When the giant German airship Hindenburg burst into flames over Lakehurst, New Jersey on May 6, 1937, leaving 36 dead, a pile of charred wreckage and a lingering mystery: what could have caused the horrific disaster?
Even before the ashes cooled, rumors were circulating. Three days later, the New York Daily News listed five main theories:
2. A backfire engine
3. Negligence of ground personnel
4. A “cold spark”
5. An Act of God
The next day, the newspaper adds a sixth possibility: sabotage.
The list would not end there. In the days and weeks that followed, international pundits, well-meaning amateurs and assorted lunatics bombarded investigators with their own theories.
the Hindenburg Crash: 30 seconds of terror seen around the world
the Hindenburg had made its first flight from Germany to the United States a year earlier, in May 1936. This trip was to inaugurate its 1937 season, an event considered notable enough to attract newspaper and news photographers to Lakehurst . They would record unforgettable footage of the ship catching fire and crashing to the ground as passengers and crew tried to get to safety. From the first sign of fire to the grounding of the Hindenburg, the disaster lasted about 30 seconds.
Newspaper photographs appeared that night on front pages around the world. Newsreel footage was shown in theaters the following morning.
WATCH: The series premiere of “I Was There” airs Feb. 28 at 10/9c—but enjoy a special preview on February 20 and 21 at 10:30/9:30 a.m.. Watch the trailer now.
Hitler receives the bad news
German Chancellor Adolph Hitler was told of the disaster during his mountaintop retreat in Berchtesgaden, apparently reacting with “stunned silence”.
Hugo Eckener, German airship pioneer and head of the company that built the Hindenburginitially acknowledged the possibility of sabotage, but then backtracked, saying a stray spark had likely ignited the ship’s highly flammable hydrogen gas.
Nazi Hermann Göring, the powerful head of German air command, immediately dismissed rumors of sabotage, calling the disaster an act of God. “We bow to the will of God,” he said, “and at the same time we face the future with unyielding will and passionate hearts to continue the work of conquering the air.”
Why the Nazis were so quick to call off the sabotage, rather than twist history for propaganda purposes, was a mystery in itself. In his 2021 book sky empires, author Alexander Rose offers a theory. “If the Hindenburg had been destroyed by malefactors,” Rose wrote, “it would indicate that Hitler was not universally loved, undermine Germany’s image as a placid, law-abiding society under the Nazi regime, and give enemies of the Reich, like the Jews and the Communists, hope that the regime was vulnerable.
Conspiracy theories abound
Unlike the Germans, the Americans were not subject to such constraints, as contemporary newspaper accounts and declassified FBI files show. Although the FBI has not officially investigated the Hindenburg incident, he participated in the US Department of Commerce investigation and became a point of contact for citizens with theories to share.
While many correspondents offered technical explanations for the disaster, those who favored sabotage showed the American imagination in full swing.
Many have suggested that anti-Nazi elements were responsible. Among them were Communists, anti-Nazi Germans, Jews and Spaniards presumably angered by Germany’s support for fascist leader Francisco Franco.
At least one correspondent suggested it was an inside job, that the Nazis themselves blew up the Hindenburg for insurance money.
The conspirators also had a variety of theories regarding the means of destruction. An incendiary bullet fired from the ground was a possibility. (The FBI examined suspicious footprints at one point but found nothing.) Another theory suggested that a small plane had fired at the Hindenburg from the top. A letter writer insisted he was shot by a NYPD lieutenant on orders from Mayor Fiorello La Guardia.
The most common suspicion, however, was that a bomb had been hidden somewhere in the ship’s vast interior, ready to be activated either by a timer or a change in barometric pressure.
A theory of sabotage based on an American passenger named Joseph Spaeh (or Späh).
A German steward reported that he seemed oddly aloof and “unsympathetic to airship travel”. Spaeh also happens to be a professional contortionist and acrobat, talents useful for climbing around the ship’s interior structure and planting a bomb. At the request of the base’s naval commander, the FBI checked on Spaeh and found nothing to incriminate him.
AUDIO: An eyewitness account of the Hindenburg disaster
Decades later, a new suspect emerges
Spaeh wouldn’t be the only suspect. In a popular 1962 book, Who destroyed the Hindenburg?, writer and military historian AA Hoehling accused a crew member of being the saboteur. Based on his own research, Hoehling believed that Eric (or Erich) Spehl, a 26-year-old rigger, planted a bomb on board, allegedly encouraged by his communist girlfriend. Hoehling admitted his case against Spehl was “circumstantial.”
In 1972, another author, Michael M. Mooney, also pointed the finger at Spehl in his book, The Hindenburg. This time, enterprising German journalists tracked down a woman they identified as Spehl’s former fiancée, who denounced the theory as “absolute madness”.
Mooney’s book, in turn, became the source for the 1975 film The Hindenburgwho made a similar case but changed the name of the supposed saboteur.
The real Spehl, meanwhile, was unable to defend himself. He had been dead since 1937, victim of the crash.
READ MORE: The Hindenburg: 9 surprising facts
Official surveys blame atmospheric conditions
The American and German governments each conducted investigations into the crash, releasing their findings in July 1937 and January 1938 respectively.
Both concluded that the weather conditions on that rainy evening led to the disaster, although they differed as to the exact mechanism. The Americans suggested that an electrical phenomenon called “brush discharge” most likely ignited a hydrogen leak, starting the fast-moving fire. The Germans favored the spark theory originally put forward by Hugo Eckener.
Even so, neither investigation completely ruled out the possibility of sabotage. Nor have several generations of conspiracy theorists in the years since.
Although the general consensus among experts today is that the disaster was an accident, exactly what – or who – destroyed the Hindenburg may never be known with absolute certainty.