Hugo Eckener: Wikis


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Hugo Eckener in 1924

Dr. Hugo Eckener (10 August 1868–14 August 1954)[1][2][3] was the manager of the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin during the inter-war years, and was commander of the famous Graf Zeppelin for most of its record-setting flights, including the first airship flight around the world, making him the most successful airship commander in history. He was also responsible for the construction of the most successful type of airships of all time. An anti-Nazi who was invited to campaign as a moderate in the German presidential elections,[1][4][5] he was blacklisted by that regime and eventually sidelined.



Eckener was born in Flensburg as the first child of Johann Christoph Eckener from Bremen and Anna Lange, daughter of a shoemaker.[1] As a youth he was judged an "indifferent student",[1][2] and he spent summers sailing and winters ice skating.[1]

Nevertheless, by 1892 under Professor Wilhelm Wundt Eckner had earned a doctorate "magna cum laude"[1] in what today might be deemed experimental psychology.[2] at the University of Leipzig.

Eckener then began his military service in the Infantry Regiment 86 in Flensburg.[1]

Eckener's early career was as a journalist and editor; by August 1893 he was working for the Flensburger Nachrichten[1]; in October 1897 he married Johanna, daughter of the publisher-family Maaß;[1] later he became a correspondent for the Frankfurter Zeitung[2] in 1905 and 1906, whilst writing a book on the social effects of capitalism.

Pre-war airship activities

Asked to cover the first flights of the LZ1 and LZ2, Eckener was critical of both airships' marginal performances, but praised Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin's dedication to his cause. Because several scientists and engineers had criticized his airship plans, the Count sought to speak to his critic and Eckener was so impressed by him that during October 1908 he agreed to be a part-time publicist for the Zeppelin Company.[1] He became extremely interested in airships, and joined the company on a full-time basis.

His aptitude at flying was noticed early on in his career, and he became an airship captain, obtaining his airship license in 1911.[3][5] However, when Eckener attempted his first flight on 16 May 1911 in the LZ 8, christened Deutschland II, he decided to launch in a strong wind which pushed the craft into the hangar wall, damaging it seriously.[6] Nonetheless, he became a very successful airshipman.

World War I

Eckener was responsible for training most of Germany's airship pilots both during[6] and after World War I. Despite his protestations, he was not allowed on operational missions due to his important value as an instructor.

Head of the Zeppelin Company

Eckener (marked with an x) test flying the LZ 126 in August before delivery to the United States in October 1924

After the War, Eckener succeeded Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin, who had died on 8 March 1917. After considerable conflict with Zeppelin's business manager, Alfred Colesman, who wanted to replace the production of airships with production of other (and likely more profitable) products, Eckener was able to keep the Zeppelin factory at Friedrichshafen on Bodensee (Lake Constance) in Württemberg, southern Germany, from being retooled. Colesman left the company soon afterwards.

The Treaty of Versailles had forbidden Germans to construct airships of the size needed[5] to operate the profitable trans-Atlantic service that was Eckener's goal. However, after much skilful lobbying, he persuaded the US and German governments to allow the company to build LZ 126, later rechristened the USS Los Angeles (ZR-3), for the US Navy as part of Germany's war reparations. Eckener himself captained the airship on its delivery flight to Lakehurst, New Jersey.[1][5] The Los Angeles became the longest-serving rigid airship ever operated by the US Navy.

The golden age of the rigid airship

Russian polar researcher Rudol'f Lazarevic Samojlovic (left) prior to leading the Graf Zeppelin's scientific polar flight, with Eckener in Friedrichshafen, July 1931

Refused funds by the impecunious Weimar government, Eckener and his colleagues began a nationwide fund-raising lecture tour in order to commence construction of Graf Zeppelin, which became the most successful rigid airship ever built.

The first flight to America was fraught with drama; on the outbound flight the airship was nearly lost after becoming caught in a severe storm. Fabric was ripped off the left fin. The ship was saved only by Eckener's skilled piloting and the courage of his son, Knut Eckener, and other crew members who climbed out onto the fin to repair the damage.[7] Upon arrival in America, a country which Eckener grew to love, he and the crew were subject to the first of two New York ticker tape parades.

Eckener captained Graf Zeppelin during most of its record-setting flights, including a flight to the Arctic and a flight around the world - the only such flight by an airship, and the second by an aircraft of any type.

A master of publicity as well as a master airship captain, Eckener used the Graf Zeppelin to establish the Zeppelin as a symbol of German pride and engineering.

After the Zeppelin flights (1928 America, 1929 round the world and 1931 Arctic) the public treated Eckener as a national hero.[5] During the early 1930s, Eckener was one of the most well-known and respected figures in Weimar Republic Germany.

In 1932 Eckener had intended to run against Hitler[4] for president,[1][5] and this angered the Nazi party.[8] In supposed anger and fear of Eckener, Hitler's defacto deputy, Hermann Esser, once called him the "director of the flying white sausage".[4] He was encouraged to campaign for the presidency to oppose the National Socialist German Workers Party.[6] Contrary to popular belief, Eckener accepted to campaign for president, but stopped when Paul Von Hindenburg campaigned for President again.


The National Socialists came to power in January 1933. An arrest of Eckener in 1933 was intended but blocked by Hindenburg. Hitler met Eckener only one time, in July 1933, but the two barely spoke.[1]

Eckener did not make any secret of his dislike of the Nazis[8] and the disastrous events he foresaw. He criticised the regime frequently, and refused to allow the Nazis to use the large hangars at Frankfurt for a rally. Eventually the Nazis declared Eckener to be persona non grata and his name was no longer allowed to appear in print.

During his many years as manager of airship operations, Eckener always made safety his absolute priority. With Eckener's management, the Zeppelin company had a perfect safety record with no passenger ever sustaining a serious injury on any of the more than 1 million air miles that the rigid airships flew, until the Hindenburg disaster of 1937.

During the 1930s the Nazi government nationalized the Zeppelin operation. The Nazis sidelined Eckener in favour of men who were somewhat more compliant with their wishes. In their haste to please the Nazi regime, these newly promoted airshipmen did not always obey Eckener's well-proven safety procedures. For example, the maiden voyage of the Hindenburg nearly resulted in disaster when Captain Ernst Lehmann brought the ship out in strong winds in order to undertake a Nazi propaganda flight. The ship was damaged severely, and there was an argument between Eckener and Lehman.

Hugo Eckener was in Graz, Austria when he heard news of the Hindenburg disaster of 6 May 1937. In the official inquiry he concluded that a static spark ignited leaking hydrogen in the aft section of the ship. The leak would have been caused by a sharp turn, which he believed caused a wire to break and rip a gas cell.

After the destruction of the Hindenburg, the nearly-completed LZ-130 Graf Zeppelin was redesigned as a helium-filled ship, although, owing to geo-political considerations, the American helium was not available. Thus the ship never began commercial service. However, with the command of Captain Albert Sammt, the ship performed a number of controversial espionage flights over Great Britain.[9]

Eckener, however, had by this time little influence on the Zeppelin Company. He survived World War II despite his disagreements with the Nazis. Post war, he was involved with a plan by the Goodyear Zeppelin Corporation to build large rigid airships. However this did not happen.

In 1945 Johannes Weyl and Eckener co-found the Südkurier regional newspaper and Eckener started writing for German-French co-operation.[1][3]

In November 1945 Eckener was confronted with the charge of collaboration with Nazi Germany. In 1947 the French occupying powers fined him 100,000 German Reichsmarks. Many personalities lobbied for Eckener's rehabilitation.[10] The judgement was rejected in July 1948 and Eckener was rehabilitated.[1]

Eckener's home town of Flensburg had a Danish-oriented majority in its council since 1945, with a goal of Danish unification. Eckener remained active in local politics campaigning for a German majority in Flensburg, while at the same time, during a "thundering" one hour speech in 1951, warning against small-mindedness in border concerns.[1]

Eckener died in Friedrichshafen on 14 August 1954 just after his 86th birthday.[1]


Das Haus des Glockenspiels in Bremen's Böttcherstraße displays this panel as part of 10 from Bernhard Hoetger's 1934 "ocean-crossing" set

Eckener was responsible for many innovative aviation developments, notably the trans-Atlantic passenger services offered by the airships Graf Zeppelin and Hindenburg. Together with his chief designer, Dr. Ludwig Dürr, he was responsible for developing the rigid airship to near-perfection for the time.

Since his death his achievements have been remembered by airship enthusiasts and historians. However, the town of Friedrichshafen, scene of his many triumphant homecomings in Graf Zeppelin, has recognised his memory by naming a large new conference centre after him.


Eckener wrote or contributed to 24 publications,[11] including two books in English:[12]

Eckener, Hugo: Count Zeppelin. The Man and his Work. London: Massie Publishing Company, Ltd. 1938.
Eckener, Hugo: My Zeppelins. London: Putnam 1958.

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q Schwensen
  2. ^ a b c d Thomas Adam. p. 289
  3. ^ a b c
  4. ^ a b c Social Democratic Party of Germany 18 February 1932 p. 12
  5. ^ a b c d e f Thomas Adam. p. 290
  6. ^ a b c Brandes 2004
  7. ^ Channel 4 History. The Airships
  8. ^ a b de Syon, p.176 "opponent of the economic policy of autarky and of the regime's Jewish policies" ... "incensed by the new flag order"
  9. ^ Sammt 1988
  10. ^ de Syon, p.207 "convicted of helping the war effort ... lost civil privileges in 1948 for five years ... 100,000-mark fine"
  11. ^ German National Library
  12. ^ Nina Nustede


Further reading

  • Botting, Douglas. Dr. Eckener's Dream Machine (2001) Harper Collins ISBN 0-00-257191-9
  • Dick, Harold G. / Robinson, Douglas H.: The Golden Age of the Great Passenger Airships. Graf Zeppelin & Hindenburg. Washington, D.C./London 2nd edition 1987.
  • Meyer, Henry Cord: Airshipmen, Businessmen and Politics 1890–1940. Washington/London: Smithsonian Institution Press/Airlife Publishing Ltd. 1991. with chapters: Eckener's Struggle to Save the Airship for Germany, 1919-1929; Politics, Personality, and Technology: Airships in the Manipulations of Dr. Hugo Eckener and Lord Thomson, 1919-1930.
  • Payne, Lee: Lighter than Air. An Illustrated History of the Airship. London: Thomas Yoseloff Ltd 1977. with chapter: Hugo Eckener and the Graf Zeppelin.
  • Robinson, Douglas H. Giants in the Sky: A History of the Rigid Airship (1973) University of Washington Press ISBN 0854291458
  • Vaeth, J. Gordon. Graf Zeppelin - The Adventures of an Aerial Globetrotter (1959) Muller, London
  • Whitehouse, Arthur George Joseph. The Zeppelin Fighters (1966) Robert Hale Limited ISBN 0-7091-0544-4

Media related to Hugo Eckener at Wikimedia Commons



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