Felix Von Luckner: The Life and Times of a Sea-Devil

Lars Von Luckner 800x500

One of my visits to a second hand book store rewarded me with a 1923 volume of a book with the imaginative title The Sea-Devil Conquers America. A book written by the German sea-captain Count Felix Von Luckner.

A quick peruse of the Wikipedia-entry about Count Von Luckner, aka “The Sea-Devil”, gives the impression that this man has been a real hero: a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize (or a suggestion for a nomination, or not even a suggestion, I will address that issue later), about a 100 honorary citizenships given to him in the United States, and not to forget the ability to tear a telephone book in half with his bare hands.

The tearing of a telephone book might be able to impress people of my generation, who actually remember the thick paper compendiums that contained all the telephone numbers of the region, but a closer look at Mister Von Luckner also reveals that, like so many heroes, he had a dark side. A VERY dark side. After reading this article, one might even ask whether the sea-devil was a hero at all, or just a dangerous impostor.

Yearning for the sea

The story begins in the German city of Dresden, where, at June 9th 1881, Count Felix Alexander Georg Von Luckner was born into a family of small nobility, in which the male descendants usually made career in the German military. The young Felix did not do very well at school. When the gymnasium he attended suggested it would be better to leave the school, he anticipated his father’s crude ideas about how to raise a boy and decided to seek his own fortune. Aged 13, Felix grabbed his father’s gun and dagger and eloped his family to take service at the Russian merchant vessel Niobe.1 In the meantime, the German emperor Wilhelm II was following his own yearnings for the high seas: a grand German navy that would be able to contend with the British. Historians have ridiculed Wilhelm’s ambitions as ludicrous ever since, but for the young Von Luckner it meant that he was able to make a career in the newborn German navy, even after his unfashionable escape from home. When World War One started, Luckner was an active officer of the German navy, which would now show its worth.

379px-SMSSeeadlerFront

SMS Seeadler, the three-masted windjammer that raided the Atlantic and Pacific in an age of dreadnoughts (painting by Christopher Rave, circa 1921, via Wikimedia Commons)

At the outbreak of war, the British navy was in numbers still far superior to the German, and despite the fact that the German ships were technologically more advanced, Britain’s numerical advantage made them able to blockade all sea traffic to Germany, including imports of food and amenities.2 Of course German headquarters were very keen on breaking this blockade. The German answer initially consisted of the deployment of a new weapon: submarines, in German called U-Boats. But during the first years of the war, German submarines sank a couple of British liners that were also carrying American passengers, infuriating the American public opinion. Fearing to provoke the United States to enter the war, the deployment of submarines was restricted, and other ways had to be found to harass the British.3 And this is where our Count Von Luckner enters world history…

Acting Norwegian

One morning, Officer Von Luckner was commandeered to a meeting with the German admiralty in Berlin. There he was told to take command of a sailing ship, a special sailing ship. The American ship Pass of Balmaha had first been confiscated by the British navy and sent to Kirkwall for investigation.
On the way there, however, it was confiscated by a German submarine and sent to the German port of Cuxhaven.
There the plan was to transform the ship into a cruiser in the disguise of a Norwegian merchant vessel, making it able to sneakily break through the British blockade and make as much havoc as possible. When hearing of his new assignment, Von Luckner was ecstatic: “I drank half a bottle of port wine and wanted to hug myself, because there was no one else present.”4 That quote already gives a hint at Von Luckner’s darker side: being just a bit in love with himself. But we will learn more about that later.

Preparations were now made to make the ship and its crew look as Norwegian as possible, and these preparations were taken quite serious. Tradition had it that Norwegian captains took their wives aboard with them on sea-journeys, so they selected an 18 year old boy for his feminine looks. When the ship had sailed out and was inspected by a British cruiser, the boy was put in drag to act as the captain’s wife. A toothache was simulated so the boy would not have to speak. It must have been convincing enough, as the British navy let the ship pass.5 The British blockade had been fooled and Von Luckner’s crew was ready for action, action that Von Luckner would later fully exploit to create his own myth.

Von Luckner and his ‘Norwegian’ crew sailed the world seas and were able to destroy sixteen enemy ships before the vessel stranded on the rocky coast of Mopelia. They spent the rest of WWI in New Zealand as prisoners of war.

Fun fact: the ship’s wreckage is still there and is a popular attraction amongst divers.

Acting amiable

Then the war was lost, and Von Luckner returned to Germany. When leaving New Zealand, according to Von Luckner’s account, thousands of people turned up to wave the ominous captain goodbye in recognition “of the chivalrous manner in which I had conducted my mission”.6 Laden with flowers the sea-devil made his way to Germany, expecting a similar procedure for his welcoming home. But the captain was to be disappointed: “when we arrived in my Fatherland, for which we had fought and risked our lives, not even a single person took notice.”7 Germany had lost the war and the Peace Treaty of Versailles had restricted the German Navy to the size of a mere six battleships. Prospects were not good for an unemployed sea captain, but yet again Von Luckner showed that he was cunning enough to make a future for himself: he started exploiting his former adventures.

One day in 1919, he was asked to deliver a speech about his deeds in the war. In his memoirs Von Luckner stated that he was reluctant, and only agreed after spending his last money on a bottle of champagne and emptying it soon after. Another bottle helped him to shake off his nerves before the speech and thus the Von Luckner superstar was born.8 Soon he would deliver his speeches all over Germany, the people loving the shenanigans of this old sodden sailor. And soon after, the success would be marketed by a book telling all the adventures of this buccaneer of the former Imperial Navy. In Germany, which at the times was plagued by economic and political crises, reminiscences of former glory were selling quite well. And after one evening (and probably a booze-filled night) when the sea-devil had sat down with some old comrades of the navy, the idea was born to go on an international tour: “and hold my speeches, to strengthen the spine of Germans living abroad and show the others what the good German nature is”9 It took a while to get the finances fixed for a new ship, but in September 1926 Von Luckner’s new ship the “Fatherland” sailed out to the world. Its mission: telling the world what a great man was sailing on it.

Coming to America

Thirty-three days later the Fatherland dropped its anchor in the Hudson River to enter New York, which according to Von Luckner looked like “a fairytale castle with many high towers.”10 Our sea-devil can’t help emphasizing that he is the first German to receive an official welcome since the war started.11 After some hesitation, New York society seems to have embraced the German captain. Von Luckner ensures that even in times of prohibition, a sturdy seaman won’t die of thirst in the United States: “seldom have I enjoyed finer wines then when visiting the houses of the rich of New York.”12 And there are other American peculiarities that Von Luckner addresses in his book, for example “the Negro-question” (die Negerfrage): “because of their great fertility, their numbers have risen significantly…. but they seem to develop mentally and materially as well.”13 The sympathetic German captain seems to entice the Americans, even impressing the students and professors of Princeton with his buccaneer antics. The students seem to have yelled at him to go on after he announced he had to finish.14 Von Luckner arrived back in Germany in 1928, with several honorary citizenships in his pocket. He had become a master of creating his own image: once faking a Norwegian captain, now faking the amiable seaman.

No wonder that the Nazi’s, after taking power in 1933, saw an opportunity to use Von Luckner as an instrument of propaganda. In 1938 Von Luckner set sail again, this time to visit New Zealand and Australia. Whether this journey was planned by the Nazi government remains unclear. But anyway, Von Luckner continued telling his stories about the adventures of this oh so very amiable and chivalrous German. On his way to Australia, he also set foot on the territory of the Dutch East Indies to give some of his lectures. An article in the Sumatra Post gives an impression of the atmosphere. The reporter describes his style as “a mixture of roguishness and fighting spirit”.15 Further on it is recorded that Von Luckner boasts to have prevented hundreds of thousands of tears by sinking 16 ships and only killing one man, and that by accident. And he doesn’t forget to mention that aboard the ships he sank rich booty was to be found sometimes: 120.000 bottles of French champagne, which went down the throats of the German crew and its prisoners of war. When asked whether he ever seized some Dutch Jenever (the Dutch version of gin), Von Luckner sighs and says he regrets that the Dutch were neutral during the war, so he could not loot any of their fine spirits.16

Von Luckner amused the people with his stories, of which the exact mixture of truth and bragging still remains unclear. In 1939 the image of Von Luckner would finally be scattered when some of his amiable deeds were exposed that even shocked one of the most evil in history: Adolf Hitler.

What adult people do

The amiable captain had a daughter, born in 1913. She didn’t appear in this story till now: the captain seems to have had no interest in her at all. That is until she reached the age of 23, then his daughter interested him quite a bit more. In 1936 he had intercourse with her in a hotel. And that was not all: one year later he had sex with the daughters of a lawyer in Hamburg, their age being eight and ten. The files say Von Luckner had told the girls “this is what adult people do when they want to have a baby.”17 The Nazi’s were keen to keep this a secret, as they didn’t want to ruin the image of a German icon. A special and secret investigation was started and Von Luckner gave a full confession. He tried to play down the significance of it all: his daughter had started it anyway by giving him a passionate kiss and not resisting her father’s moves at all. The girl herself stated that her father had fed her alcohol and had abused her against her clearly stated will.18 In 1940 a special court decided to leave the deeds unpunished, but the captain was not allowed to speak in public ever again.19

After the war, the sea-devil gave his own twist to this story: he maintained that his forced pension was caused by resisting Hitler’s order to abandon his American honorary citizenships. Anyway, the days of glory were gone for our sea-devil. When vainly struggling for renewed attention, suddenly the rumor appeared that he was nominated for the Noble Price for Peace. The rumor was later proved to be false; something tells me that the Münchhausen of the seas had his hand in this. Von Luckner died in 1966, and there is still a society dedicated to keeping up the memory of this chivalrous seaman.20 Some people just want to believe in fairytales.
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Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
Lars Sanders

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  1. https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Felix_Graf_von_Luckner#Seine_Rolle_bei_Kriegsende_in_Halle_.28Saale.29, last seen July 14th 2015 

  2. D.E. Showalter, World War 1, in Encyclopedia Brittannica: http://www.britannica.com/event/World-War-I/Forces-and-resources-of-the-combatant-nations-in-1914, last seen July 14th 2015 

  3. Ibidem 

  4. F.von Luckner, Seeteufel erobert Amerika (Leipzig 1928), 134 

  5. Ibidem, 158. 

  6. F.von Luckner, Seeteufel erobert Amerika (Leipzig 1928), 11. 

  7. Ibidem, 12. 

  8. Ibidem, 14. 

  9. Ibidem, 16. 

  10. Ibidem, 83. 

  11. Ibidem 

  12. Ibidem, 93. 

  13. Ibidem, 108. 

  14. Ibidem, 124. 

  15. Sumatra Post, December 14th 1938. 

  16. Ibidem 

  17. Felix der Lügner in Der Spiegel, March 23rd 1998. 

  18. Ibidem 

  19. Ibidem 

  20. http://luckner-gesellschaft.de/, last seen August 6th 2015. 

Lars Sanders

About Lars Sanders

Lars Sanders studied history at the University of Groningen and specialised in the history of post-war Germany. Is addicted to fine prose and has a keen interest in representations of the devil and what Ian Kershaw once punningly classified as the lunatic fringe of politics.
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