June 20, 1914… An Awkward Moment in Hamburg

the Bismarck, later renamed Majestic. Public domain image, Wikipedia
the Bismarck, later renamed Majestic, then HMS Caledonia. Public domain image, Wikipedia

On June 20, 1914, the massive cruise ship to be named after Germany’s revered Otto von Bismarck loomed in Blohm and Voss ship yard in Hamburg. Bismarck’s granddaughter, Countess Hannah von Bismarck, and Kaiser Wilhelm stood nearby. The following day the New York Times reported what was likely an English translation of the Countess’s words: “By command of his majesty the Kaiser, I baptize thee Bismarck.”

After her declaration, the Countess smashed the traditional sacrificial bottle of champagne against the steel leviathan’s hull.

Nothing happened. The bottle was intact. It’s easy to imagine it spinning at the end of its decorative tether like a rude question followed by awkward silence.

Kaiser Wilhelm took action then, propelled by well-known maritime superstition. As reported by the Times, he “rushed forward, seized the bottle and, drawing it back over his right shoulder, sent it crashing against the side of the vessel,” whereupon it shattered. Those assembled must have felt the fate of the Bismarck was secure and the sailors in particular may have felt a bit of relief. As CruiseBrothers Travel News tells us, an unbroken dedicatory bottle of bubbly supposedly means “that bad luck will follow the ship.”

The crowd assembled for the launching celebrated by singing the German national anthem, intoning its characteristic refrain, “Deutschland, Deutschland über alles”–Germany, Germany above all.

The great Bismarck was the largest ship in the world at the time. It didn’t fall prey to any of the usual bad luck expected to follow vessels with questionable launching conditions. At least, not immediately. It remained the biggest boat around until the mid-1930s.

By the beginning of World War II, the Bismarck was called HMS Caledonia and it was part of the British Navy. It had been turned over to Great Britain at the end of World War I as part of the Treaty of Versailles.

On September 29, 1939, twenty-eight days after World War II began, the former Bismarck caught fire while docked and sank.

The day the Bismarck launched and the crowd sang it into the sea, a key member of the German royal family embarked on a journey. Over 430 miles from Hamburg, Archduke Franz-Ferdinand and his wife, Countess Sophie, left their official residence south of Prague.

The Archduke planned to inspect Austro-Hungarian troops stationed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In eight days, the Archduke and his Countess would be in Sarajevo.

Additional info: History on the Net, Toronto Star.

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