The Infernal Device
The FBI Investigates the Loss of the Hindenburg
In the days following the destruction of the mighty Zeppelin airship Hindenburg on May 6, 1937 at Lakehurst Naval Air Station in New Jersey, the FBI opened an investigation into the cause of the loss. The file itself was declassified fairly recently, and is interesting to read in light of the uptick in conspiratorial thinking (and theorizing) that’s been going around.
The story of the death of the Hindenburg—its causes, consequences, and so forth—is fully covered in my book, Empires of the Sky : Zeppelins, Airplanes, and Two Men's Epic Duel to Rule the World—so here I shan’t talk about what really happened that day. Instead, this issue of the newsletter will focus on what many people at the time thought happened that day.
Almost within seconds of the Hindenburg’s immolation, there were dark rumors that it had been sabotaged. Most of the talk concerned an alleged “infernal device”—a bomb—that one apparently well-informed passenger said had been planted on board.
Normally, such an allegation could be ignored, but what prompted J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI Director, to order an investigation was that, as a potent symbol of Nazi Germany, the Hindenburg did have a lot of enemies. There had been several credible threats against it recorded by Communists and other anti-Hitler groups dreaming of striking a spectacular blow and Hoover wanted to get to the bottom of the matter. Had a bomb been carried in the womb of the Hindenburg from Germany?
To that end, Special Agent G. N. London reported on recent articles in The Daily Worker boasting that Communist sailors were doing “perilous underground work” aboard several German passenger liners. They spotted the Gestapo agents aboard, held secret meetings, and circulated Red propaganda by means of tiny parchments rolled inside cigarettes. Perhaps a cell in Friedrichshafen, the home of Zeppelin, had planted a time-bomb? Not a bad theory, but no evidence was ever found of Communist infiltration.
Attention then shifted to the possibility that a saboteur had been on board all along. The most obvious suspect, the FBI investigators were informed, was one Joseph Späh, a German-American acrobat/contortionist who performed under the stage name of “Ben Dova.” During his act, he would shimmy up a stage lamppost, balance precariously atop it, and perform all manner of comical vaudeville tricks.
What attracted suspicion was that one of the airship stewards believed Späh had acted oddly during the final flight. He had “appeared to him [the steward] to be unsympathetic to . . . airship travel and impressed him as being a peculiar type of passenger; also that this individual remained aloof from the other passengers and was not at all responsive to the explanations of the crew regarding the various technicalities of the airship itself.”
Ignoring the otherwise simple explanation that Späh might just not have been interested in an airship’s “technicalities,” the question was whether he had the physical skills to climb the internal metal infrastructure to plant the bomb. The answer was Yes: Of course, as an acrobat, Späh was agile as a monkey. But what was his motive? He was not a Communist, he had a young family awaiting his arrival in New York, he had a successful career, and he had been traveling with his dog Ulla. Sacrificing himself was one thing; murdering a pet quite another.
It was an absurd theory and the FBI quickly dropped it. Patrick Russell’s excellent blog, Faces of the Hindenburg, has more on Späh, who had a cameo in the 1976 Dustin Hoffman movie, Marathon Man. There, he played the brother of sinister Nazi dentist Dr. Szell (Laurence Olivier) and died in the opening scene during a road-rage car chase culminating, in only slightly bad taste, in an explosive conflagration.
Since Späh was in the clear, perhaps a homegrown terrorist had taken a shot at it? A letter passed on by Naval Intelligence noted that an informant in Atlantic City had said he had overheard a pair of men two days prior to the disaster saying in English, “This will be her last trip” and that “everything, including the long-range tracers, is in readiness.” Then, when they noticed the informant, they switched to Yiddish. (Oh, you know where this is going.)
A few witnesses accordingly claimed they saw someone firing phosphorus incendiary bullets at the hydrogen-filled airship. According to one, Tom Hagan, he had spotted “two men in a high-priced car talking to a tall rather poorly dressed one he had a rifle and when he saw me coming he tried to conceal the rifle.” The gunman had been about 30 and blond, while his companions, 28 and 35, were “dark typical Jewish looking.” Perhaps they were the two conveniently indiscreet bilinguists strolling the Atlantic City boardwalk.
The FBI and New Jersey police diligently combed the tracks and paths outside Lakehurst to elicit whether this shooter had left behind empty cartridges, but they found neither cartridges nor footprints nor any evidence of a Day of the Jackal-style airship-assassin. Hoover’s assistant told the director that “there is nothing so far to substantiate [this] contention or theory.”
Nevertheless, the Jewish angle, promoted by pro-Nazi members of the German American Bund, which had a significant presence in New York, kept rearing its ugly head. An FBI review of letters it received found that no fewer than a fifth accused Jews of sabotage. The agency, to its credit, did not take these seriously— partly because the accusers invariably sounded like loons.
Wrote one to New York Senator Royal Copeland: “The Hindenburg was fired at in lower New York—I saw it from a skyscraper window. Three shots came from a point close to the elevated structure at Chambers Street and Greenwich as the airship was heading toward the Battery after circling Manhattan. Some hireling of anti-nazis [sic] did this job and was paid by the jews [sic] . . . And it won’t be long now, Senator, before Americans start massacring kikes just as other nations have done.”
In another letter, someone asserted that “everything in logic, common sense and physchology [sic] . . . points to Jewish sabotage” carried out by “ a flaming bullet . . . shot into the hull.”
This diabolical act would otherwise be obvious to all, he alleged, but the Jews “are determined to imitate [sic] the investigators with every scheme their cunning brains are capable of to concoct [sic], & so camouflage the truth with all kinds of phantastic [sic] theories, intended to throw you off your feet. Jews are experts at deceit. Their Talmud teaches them from childhood on the value of deceit against the gays [sic] (Christians) & the hate for those Christians.”
This poor idiot meant, of course, goys, though from the sounds of him, he probably didn’t like gays, either.
The sabotage rumors died down as the Board of Inquiry, which convened both American and German investigative teams, conducted an exhaustive investigation into the cause of the disaster. That’s when things got weird(er).
There was the fellow who believed that “photographing racketeers” had arranged a fire to break out so they could make money selling pictures. It was known, he claimed, that they had warned their newspaper chums to stay off the Hindenburg that day.
One Hans Omenitsch of Jackson Heights, New York, helpfully volunteered to interpret secret codes bring printed in the newspaper. These codes “appear to be operated by an invisible super-government and they are decidedly anti-American.”
Someone else boasted that with the destruction of the Hindenburg, “Zeppelin competitions in America against my airship invention are now out of my way.” In a misspelled, ungrammatical letter, this fellow promised to “construct an real American helium airship, better & satftier than a Zepplin, it will cost lesser money, useful for war as well, as commerce [all sic].”
A tired FBI agent wrote on the back, “I am trying to find out all info about such nuts. This guy might actually have done the dirty work, or some other disgruntled inventor like him.”
The bottom of this bucket was, though, surely reached when Dr. Nathaniel A. Davis, president of something with a vaguely Heaven’s Gate vibe called the “Planet-Aryans,” headquartered at 1247 West 5th St, Los Angeles, informed the FBI that a sexy female Nazi agent had planted a time-bomb on the Hindenburg to ensure a penurious Hitler an insurance-money payout.
Even the FBI didn’t bother following up that lead, which sounded like something out of a not-even-good pulp novel.
The German Response
The real reason why the Bund so quickly dropped the matter had nothing to do with an open-minded willingness to hear the experts testify at the Board of Inquiry before reaching a sensible and sober conclusion.
In my earlier post, The Enigma Game, I mentioned that it’s important to visit “the other side of the hill”—to learn what the opposing side knows, believes, or intends, and the same lesson is applicable here. To understand what happened next, we need to look at the German responses to the loss of the Hindenburg.
The immediate reaction to news of the Hindenburg’s destruction was one of disbelief, but there were few details available, so the Nazi Party chiefs had to quickly decide what the official line was.
None of the great princes (Goebbels, Göring, Himmler), let alone Hitler, maintained any real interest in airships, having reluctantly inherited the sacred Zeppelin mantle from their predecessors.
Himmler didn’t have an SS dog in the fight; Göring and the Luftwaffe only wanted fighters and bombers, and Hitler refused to go up in one, seeing them as explosive follies. Goebbels, however, recognized their propaganda value and had exploited their symbolism for the German people—such as when they overflew the 1936 Olympics—but that was as far as it went. If these giants vanished from the skies, he wouldn’t miss them.
In the day or two following the loss, Goebbels noticed a disturbing sense of national sadness and wanted to curb such enervating weakness. Subversive sentiments like that found in the Frankfurter Zeitung—“the children went to school sad and gloomy-faced . . . and have aged from the experience”— were to be crushed. For that reason, the line Ministry of Propaganda ordered was: “Forward, despite everything.”
Government officials were soon urging Germans to “stand up under the blow,” for “the young and strong nations” can bear such challenges and emerge more resilient than before. Rest assured, they were promised, a new, bigger, better airship would “take the place of the Hindenburg as ambassador from continent to continent, carrying the German flag over the ocean.”
The official newspapers obediently followed the cue to steer public opinion in the approved way. Der Angriff, the Nazi Party organ, reasoned that “we would feel only dark despair this morning if we were not Germans who have conquered forever the desire to capitulate. The king of the air is dead; we will provide another king.” The SS paper, Das Schwarze Korps, cried, “Whoever thinks that the crash would mean the end of the Zeppelin idea doesn’t know the Germans!”
Meanwhile, Göring had called an emergency meeting at the Air Ministry, where he reportedly said that “he had never thought much of airships, but now, it was necessary to persevere.” In another instance of the regime’s cynicism, Goebbels noted in his diary on May 10, “The Führer is right. The future belongs to the airplane.” There was never any real intention to continue with the Zeppelin project in anything but the most lackluster way, no matter the cheery optimism.
A key point emerged in the course of these high-level discussions: Though Göring and Goebbels themselves credited the idea of a bomb being placed on board, they determined that the “independent” German investigators at the upcoming Board of Inquiry in the United States must conclude that sabotage was out of the question.
The Nazis had a congenital inclination toward conspiracies—both mounting and theorizing about them—but in the case of the Hindenburg, they conspired to tell the truth rather than the usual lies.
The truth was, the airship was destroyed as a one-in-a-million result of human error, equipment malfunction, and a specific weather effect. You could easily play that as bad luck. If the Hindenburg had been sabotaged, however, it would signal that Hitler was not universally beloved and give the enemies of the Reich, like the Jews and the Communists, hope that the regime was vulnerable.
Consequently, German representatives and friendlies abroad were given their marching orders to quash any rumors of sabotage. When asked about the subject, for instance, the German Embassy in Washington curtly replied that there was “no possibility” of foul play.
And of course this was the reason why the fanatic Fritz Kuhn, the national leader of the Bund, who usually saw sinister Jewish puppetmasters behind even the most minor events, surprisingly said he could scarcely believe “hatred could possibly run so deep” as to invite sabotage. No, it had to be an Act of God.
All of which means that the dopes writing to the FBI simply hadn’t yet gotten the memo from Berlin to cool it with the anti-Semitism, at least for the time being.