British ocean liners dominated the Atlantic for much of the 19th century. Cunard and White Star had a virtual monopoly of the transatlantic shipping industry, but in the final decades of the 19th century some foreign competition began to emerge. Germany was the first country to seriously challenge the dominant U.K. shipping industry as Norddeutscher Lloyd and Hamburg America Line (HAPAG) launched a series of record-breaking ocean liners.

Germany had emerged as one of the world’s foremost industrial nations after unification, and the country’s shipping industry greatly expanded. Furthermore, the country's king, Kaiser Wilhelm 2, also had ambitions for Germany to build grand ocean liners that would eclipse the pride of Britain. The Kaiser had attended naval reviews in Britain that convinced him that Germany should have its own ocean liner fleet. The Kaiser later stated:

In spite of the fact that our fleet is not what it should be, we have gained a place in the sun for ourselves. It will be my duty to see that this place in the sun remains in our undisputed possession, in order that its rays may be fall fruitfully upon our activity and trade in foreign parts, that our industry and agriculture may develop at home and our sailing sports upon the water, for our future lies on the water. The more Germans who go upon the water, whether it be in races of regattas,… journeys across the ocean, or in the service of the battle-flag, so much the better will it be for us.”

Norddeutscher Lloyd commissioned AG Vulcan Stettin to build the first German super liner. That ship was the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse, which was the first of four Kaiser-class ocean liners that smashed Britain’s maritime supremacy. This was a ship built to be the fastest and largest in the world.

Norddeutscher Lloyd launched the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse in 1897. The company unveiled it as the largest ship the world with a tonnage of 14,349 tons. Although that was still not a record-breaking tonnage as the figure did not eclipse the Great Eastern. Nevertheless, it was still larger than any other liner operating at the time and could accommodate 1,970 passengers.[1]

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse also possessed reciprocating engines that gave it more horsepower than other ships. They gave the ocean liner a speed of 22 knots, which was enough to clinch the Blue Riband. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse smashed the previous record held by the Lucania for both westbound and eastbound crossings during its maiden voyage. Thus, Norddeutscher Lloyd became Britain’s first foreign competitor to win the prestigious Blue Riband.

It was not necessarily a moment that marked the end of Britain’s maritime supremacy, but it certainly served as a wake-up call for Cunard and White Star. The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse became a symbol of Germany’s imperial glory. Aside from its record-breaking speed, the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse also sparked new design trends for ocean liners. It was the first liner to include four funnels, which gave it more symmetry and further symbolized its scale. Both Cunard and White Star later added four funnels to the Mauretania and Lusitania and the Olympic-class ships Titanic, Britannic and Olympic.

The Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse's extravagant interior décor also elevated it above other ships. The ship’s designer designed its interiors with a Baroque revival style. The ocean liner's public rooms had rich ornate carvings and higher ceilings than most others.

The Germans built three more Kaiser-class ocean liners. They were the Kronprinz Wilhelm, Kaiser Wilhelm 2 and Kronprinzessin Cecilie. The Kronprinz Wilhelm was another ship that clinched the Blue Riband for westbound crossings. The Kaiser Wilhelm II also set an eastbound crossing speed record, but could not repeat the feet for the more essential westbound trip.

Norddeutscher Lloyd was not the only German shipping company with record-breaking liners. Hamburg America Line was another German firm eager to make its mark in the Atlantic. It did that with the launch of the Deutschland in 1900. That included quadruple expansion engines that could propel the Deutschland to up to 23 knots, but also generated considerable vibration during transatlantic voyages. The Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse could not match that, and the Deutschland soon claimed the Blue Riband as the fastest ship on the Atlantic. It held that title until the Lusitania and Mauretania arrived on the scene.

The Lusitania and Mauretania firmly re-established U.K liners as the fastest at sea. The Germans could not beat their records before World War One. The Olympic and Titanic also further raised the bar for scale. As emigration to the USA increased, shipping companies needed larger ocean liners that could accommodate more passengers. White Star’s Olympic and Titanic were the largest ships ever built by 1911 and 1912.

Germany’s response to the Olympic-class ships was Hamburg-America Line’s Imperator. HAPAG was aware that the Olympic-class liners would be at about the 45,000 ton mark before construction of the Olympic was complete. The blueprints for the Imperator highlighted that it would eclipse 50,000 tons.

Construction of the Imperator continued until 1912. Then HAPAG launched the ship with a ceremony that Germany’s king attended. Thereafter, fitting out of the ship followed until spring 1913.

When the ship made its maiden voyage, it was the largest ocean liner ever built. It had a tonnage amounting to 52,226 tons and a length of 919 feet. In comparison, the Olympic was originally 45,324 tons with a length of 883 feet. So the Imperator clearly outstripped the crème of White Star’s fleet, and it could accommodate 3,909 passengers in total.

The Imperator had expansive and spacious interiors. It included some huge public cabins among which were the main lounge and dining saloon that could fit more than 600 tables for two to six persons. A 1913 “New York Times” Review stated:

The staircases, alleyways, decks, and saloons are remarkable for their spaciousness. The entrance hall is 95 feet wide and 69 feet long, and the three grand staircases in the main cabin are 57 feet high. On the entrance halls are situated the offices of the Chief Steward, Purser, information bureau, baggage master, surgeon’s office, with waiting room and dispensary, book store, and florist shop. Four electric elevators convey passengers from Deck G to the upper deck, and there are five freight elevators for carrying baggage and provisions.”[2]

The Imperator was the first of a triumvirate of HAPAG ships that surpassed 50,000 tons. Construction of the second Imperator-class ship was well underway when the Imperator first sailed. The next HAPAG liner was the Vaterland (Fatherland). About 40,000 spectators attended the Vaterland’s launch ceremony at the River Elbe in 1913.

However, it took until spring 1914 to fully fit out and finish the ship. Europe was on the brink of war when the Vaterland made its maiden voyage to America in May. When it first sailed, it was the largest ship ever built at the time with a record-breaking tonnage of 54,282 tons. The Vaterland had a length of 948 feet, which also eclipsed the Imperator.

A few months later Germany was at war with Britain, France and Russia. The Anglo-German naval rivalry was not just limited to ocean liners as it also extended to warships. Britain and Germany had engaged in a dreadnought naval arms race with both sides adding more and more battleships to their navies. That was perhaps one factor behind Britain’s declaration of war with the German Empire in 1914.

The timing of the war was not ideal for Germany as a lot of the country’s merchant liners were at sea. The Vaterland was among the German ocean liners interned at a neutral U.S. port. It remained in port up to 1917 when U.S. President Wilson declared war with Germany. Then the Americans seized the Vaterland and converted it to a troop transport ship with the title Leviathan, and it resumed transatlantic services as a U.S. liner after an extensive refit. The Imperator was another German liner seized by the Americans.

The Imperial German Navy converted other great liners such as the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse into armed cruisers to sink merchant shipping. A Royal Navy cruiser sank the Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse off the Rio de Oro. The Kronprinz Wilhelm captured and sank large quantities of enemy merchant ship supplies before it sailed into American waters.

Germany’s defeat in World War One was a disaster for both Hamburg-America Line and Norddeutscher Lloyd. They lost all the Kaiser and Imperator-class ships at the end of the war. Postwar settlements ceded most of those ocean liners to Great Britain and the United States as compensation for the loss of ships such as the Lusitania and Britannic, which German U-boat torpedoes and mines sank. As such, Germany’s former record-breaking ocean liners sailed under the U.K. and U.S. flags during the interwar period.

The Bismarck would have also been a record-breaking German liner were it not for World War One. That was another Imperator-class ship under construction when the war began. After the war, HAPAG handed the Bismarck over to White Star. White Star retitled it the Majestic, and when it first sailed in 1922 it was world’s largest ship at 56,551 tons.

During the early ‘20s, Germany had huge postwar debts and inflation spiraled. However, Germany still made an economic recovery during the 1920s. Consequently, toward the end of the decade Norddeutscher Lloyd once again laid down plans to ‘make a splash’ in the Atlantic with a new breed of super liners.

Cunard’s stalwart the Mauretania still held the Blue Riband throughout most of the ‘20s, and Norddeutscher Lloyd commissioned the building of two new ocean liners specifically to regain the Riband record for Germany. They were the Bremen and Europa, which Norddeutscher Lloyd intended to launch first before a fire delayed its completion.

The Bremen made its maiden voyage to the United States in 1929. The ship’s engines had four turbines that combined gave it 100,000 H.P., and it also had a lightweight and streamlined rudder. Bremen clinched the Blue Riband at a record-breaking 27.9 knot average.

This was a record that the Mauretania could not eclipse. The Europa, however, could beat its sister-ship and set its own Blue Riband record. It held the Riband until Italia Line launched the Rex.

The Europa continued transatlantic crossings up to 1958. However, it became wartime compensation for France in 1945. As the ship sank in harbour, CGT rebuilt the liner and retitled it the Liberté.

The Bremen and Europa reasserted German ships in the Atlantic, but there was no great resurgence for Germany’s ocean liners during the 1930s. The Wilhelm Gustloff and Robert Ley were the only other notable German liners launched in the ‘30s, but they were some way short of being record-breaking ships. They were, however, the first purpose-built cruise ships that provided both Atlantic and Mediterranean cruises. The Normandie, Queen Mary and Rex all outshone the Third Reich’s ships.

It would be some time before the German shipping industry recovered from the carnage of World War 2. By which time the transatlantic shipping industry was in decline as air travel expanded. Norddeutscher Lloyd launched more Atlantic ocean liners, but none were record-breaking ships comparable to the illustrious Kaiser or Imperator-class vessels that also had ground-breaking designs and interior décors. Today tourists can travel aboard German cruise ships operated by AIDA Cruises.