Albert Ballin, the HAPAG Shipping Company, and the Immigrants to America

In 1886, a young man named Albert Ballin (1857-1918) of Jewish origins joined the company. Ballin had inherited from his father an emigration agency that operated in Hamburg. The agency helped European emigrants obtain tickets for sailing from the various European ports to America.

HAPAG steamship named after Ballin, 1923

​In 1847 in the city of Hamburg, a new shipping company named HAPAG was founded.

The HAPAG company logo and letterhead

One of the names the company was known by was the “Hamburg-America Line”. This name explains the objective of the company, which operated between Germany and American ports, and aimed its activity at a defined target population, the many emigrants who were en route from Europe to America. In the mid-19th century, emigration to the United States and other American countries was the solution for many people who did not manage to find their place in Europe for both financial and political reasons.

Initially, the HAPAG company operated sailboats, but over the years, it also purchased shipping vessels that were modern relative to the times: steamships. The company was moderately successful, but had to grapple with tough competition from other shipping companies from Germany, England, Belgium and Holland, all of which specialized in the emigration market. Only at a later stage did the company begin dealing in freight shipping to a significant degree.

Albert Ballin

In 1886, a young man named Albert Ballin (1857-1918) of Jewish origins joined the company. Ballin had inherited from his father an emigration agency that operated in Hamburg. The agency helped European emigrants obtain tickets for sailing from the various European ports to America. Ballin’s addition to the company was a most important move for HAPAG. From the beginning of his tenure there, Ballin was in charge of the topic of passengers. He fulfilled his role with such great success that already two years later, he was appointed to the board of directors, and from 1899, he served as CEO of the company.

Under his influence, the company ordered large, high-speed ships that offered emigrants many spaces at convenient prices, on a large number of decks. The response of the emigrants was so overwhelming that in 1900, on one of the islands in the Elbe River (which flows through Hamburg) a “city of emigrants” was established, where travelers could wait in good conditions and in a clean environment until setting sail for America. This success, joined by burgeoning success in the realm of cargo shipping, led to the company’s ongoing growth, so that on the eve of WWI, it was the largest shipping company in the world, with 175 ships and more than 20,000 employees. Competition with other companies led to orders for newer and larger ships, and on a number of occasions, the company was the largest shipping operator in the world (until other companies purchased larger ships). In 1914, HAPAG purchased three giant steamships, each of which had a capacity of 4,000 passengers. Two of them entered into regular service between Hamburg and New York, but the construction of the third was aborted, and due to the outbreak of the war, it never set sail under the company flag. The company’s slogan was “The world is our field” (Unser Feld ist die Welt). Between the years 1850-1935, some 5,000,000​ people emigrated from Hamburg, and among them, many Eastern European Jews. A large number of them made the journey with HAPAG.

Albert Ballin served as CEO of the company for 19 years. Its growth during these years was thanks to his efforts, but also due to the support he received from the German political elite. The last Kaiser, Wilhelm II, was very excited by the realm of shipping, particularly large ships, which also took shape in the construction of many warships during that period.

Despite his Jewish origins, Ballin, who never converted to Christianity, was highly admired by Kaiser Wilhelm II, and became one of his unofficial Jewish advisors (together with Emil and Walter Rathenau, James Simon and others). Albert Ballin defined himself as a loyal German citizen in every way, and left a strong imprint on German politics. Evidence of this appears in the letter displayed here, written by Ballin in 1916 to an acquaintance in Vienna, Dr. Georg Halpern, one of the Zionist leaders of the period. In the letter, Ballin takes a stand on political developments in Poland an on World War I. The fact that Ballin corresponded with a Zionist leader is surprising from a number of aspects, including in light of the end met by HAPAG’s CEO, who took his own life on November 9, 1918, on the day of Kaiser Wilhelm II’s abdication. The collapse of the Reich, together with the defeat of Germany in the war, broke Albert Ballin and caused a demoralizing crisis in his system of values. The suicide spared him from witnessing the dismantling of the company’s fleet, when Germany was forced to pay reparations to the Allies. And yet, the company continued to exist, and rehabilitated itself in the days of the Weimar Republic. After the end of WWII, almost all of its ships were again confiscated, but the HAPAG company gain rebounded, and it continues to be in operation to this day.

Albert Ballin letter to Dr. Georg Halpern in Vienna, 1916

Weimar Republic

Despite all of the difficulties faced by young democratic Germany, its parliamentary method was quite well-developed

Between the end of World War I in 1918 and the Nazi rise to power in 1933, Germany was a democratic republic. This attempt at democracy, however, endured for only 14 years, ultimately failing due to tremendous political, social and economic strains.

In gatherings of the National Assembly, held at the National Theater in the city of Weimar at the beginning of 1919, delegates formulated a modern democratic constitution, which provided the foundation for German society after hundreds of years under monarchic rule. This constitution is considered progressive to this day, although a significant discrepancy remained between the good intentions of most of the delegates and their implementation during the short life of the republic, a gap that ultimately led to the failure of the first democracy on German soil.

Although political power was seized from the elite following the revolution that took place at the end of 1918, most of the state functionaries remained in office even after the political change, and in most cases, these individuals did not support the democratic government.

Despite all of the difficulties faced by young democratic Germany, its parliamentary method was quite well-developed. Many parties competed for votes and for the first time in German history, women were granted suffrage in 1919.

The range of parties was quite wide, including streams and ideologies from the left (the Communist Party) to the center (Social-Democrats, Liberals, Christians) and the far right (the German Nationalist Party, and later, the National Socialist Party). The electoral threshold remained very low, which increased the number of parties in the national parliament and made coalition agreements very difficult throughout the Weimar Republic’s 14 years.

The beginning of this political entity was also complex. Difficulties abounded. Defeat in the world war resulted in subsequent debts and enormous reparation payments to the Allied powers, a high number of casualties, a high rate of unemployment, a general sense of disorientation, and hyper-inflation so out of control that in December 1923 a loaf of bread cost billions of marks. Beginning in 1924, the overall situation began to improve, and the period until 1929 became known as the Golden Age. With the global financial crisis that began in 1929, and its particularly detrimental effect on Germany, the ranks of the unemployed rose to unprecedented rates (in 1932, there were some five and a half million unemployed Germans!). As a result, the political system became unstable. This state of affairs made it possible for the Nazi party to garner strength and quickly gain hold of public support.

At the same time, the period of the Weimar Republic is considered one of the most dynamic in the history of Germany with technological and scientific advances including the research of Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Gustav Herz in Berlin, radio broadcasts reaching a broad audience, German zeppelins crossing the Atlantic Ocean, sound films conquering the cinemas, and many other notable achievements.

Fourteen German scientists won Nobel prizes between 1919 and 1933. In design and art, innovations appeared in the famous Bauhaus school, while modern German literature reached many readers and popular music was influenced by America, as can be seen, for example, in the success of the Comedian Harmonists ensemble (comprised of three Jews and three Christians), which conquered the concert halls of Germany and Europe at that time.

Countless German Jews were leaders in a variety of fields, including Rosa Luxemburg and Leo Jogiches, two of the founders of the German Communist Party, as well as Walther Rathenau, the Director of the Board of AEG and German Foreign Minister of 1922 (all three of whom were murdered by right-wing extremists); conductor and composer Otto Klemperer; actors Alexander Granach and Kurt Gerron; authors Else Lasker-Schüler, Lion Feuchtwanger and Jakob Wasserman; director Max Reinhardt; scientists Albert Einstein, James Franck and Gustav Hertz; philosophers Ernst Cassirer, Leo Strauss and Ernst Bloch; architect Erich Mendelsohn; and many others.

The Weimar Constitution and its “Father” Hugo Preuss

Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss' contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic

The collapse of monarchic rule following the defeat of Germany in World War I and the revolution of November 1918 gave rise to a new and almost completely unknown political order in Germany: democracy. The nascent political forces understood the need for drafting a new constitution that would suit the democratic regime and prevent the aristocracy from obtaining any political power.

The assembly of the German people that gathered in the city of Weimar included a special committee for drafting a new constitution. Members of the committee were jurists with an expertise in constitutional law and legislation.

The committee’s discussions continued for a number of months, until the new constitution was approved by the general assembly in Weimar on August 11, 1919. One of the permanent members of this committee who also served as its chairman for several months was the Jewish lawyer Hugo Preuss (1860-1925). His contribution was so great that today he is considered the “father” of the constitution of the Weimar Republic.

Preuss presented the first draft of this important text and considerable portions of it became part of the final version, approved by the representatives of the general assembly. For the first time in German history, a constitution was passed that included basic civil rights.

Among the many innovations that Preuss suggested in his draft was a new internal division of Germany, necessitating the dismantling of Germany’s historical states, including the largest state of Prussia. This suggestion was unacceptable to the more conservative assembly representatives, but it anticipated the future, since the idea was carried out in the prevailing political reality after 1945, with the founding of the new German state.

Hugo Preuss was born in Berlin to a family of merchants, studied law in Berlin and Heidelberg, and completed his doctorate at the university in Göttingen. He decided to devote himself to academic research, and joined the faculty of the University of Berlin as a “private lecturer” (a special status of senior lecturer without a position but with teaching obligations). He remained in this uncomfortable position for 15 years, since Jews were not awarded the status of professor unless they agreed to convert to Christianity for this purpose. While conversion was not a formal legal requirement, in the minds of German academics it was still required. Only with the establishment of a private trade school in Berlin in 1906 was Preuss hired as a professor of law.

Beginning in 1895, Hugo Preuss became a member of the Berlin City Council. In 1918 he became one of the founders of the German Democratic Party DDP, where Walther Rathenau was a member as well. From 1919 to his death, Preuss was a member of the Prussian parliament, yet he also served as Interior Minister of the Weimar Republic. He resigned from this post in protest when Germany signed the Treaty of Versailles. In this treaty, Germany relinquished its sovereignty in certain areas and committed to paying hefty reparations to the Allies. Preuss’s resignation as minister brought about an absurd situation: the signature of this brilliant jurist does not appear at the bottom of the constitutional text, though most of it is his brainchild; the constitution was approved only after he had stepped down.

In 1949, when German jurists drafted the “Basic Law” of West Germany (instead of a formal constitution, which Germany lacks to this day), they used the Weimar Constitution as a basis for their work. Considerable portions of the original constitution migrated to the “Basic Law,” though certain articles that proved to be ineffective or even dangerous to democracy and state stability were amended.

Ultimately, it should be recalled, Hitler established his reign of terror based on article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, which enabled the revocation of basic civil rights as well as human rights when state security was at risk, a provision that the Nazis exploited for their own interests.

Elections Placard for the German National Assembly, 1919

The placard states that this day was "the great day of the German people" and emphasizes that "every vote counts."

Elections Placard for the German National Assembly, 1919

After the end of World War I, with the resignation of Kaiser Wilhelm II and the soldiers’ and workers’ revolution at the end of 1918, the temporary government agreed to hold general elections to establish a national assembly, a kind of preliminary parliament after the collapse of the Second Reich. The elections, set for January 19, 1919, were the first in which women in Germany were given the right to vote. The placard states that this day was “the great day of the German people” and emphasizes that “every vote counts.” Following the political-revolutionary riots in the German capital of Berlin, it was decided that the elected assembly would meet in Weimar, a small and quiet city, “the capital of classical culture,” located in the center of the country. On February 6, 1919, the delegates met for the first time and appointed Friedrich Ebert, representative of the Social Democratic party, as chancellor. Ebert in turn appointed the first government of the young republic. The city where the National Assembly convened was the origin of the informal name for the political entity: The Weimar Republic.

This placard was collected by the Jewish physician Arthur Czellitzer, who ran a private clinic in Berlin until the Nazis’ rise to power. Czellitzer was interested in various historical questions and in Jewish genealogy, but he also had a broad historical consciousness that manifested itself in the collection of announcements and posters he cultivated between 1918 and 1928. His collection contains hundreds of items relating to many political parties and candidates for various elections that took place during the Weimar Republic, and Czellitzer appears to have acquired the items in Berlin. In many cases, he added the date of acquisition and sometimes the location, filing his findings meticulously. In 1936, Czellitzer donated his collection to the National and University Library in Jerusalem. Dr. Arthur Czellitzer was murdered in the Holocaust, at the Sobibor Camp, in 1943.

Source: Archive Department, Ephemera Collection from the Weimar Republic, V 662.