The cruise vacation industry has exploded into a multi-billion dollar industry with massive 240,000 ton cruise ships with amenities and features like rock-climbing walls, water parks, ice skating rinks, and even a glass module that raises passengers 300 feet into the air just for the view. It is commonly known that the birth of the cruise industry started in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but a piece of nearly forgotten history shows that the first purpose-built cruise ship was actually launched in 1938. A grand scheme called Kraft durch Freude (KdF) or in English, “Strength Through Joy” was developed by Hitler’s propaganda experts to offer cruise vacations for the average German workers. The Wilheim Gustloff was built for this Strength Through Joy cruise program and launched in 1938. This ship was painted white, had beautifully appointed public rooms and dining areas, and all of her staterooms were equal so no one had a larger or more luxurious cabin. She looked like a cruise ship, rather than the typical ocean liner. Most of the ocean liners in that time period had dark or black hulls. Additionally, the Wilheim Gustloff had only one funnel, when most of the ships in that day had at least two funnels. Designed very specifically for pleasure, games, fun and fine dining, the Wilheim Gustloff was perhaps before her time, but clearly is the first passenger ship to be designed exclusively for leisure cruises. The ship took cruise passengers to Spain, Norway and Italy.
Unfortunately, during World War II, in January 1945, working as a hospital ship, the Nazi regimes Wilheim Gustloff, was sunk with a massive loss of life, where around 9,340 people perished. It was truly one of the worst maritime disasters in history that was far more devastating than the Titanic accident in 1912. The story of the Wilheim Gustloff is not as well known because of the dark Nazi regime, and was buried in the chaos of World War II.