Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Sunday, February 23, 2020

The Voyage of the Deutschland and American Treason

Deutschland in Chesapeake Bay

In 1914, on the eve of World War I, 94,000 Germans lived in Baltimore, and most maintained close cultural ties to their homeland. After hostilities broke out England's massive navy blockaded the Central Powers, including Germany, and put a stranglehold on its economy.

Two years later, in the summer of 1916, the German-built U-boat Deutschland circumvented the blockade and embarked on a "merchant submarine" mission to deliver highly sought-after vibrant-hued dyes to Baltimore clothing manufacturers. With its low surface profile and the ability to submerge, the Deutschland was able evade Allied warships and cross the Atlantic.  To the Americans, the fact that Deutschland possessed no guns was the single fact used to determine her status as a trade vessel. She brought German goods to America and carried home nickel and rubber, both critical to the German war effort. But England and France were not pleased with the Deutschland's arrival at Baltimore and considered the boat a warship by virtue of its construction alone. 

Deutschland's Crew in Baltimore

When America entered WWI in 1917, unrestricted submarine warfare was declared and Germany's unarmed merchant submarine program abruptly ended.  Deutschland became attack submarine U-155, now outfitted with deck cannon and torpedo tubes. Between May 1917 and October 1918 Deutschland/U-155 sank over 30 ships, including several American vessels.

When the Deutschland visited Baltimore in August 1916, life was still relatively normal for the city's German community.  In fact, two Baltimore businessmen, father and son, Henry and Paul Hilken of A. Schumacher and Company, who were also agents for the North German Lloyd Steamship Line,  sold  tons of the chemicals for an unheard-of $6 million, earning themselves a massive profit. The submarine received a heroes' welcome, and its captain, Paul Lebrecht König, was treated like a celebrity. In fact, Paul Hilken escorted Captain König to some of the city's best restaurants, such as at the Hotel Belvedere and the Germania Club, where he also met Baltimore mayor James Preston.

Captain König and Paul Hilken

However, "This was not only a German trade mission, it was a German propaganda mission, that put on show Germany's peaceful trading mission with America, the key world power that continued to remain neutral," according to Alexandra Deutsch of the Maryland Historical Society. Further, the Deutschland episode connects with another effort that Germany was making in pre-intervention America.

Not only was Paul Hilken a prominent businessman; some accounts state that he was also likely a spy. Hilken had visited Germany on a business trip earlier in 1916, and it appeared that while there he was recruited by the German secret services to facilitate German sabotage cells in Baltimore, New York, and New Orleans.  He served as paymaster for Germany's spies and saboteurs on the East Coast.  These units had specialized on bombing loaded cargo ships with small incendiary devices called "cigars." One such attack was successfully carried out at the Black Tom pier in Jersey City, New Jersey, on 30 July 2016, killing five people and massive destruction. Reverberations could be felt as far away as Perryville, Maryland. It is thought that Hilken played an instrumental part in this attack. His headquarters in Baltimore was Hansa Haus, site of a present day FedEx-Kinko's store at the corner of Charles and Redwood Streets.

Hansa Haus, Baltimore, Spying Headquarters

After the explosion, Paul Hilken fled to Connecticut and was never prosecuted due to his 1928 confession and cooperation with the Federal Government in their 18-year pursuit of a claim against Germany for the Black Tom sabotage. The verdict, which found the German government liable for the Black Tom explosion, came in September 1939 as Hitler was rolling through Poland. Germany made the last payment of the $50 million claim in 1976. Henry Hilken had somehow avoided being connected to his son's more nefarious activities and later served as German Consul in Baltimore.

Sources:  The Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore Sun

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