“Ship operator to the Kaiser”
The German shipping magnate Albert Ballin (1857-1918) was responsible for turning Germany into a world leader in ocean travel prior to World War I. It was Ballin who also invented the Mediterranean pleasure cruise in 1891.
Born in Hamburg on 15 August 1857, Albert Ballin was destined to become a pioneer in making ocean travel a more pleasant, even luxurious experience. As a Jew, for most of his life he would walk a fine line between social acceptance and scorn. But the “Kaiser’s Jew” long enjoyed financial and political prominence before falling out of favor and being branded a traitor to Germany as the First World War and his own life drew to their bitter end in 1918. Born in a poor section of Hamburg, Ballin (pronounced BALL-EEN) had achieved greatness and strongly influenced the passenger ship industry by the time he took his own life at the age of 61.
A decade before Albert Ballin’s birth, the company he would later head, the Hamburg-Amerikanische Packetfahrt-Actien-Gesellschaft (Hapag) had been founded on 27 May 1847, with the goal of operating a faster, more reliable liner service between Hamburg and North America, using the finest sailing ships. At that time a “fast” east-to-west Atlantic crossing took about 40 sailing days. The return voyage, with favorable west winds, required “only” 28 days.
Nevertheless, there was stiff competition for passengers on the North Altlantic route. Internationally, shipping lines in Britain and Prussia (after 1871) fought to attract passengers, but there was also competition within Germany itself between the port cities of Bremen (Bremerhaven) and Hamburg. In 1856 Hapag, under its first director, Adolph Godeffroy, put its first steamship, the Borussia, into service, becoming the first German shipping firm to do so. As time went by, coal-powered steamships would cut the travel time between Hamburg and New York down to just six or seven days.
The Packet Ship
A “packet ship” gets its name from the time when ships were employed to carry mail packets to and from British embassies, colonies and outposts. The term “packet service” later came to mean any regular, scheduled service, carrying freight and passengers – such as the Hamburg-American Packet Company (Hapag).
From Morris & Co. to Hapag
Albert Ballin got his start in Hamburg at the age of 17 when his father died in 1874 and he took over the family’s ship passenger booking service, known as Morris & Co. At first he shared that job with his older brother, but when Joseph left to become a stockbroker in 1877, Albert became the sole operator and soon turned the slumbering operation into a thriving enterprise that eventually drew the attention of the major shipping lines.
“BallinCity” was the name given to the complex that Hapag built in 1901 to better house and protect impoverished emigrants before their voyage to the New World aboard its ships (in steerage). But Albert Ballin also had very practical motives for his generosity. Healthier and happier passengers meant more business. Learn more below.
In 1881 Ballin teamed up with shipowner Edward Carr to get more directly involved in the passenger trade – and avoid sharing fees with other shipping firms. By 1886, Carr and his partner, cousin Robert M. Sloman, had a fleet of five ships in their Union Line. They cut costs by using converted freighters that offered no luxury but far more space for passengers in steerage class. Working with Ballin, they began to drive down the price of a North Atlantic crossing and put pressure on the larger shipping lines.
Soon the cost of a ticket for an Atlantic voyage in steerage had fallen to just six dollars. Hapag and the other major lines were now losing money in an ongoing rate war. In 1886 a shareholders’ revolt led to a major shakeup at Hapag that resulted in Ballin being hired to head the company’s passenger division. Only two years later, Ballin was made a member of the Hapag board of directors.
From Steerage to Luxury
Although Albert Ballin came from a humble background and had achieved his initial success by catering to steerage passengers (Zwischendeckpassagiere), the next stage of his business rise would come from his revolutionary view that a sea voyage should be more a pleasure cruise than a test of one’s endurance. While his competitors became obsessed with speed and winning Blue Ribands for the shortest Atlantic crossing times, Ballin used luxurious accommodations to attract a wealthier clientele. In the process, he would also invent the ocean cruise.
“Mein Feld ist die Welt”
Having enjoyed his stays in luxury hotels in Paris, London and elsewhere, Ballin sought to recreate a similar atmosphere aboard Hapag’s ships. Although his luxury liners still had space for low-cost steerage passengers, the upper decks were designed to rival the palatial homes and hotels that more aristocratic, wealthy passengers were accustomed to.
Ballin was also a pioneer in the technical realm. Hapag was the first German line to put twin-screw ships into service – at a time when the technology was still considered unproven. This gave Hapag’s ships not only more speed but better stability and safety. When its Bremen competitor NDL failed to do the same, Hapag had a distinct advantage for many years.
Ballin Invents the Pleasure Cruise
The world’s first pleasure cruise departed Cuxhaven, Germany on 22 January 1891. Aboard the luxury steamship Augusta Victoria were 241 passengers, including cruise host Albert Ballin and his wife Marianne. This first-ever “Med cruise” lasted 57 days, 11 hours and three minutes. Ballin’s guests enjoyed first-class cabins. There was also first-class cuisine to match and a daily newspaper printed on board. The cruise called at over a dozen ports, complete with shore excursions, beginning with Southampton, then sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar. The Mediterranean ports of call included Genoa, Alexandria, Jaffa, Beirut, Constantinople (now Instanbul), Athens, Malta, Naples and Lisbon. When the Augusta Victoria returned home after its two-month voyage, the cruise was judged a great success. Every year since then (except for periods of war), Hapag and other lines have offered similar cruises. Such ocean cruises to exotic places are considered normal today, but that was a pioneering idea in 1891.
The Augusta Viktoria
This Hapag steamship had her maiden voyage on May 10, 1889 when she sailed from Hamburg to New York via Southampton. Two years later, she went on the world’s first Med cruise. Named for Kaiser Wilhelm’s wife, the empress (Kaiserin) Auguste Viktoria, the ship bore its misspelled name (with an a rather than the correct e ending) for most of its life. Not until the ship was remodeled in 1897 did she get her name fixed. In 1904 she was sold to the Russian navy and renamed the Kuban.
The first Med cruise came about as a solution to a problem. Because weather conditions in the North Atlantic in winter kept passenger traffic very low and left most of Hapag’s passenger fleet idle, Ballin sought a remedy for this costly downtime. When he first brought up the Med cruise idea in 1890, everyone at Hapag thought he had lost his mind. Who would want to go on a cruise just to cruise? At the time, a steamship, even a nice one, was considered merely a way to get from point A to point B. Ballin played a major role in creating a new market for people who had the time and money to enjoy a luxury cruise to exotic parts of the world.
Today’s mass-market cruise industry got its start in the nineteenth century by catering to the well-to-do. After the 1960s, when jet travel became more common, the shipping industry would depend almost exclusively on pleasure cruises for its passenger traffic.
Ballin’s Jewish father had immigrated to Germany from Denmark. His mother, Amalia, came from an Altona (Hamburg) family headed by her rabbi father. In Hamburg, his father, Samuel Joel (later Joseph) Ballin (1804-1874) had several different low-paying occupations before he began running a modest emigrant passenger booking agency, partly financed by his second wife. (Joseph Ballin had 17 children with two wives!) Although both his parents were Jewish, Albert’s family does not seem to have been particularly religious.
Albert received only a basic education and did not graduate from high school. He was born and grew up in a poor section next to Hamburg’s old harbor, speaking the local “Hafenplatt” dialect and High German. But he was very intelligent and also learned English – which he later perfected during business trips to England. He never spoke his father’s native Danish.
Ballin and the Kaiser
As a Jew in Hamburg and German society, Ballin was subject to the anti-Semitic prejudices of the time. However, because of his important position with Hapag, not even Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) could ignore him. In fact, the emperor often met with the Jewish shipowner to discuss the political and financial aspects of Germany’s seafaring industry. The Kaiser was such a frequent guest at Ballin’s Hamburg villa, that it was known a bit scornfully as “Klein Potsdam” or “Little Potsdam.” (Potsdam being the site of the Prussian royal palaces, just south of Berlin.)
Some sources claim that Ballin was the only non-converted Jew with whom the Kaiser had a personal relationship. Although they were never close friends, they had a cordial relationship, even though it was hardly a secret that the emperor and empress had a low regard for Jews. Unlike the emperor, the empress (Kaiserin) refused to set foot in Ballin’s home. But over the years Ballin often had the Kaiser’s ear, and it was not until the “Kaiser’s Jew” vigorously opposed the war, that he lost all favor with Wilhelm.
We can gain a better understanding of Ballin’s attitude about his position as a Jew in Hamburg from this biographical excerpt:
…[Hamburg] has had a lack of capable people, at least at times. The repeated observance of this fact and finding that the citizens of Hamburg frequently lacked what Bismarck, in speaking of Germans in general, called the missing “dash of champagne in the blood” once caused Ballin to remark: “I see quite clearly what this city lacks; this city lacks 10,000 Jews. I do not, by any means, shut my eyes to the unpleasant traits of the Jews, but I still must say that for Hamburg’s development 10,000 more of them would be a blessing.” [This comment is] further testimony of Ballin’s unprejudiced point of view concerning the Jews. Although not at all orthodox, but rather indifferent in his religious views, he was much too proud to deny his heritage or his religion, or to change [his faith], much less “improve” his name. Of someone who had done so, he said, with bitter scorn: “He insults his father.” – from Albert Ballin by Bernhard Huldermann* (Oldenburg i. O./Berlin: Gerhard Stalling, 1921/22), English translation by HF
*Huldermann was the head of the Hamburg-Amerika Linie when he wrote this book a few years after Ballin’s death “in memory of Albert Ballin in loyal admiration and heartfelt gratitude” (in the book’s dedication). Although the book seems to be accurate, his account of Ballin’s life and accomplishments must therefore be taken with a grain of salt. The author concentrates more on the shipping business and barely mentions Ballin’s wife or daughter, and even then not once by name. (The book is also available in English.)
Although he never forgot that he was a Jew, Ballin was also accepting enough of the majority Christian religion that he married a blond Protestant woman in a Christian church service in 1883. Marianne Rauchert came from a prominent Hamburg family. As a child, she had even once shared a vacation beach with Prussia’s future Kaiser Wilhelm.
Although Ballin’s marriage to Marianne may have helped him socially, the marriage seems to have been one out of love. The two were never able to have children, but they adopted a daughter.
Before his own suicide in 1918, Albert Ballin’s older brother, Joseph, had taken his own life rather dramatically almost exactly 11 years earlier. The New York Times and other American newspapers carried the story, dated November 13, 1907: “J. Ballin, a stockbroker and a brother of Albert Ballin, …committed suicide with a revolver this afternoon in a lavatory at the local Bourse [in Hamburg].” No reason was known.
Nor do we know exactly why Albert Ballin ended his own life. But a combination of factors came together in 1918 that probably overwhelmed the shipping magnate. A war he had been against from the start was coming to a very bad end for Germany. The Kaiser, who had once been his confidant, refused to speak to him anymore and was about to abdicate his throne. Ballin was now considered a pacifist traitor by his government and many Germans. The war had destroyed Hapag, and it would be years before the company would even partially recover.
If he could have seen 15 years into the future, when the Nazis came into power in 1932, he would have been even more depressed. As a Jew, he would have faced a very uncertain fate. Even in death, the Nazis tried to erase his name by changing the name of anything that had “Ballin” on it, including a ship and a street. It would be 1947 before his name would be restored in Germany.
Even without knowing that, the 61-year-old Ballin probably decided that his life’s work had come to nothing. For whatever reason, on the night of November 9, 1918 he took an overdose of sleeping pills, went to bed and never woke up.
Although Ballin’s death went largely unreported in Germany, it made headlines in the foreign press. However, the cause of death was reported as an “apoplectic stroke,” probably a cover story put out by Hapag to protect Ballin’s family.
Albert Ballin’s and Hapag’s slogan was “Mein Feld ist die Welt” – which roughly translates as “The world is my oyster.” Although it may have colonialist or imperialist overtones, the saying truly reflected the worldwide coverage that the Hamburg-Amerika Linie had at its peak under Ballin. In the year before the First World War broke out, Hapag had 73 shipping routes between ports and countries all over the globe and a fleet of 175 steamships, including the three largest ocean liners in the world at that time.** With 25,000 employees, Hapag was the largest shipping line in the world for both freight and people (464,000 passengers in 1913).
**Hapag’s Imperator was the German “Titanic,” but unlike that ill-fated British ship, safety was a primary concern, drawing lessons from the sinking of the slightly smaller Titanic. Ironically, because of the war, the Imperator became the British Cunard’s Berengaria in 1919. A similar fate befell the other two giant German liners. The Bismarck became the White Star Line’s Majestic. Hapag’s Vaterland was trapped in New York by the US entry into WWI and she became the Leviathan.
He lost his vast shipping empire to war, but one of Ballin’s greatest achievements was BallinStadt, a complex of 30 buildings on an island in the Elbe River. In the early days, conditions for the many poor Europeans escaping to the New World were miserable. After 1901, thousands of emigrants found food, clean shelter and medical care before boarding a Hapag ship in Hamburg. The complex was expanded over the years to become a virtual city. Today part of that “emigrant city” has been recreated, and the BallinStadt Emigration Museum allows people to trace their German ancestors. (See the Web links below.)
Coming: More about Hamburg’s BallinStadt Emigration Museum
Coming: Hamburg City Guide
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ON THE WEB
- BallinStadt Emigration Museum in Hamburg (site in English)
- BallinStadt Auswanderermuseum (Deutsch)
- www.hapag-lloyd.com – History and Hapag-Lloyd today
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