airliner timeline
commercial aviation 1920 / 1930
flight in the 1930s
Transatlantic air services
the 'Clipper'
the jet airliner
history of air freight
early French civil aviation
early German civil aviation
early Italian civil aviation
early Japanese civil aviation
early Soviet civil aviation
World Airlines
the history of US airlines
classic airline posters
airliner profiles

early German civil aviation

In the history of civil aviation, Germany may hold a unique distinction—that of having an airship service as its first airline, considered also by many as the world's first passenger airline. On November 16, 1909, German entrepreneurs created a company named DELAG (Deutsche Luftschiffahrt Aktien Gesellschaft). The company used one of the large airships built by Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin, a retired military officer in his sixties. The early DELAG flights, between 1910 and 1914, and then after World War I, between 1919 and 1921, cost passengers between 100 and 200 reichsmarks, much more than the income of an average German worker. For the most part, DELAG airships carried wealthy foreigners across Germany to cities such as Berlin, Potsdam, and Dusseldorf.

Even though airships offered the first air transport services in Germany, their importance was slowly eclipsed by airplane service. In the late 1930s, after a series of spectacular accidents involving a number of airships—including the catastrophic explosion of the Hindenburg airship in May 1937—the Germans permanently discontinued airship transport in favour of airplanes.

As with most other European countries, civil air transport in Germany was a logical outcome of the military use of aircraft during World War I. As the war neared its end, German aircraft manufacturers were keen to convert their production to civilian use. They did not, however, anticipate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, signed by all the major powers in June 1919, which severely restricted German weapons development. As a consequence, civil aviation also suffered from the lack of available aircraft.

Many important German airplane manufacturers simply collapsed, but some survived. The most important survivor was the Junkers firm, founded by Hugo Junkers, the son of a mill-owner who already had established a name as an inventor of engines and boilers. During the war, he had pioneered the construction of all-metal aircraft for the German air force. One of Junker's most famous contributions to civil aviation was the all-metal low-wing Junkers F13 monoplane, which some historians consider the world's first true transport airplane, in other words, one that was not converted from military to civilian use, but rather was built specifically to carry passengers. Other companies that continued to build civilian aircraft in the 1920s included Heinkel and Dornier. All these companies built a variety of models that were regularly exported to countries such as the Soviet Union, Sweden, Poland, Italy, Iran, and Turkey for their own use. The Germans had much incentive to build a variety of different transport aircraft. Since the Treaty of Versailles prohibited Germans from building military aircraft, the government built "dual-use" aircraft that could be secretly and quickly converted for military use.

After World War I, the new Weimar government in Germany was very supportive of early efforts at commercial aviation. With as much as 70 percent of their costs paid by the government, companies such as A.E.G. (Allgemeine Elektrizitats Gesellschaft) offered basic airlines services, often for only a single passenger. By the mid-1920s, there were a number of small civilian passenger services in Germany, although only a few survived the massive inflation and poor economic conditions of the time. In January 1926, the German government combined two of these, Deutsche Aero Lloyd (DAL) and Junkers, into a new company named Deutsche Luft Hansa (DLH). The government gave the company, which effectively had a monopoly on German air transport, an annual subsidy of the modest sum of 18 million marks to ensure that it had a stable future.

Deutsche Luft Hansa - DLH - began in March 1926 with single engine planes flying regional German services

DLH was quite large for the time. On the day of its first regularly scheduled service, April 6, 1926, it owned as many as 162 aircraft consisting of 18 different models. Most of these aircraft were the single-engine Merkur built by the Dornier company, owned by Claudius Dornier, a veteran of the Zeppelin airship design teams. DLH's services began to expand through the late 1920s, when it acquired shares in a joint German-Soviet airline known as Deruluft that operated popular international services between the two countries. In 1933, DLH was renamed simply Lufthansa, a name that the modern German airline inherited.

With its twin decks and swept-back wings, the Junkers G-38 was one of the strangest large airliners in use in the 1930s

Unlike many other European airlines of the period, Lufthansa was hugely profitable. Lufthansa's expansion was helped by two factors: a powerful government eager to expand and spread its influence all over the world, and the lifting of restrictions on German commercial aviation in 1928. The motto for Lufthansa perfectly illustrated how German commercial aviation combined business with nationalism: "commerce follows the flag." By 1928, Lufthansa flew more miles and carried more passengers than all the other European companies combined. The company had a staff of 300 superbly trained pilots as well as some of the best civil aircraft in the world, manufactured by Junkers and Dornier. The Junkers Ju-52 became the mainstay of Lufthansa routes in Europe and elsewhere, although larger planes such as the Junkers G-38 (only two were ever built) saw service as well.

Perhaps the most famous German aircraft of the 1930s was the Junker Ju-52, used by many nations around the world

Flights across the South Atlantic began in the mid-1930s, using Dornier sea planes to carry high-priority mail bound for destinations in Latin America. They refuelled in mid-ocean after landing near a special vessel that carried aviation gas

One of Lufthansa's most well publicized achievements was a service to remote China. In February 1930, Lufthansa and the Chinese Transport Ministry signed a ten-year agreement for the operation of an airline called Eurasia, which would be operated by Lufthansa. Establishing service to China proved to be a big challenge for the Germans. There were no aerial maps of China, no radio stations, no repair shops, and no airports, only rudimentary landing strips. Although there were problems with the route—such as pilots getting lost because of navigational errors or pilots getting stranded for weeks without spare parts—the service proved to be commercially lucrative. By 1939, the Europe-China service extended over nearly 5,000 miles; Junkers aircraft had carried 52,000 passengers and over 2,000 tons of cargo. When the new Nazi government allied itself with the Japanese imperial government, the Chinese cut ties with Germany in 1941. It would be nearly 40 years before a German plane, a Lufthansa, would land again in a Chinese city.

The Nazi seizure of power had a profound effect on German aviation. The Nazis used air power as one of the main ways to extend their influence over Europe and Asia, and indeed, much of the world. The distinctions between civil and military aviation were blurred, as the Nazi swastika, painted on both combat and passenger aircraft, became a powerful symbol of Nazi aspirations. It was a common sight to see Lufthansa aircraft with the swastika emblazoned on their tail fins. During the war, Lufthansa's well-equipped air service served the Nazis well, but it also called into question the company's role in the immoral policies of the Nazi government. At the end of the war, in 1945, Lufthansa discontinued all services and was liquidated as a company. German commercial aviation, and Lufthansa in particular, would have to start from the beginning.