The Zeppelin-Eckener Spende

The Zeppelin-Eckener Spende (Zeppelin Eckener Fund), which led to the construction of LZ-127 Graf Zeppelin, was launched 85 years ago today, on August 20, 1925.

Transatlantic zeppelin passenger service had long been a goal of Hugo Eckener and others in the Zeppelin Company.  The 1924 success of the airship LZ-126 brought the zeppelin back into the public eye and demonstrated the feasibility of a trans-continental passenger airship, but the Zeppelin Company was still struggling financially in the aftermath of World War I and could not afford to build a new passenger zeppelin.  Hugo Eckener and others hoped the answer could found in a new version of the “Miracle at Echterdingen,” in which the German people would contribute funds for the new zeppelin.

The Zeppelin-Eckener Spende was launched at an elaborate opening ceremony in Friedrichshafen, Germany on August 20, 1925, as part of the jubilee celebration of the 25th anniversary of the first zeppelin.

The Fund raised money through collection boxes and the sale of postcards, coins, unofficial stamps (called “cinderella stamps” by philatelists), and other trinkets and memorabilia, and with a series of lectures by airship officers Hugo Eckener, Hans Flemming, Hans von Schiller, Max Pruss, and Anton Wittemann.  (Many airship histories inaccurately include Ernst Lehmann in this list, but Lehmann was working in Akron, Ohio at the time, setting up the new Goodyear-Zeppelin joint venture; Lehmann remained in Akron until December, 1926.)

The Fund and German Nationalism

The official name of the fund was the Zeppelin-Eckener-Spende des Deutschen Volkes (the Zeppelin Eckener Fund of the German People) and Eckener appealed strongly to German nationalist sentiment to generate enthusiasm and support for the zeppelin.

A German Zeppelin! It will be real again! Give to the Zeppelin-Eckener-Fund!

Many Germans, who felt humiliated by defeat in World War I and by the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty, had a hunger for national pride in the 1920s (an urge which also fueled much darker political forces), and Eckener sensed he could tap into that feeling to generate support for the zeppelin, which had traditionally been viewed as an inherently German achievement and icon.  Eckener believed the Zeppelin Company was a “national treasure,” and he argued that “a people must always be ready and capable of sustaining its spiritual and technological strength, lest it lose confidence in itself anf its future.”

A postcard issued by the Fund stated:

No genuine German will fail to contribute to save the Luftschiffbau Zeppelin, no matter how small his gift.  Everyone must give something, so that the unity of our entire nation may be seen to hover in the skies above us!

Nor did Eckener limit his appeal to the political borders of post-WWI Germany; he also tapped into the nationalism of ethnic Germans in surrounding areas such as the Sudetenland (in western Czechoslovakia), East Prussia (in western Poland), and elsewhere.  Eckener harnessed those nationalistic feelings, which would be also used by more ominous political figures, to generate support for his airships, and Eckener and his fellow officers spoke to groups of ethnic Germans in Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Romania.

Opposition by the German Government

A Zeppelin over German lands. Do we want to give up forever? NEVER! Then you too should give to the Zeppelin-Eckener-Spende!

As expected, many Germans embraced Eckener’s call for a new zeppelin as a symbol of national renewal, and the Fund received popular support throughout the country.  But Eckener’s efforts were initially opposed by the German federal government in Berlin, which was in the process of negotiating with the Allies to relax the restrictions imposed under the Versailles Treaty (negotiations which would eventually lead to the treaties of Locarno).  In the midst of these negotiations, the last thing the German government wanted was to arouse bitter feelings among former enemies who still had fresh memories of the “baby killing” zeppelin raids of the Great War.

German government officials also opposed Eckener’s Fund for a more practical reason:  They feared that Eckener would not raise enough money to build the airship, but would raise just enough to compel the federal government to add funds of its own, which the German treasury could not afford.

The German federal and Prussian state governments were so opposed to the Fund that they officially discouraged it, and prohibited fundraising in government offices and schools.  But their reluctance was eventually overwhelmed by popular enthusiasm, and by Hugo Eckener’s tireless promotion of the cause, including his clever enlistment of support from the friendly state governments of southern Germany (the historic home of the zeppelin) and notable individuals such as Cologne mayor Konrad Adenauer.

A medal “For Service to the Zeppelin-Eckener-Fund,” quoting a Goethe verse of defiance and willpower with the help of God.

The Results of the Fund

Financially the Fund was not a success in its own right; the campaign raised only 2-1/2 million of the 7 million marks needed for a new airship, confirming the fears of the German Finance Ministry, which felt obligated to contribute 1 million marks of public money to the project.  The remaining funds were provided by the Zeppelin Company itself from the profits of its non-airship manufacturing activities; in the face of mass public support for Eckener and his airships, Zeppelin Company director Alfred Colsman (who wanted to focus on the company’s other businesses) could hardly resist calls to bet the company by investing virtually all of its resources in the construction of a new airship.

Culturally and politically, however, the Fund achieved all of Eckener’s goals; it put the zeppelin back at the center of public attention, united Germans in support of the Zeppelin enterprise, and solidified Eckener’s personal power within the Zeppelin Company and as the leader of airship aviation.

The Fund’s greatest achievement, of course, was LZ-127 itself.

Principal Secondary Sources:

  • Meyer, Henry Cord.  Airshipmen Businessmen, and Politics. Washington and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
  • de Syon, Guillaume. Zeppelin! Germany and the Airship, 1900-1939. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002.

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6 Comments on "The Zeppelin-Eckener Spende"

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FRANK BLINCOW

I want to buy, Stamp issues of ‘Eckener Spender’ Charity stamps. Can anybody help? I have a cover with the 10pfennig on but would like the 3 stamps mint to go with it. Please reply to I will pay cost of shipping and hope to hear from someone soon. Regards Frank Blincow

Fred Jacobsen

Excuse my not understanding much of the physics of hydrogen, but if a gas cell opened, would not the gas accumulate in the direction of the nose, since the tail was down prior to the landing?

Joe May

Hugo Eckener was a man of many dimensions, wasn’t he? All too often we get wrapped up with the stories of flying the airships but the designer and the money must happen first — for anything to happen in reality.

It’s very good of you to bring this aspect to light, thanks.

Andrew George

Interesting and informative as always
One thing that puzzled me, what were the Zeppelins Company’s other businesses besides airships? After ww1 they were banned from making airships, I always assumed they survivied by selling their expertise to the US and Britain – what else were they into (or am I totally wrong)?

Dan (Airships.net)
After World War I the Zeppelin Company, led by its manager Alfred Colsman, began to manufacture products completely unrelated to airships. The company was famously known for making aluminum pots and pans, but this “fame” was largely the result of Hugo Eckener’s attempt to discredit the non-airship activities of the company by drawing attention to a product which seemed trivial and beneath the firm’s dignity. In fact the production of cookware was largely abandoned by 1921, and the Zeppelin Company concentrated on three main subsidiaries: the Zahnradfabrik Friedrichshafen (ZF), which manufactured gearboxes and reduction gears for automobiles; the Maybach-Motorenbau, which… Read more »
Paul Adams

Another nice piece. Well done!

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