gotenhafen. By 1945 Germany is on a full scale retreat from Russia and Poland and thousands of German families have to repatriated on short notice. For this purpose a shuttle service is devised with all available tonnage. The ship embarks a total of 6600 people. In deep winter cold the ship is torpedoed by a Russian submarine and 5348 people including 3000 children die when the ship sinks within 62 minutes. This number of fatal casualties still stands as the worst ship disaster ever. (In comparison the Titanic disaster had 1500 fatalities) A tragic end for a ship that during a very brief period brought a lot of happiness to the common German laborer.