Prof. Peter Tamm: Shipping: Germany ranks top in the world

Germany a leading maritime nation? Only a minority of people know that 30 per cent of the global container capacities for shipping are supplied by Germany. This is a good reason to take a look back in history with IMMH founder Peter Tamm.

Ships generally only make the headlines when they sink. Shipowners are amongst some of the quieter entrepreneurs within the country. The brilliance of their services is rarely known to the outside world. Yes, people know of the shipyards, but the many outstanding ship de­signers remain unknown to the public. Only few know that Germany belongs to the leading maritime nations of the world. It seems to me that even politicians are not fully aware of this. In the agreement which established the grand coalition, there is indeed an affirmation with regard to strengthening the maritime economy, but few concrete details.

Germany’s thinking is “land-based”. Even though the European Union has broadened this thinking, today, Germans’ thoughts and aspirations do not centre around the sea – unless they are going on a cruise. Shipping matters play no part in election campaigns, although decisions in this area essentially affect economic growth and prosperity. This applies even more because as the third-biggest trading nation of the world, Germany is heavily reliant on maritime traffic when it comes to exports and imports. It is by far the cheapest form of transport as well as the most environmentally friendly. For centuries, shipping and trading activities via the sea were a domain of other nations, with England and its enormous colonial empire on all continents leading the way. Until the end of the 19th century, the British Crown boasted a commercial fleet that was as big as all other commercial fleets of countries in the world combined. In 1902, 10,455 sailing ships and 9,803 steamships with an overall tonnage of around 8.1 million tonnes (net) were sailing under the British flag, more than seven times as many as in 1870. At the same time, England had by far the largest military navy in the world, which aimed to protect its sea routes.

The German Empire entered the circle of worldwide leading shipping countries relatively late. At the end of the 19th century, the German Emperor Wilhelm II proclaimed “Germany‘s future is at sea”. The motivation behind this was less about strengthening the trade relationship with the German colonies – they were not of strong economic significance, compared with the British colonies – but more about transforming the Ger­­man military navy and commercial fleet in order to play a strong role at sea. If a country wanted to take part in expanding world trade, they had to secure this through military means, just like the other nations did. Of course, all this was not welcomed by England. At the same time, it should be noted that at the beginning of the First World War, the German Empire did not even have a third of the civil and military fleet compared to what England had.

Wartime defeat and the conditions outlined in the Treaty of Versailles resulted in a drastic reduction of the military and commercial fleet, which had to be almost completely delivered as reparations. Only slowly did cargo and pas­­senger shipping begin to recuperate – this process however fell largely victim to the Great Depression in 1929. In 1939, as a consequence of its upswing during the National Socialist dictatorship, German shipping had around 2,450 ships (more than 100 GRT) with an overall capacity of 4.5 million GRT. It came in fifth position of shipping nations, behind Great Britain, the USA, Japan and Norway. The Second World War and the defeat of the German Reich marked once again the end of the German shipping industry: wartime losses and reparations crushed the commercial fleet. In recent world history, there is no other example of the two-time loss of a major national com­­mercial fleet in less than a quarter of a century. Today – almost 70 years later – German shipowners manage nine per cent of the worldwide GRT tonnage, operating around 3,200 ships. For this reason, they are positioned in third place behind Japan and Greece, closely followed by the rapidly growing commercial fleet of the People’s Republic of China. Germany even claims first position for container shipping, with a share of over 30 per cent of the global container capacity. Germany comes in 6th place for tanker shipping and takes 4th position for bulk carriers. These are astounding results for a country whose population does not really know much about its maritime significance. The fact that a predominant part of the German fleet sails under a foreign flag does not impair the tremendous entrepreneurial performance of German shipowners. International competition and the thereof resulting cost pressure do not only influence the costal regions of Germany – even though out-flagging was and still is unfortunate as far as seamens’ jobs are concerned. Today, German shipowners employ 73,000 seamen and 23,000 employees on land. 380,000 people are employed in Germany’s maritime economy, which generates an annual turnover of 50 billion euros.

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The development of the shipping industry is characterised by two crucial “revolutions”: the replacement of sailing vessels with steamships in the 19th century as well as the emergence of container shipping 60 years ago. The first ship that was powered solely by means of a steam engine without any sails, was launched into operation in 1889 and entitled the “Teutonic”. It was operated by the Irish White Star line. In 1956, the American shipper Malcom McLean sent the “Ideal-X” – an adapted T2 tanker with 56 truck trailers stowed on deck – from New Jersey to Houston. It was an occasion that marked the birth of container shipping. Already one year later, he launched larger ships into service. It was in Bremen in 1966 when the unloading of a container ship was first inaugurated in Germany. Two years later, a new ship type, the “American Lancer”, reached the Hamburg port for the first time, with a capacity of 1,364 TEU (20 foot container, a predominant standard container even today). In the same year, the “Elbe Ex­­press” – the first Ger­man full container ship of the Hamburg America Line (736 TEU) – left the Blohm+Voss shipyard. To­­day, German shipown­ers direct a container fleet of almost 1,800 ships with an overall ca­­pacity of more than five million standard containers. The leading German ports in Hamburg and Bremen spotted their opportuni­­ties at the right time: technically perfect, time-saving loading and unloading capacities have been created thanks to the modern container terminals located in Ham­burg-Altenwerder and Bremerhaven. The new deep water port in Wilhelmshaven allows ships to dock, which are currently unable to reach the two largest German ports because of their draught.

Plans to deepen and widen the shipping channel of the Elbe river are an economic necessity for the Ham­­burg port, but also a controversial ecological issue. One thing is clear: if such plans are not brought into action, then the port of Hamburg risks losing its prominence in the coming decades. Today’s leading European ports in Rotterdam and Antwerp would be able to benefit from this.

Increasingly larger, wider ships that can reach greater depths? This is likely. On an economic level, container shipping is already facing bumps. Today there is cut-throat competition of the bigger, more modern units at the expense of the smaller ones – this is also a result of the temporary decline in world trade. However, ships with a length of more than 366 metres, a width of 46 metres and a 13,200 TEU loading capacity will not be able to pass the Panama Canal, even when this important waterway has been expanded. Thus, there is no way that the currently biggest container ship in the world, the “Ma­­jestic Maersk” can get through, with a length of 399 metres, width of 69 metres and space for 18,000 TEU. In the future, un­­manned cargo ships will also be technically fea­­sible. So-called “drone ships” are already used in military action.

Right from being a child, I have been engaged in the history and development of civil shipping and the navy. Today, the result is the International Maritime Museum Hamburg, one of the biggest of its kind in the world. Spread across 12,000 square metres of exhibition space on nine floors in Hamburg’s oldest surviving Speicher (ware­­house), entitled the Kai­­speicher B, we document everything connected to seafaring. This also includes a deep sea research division. Seafaring history is the history of humanity. Commercial shipping is a key aspect of world trade. It requires freedom and security at sea, including military protection. World trade generates more pros­­perity on all continents contrary to protectionism.

We deliberately labelled our museum with the ad­­jective “international”, not only because of the exhibits from all over the world, but also because we want Germans to continue to turn their attention to the world and accept the challenges of the worldwide economical interrelations together with other Euro­­peans. Therein we find more chances than risks – also for peace.

Der Journalist und Manager wurde 1928 in Hamburg geboren und war über lange Jahre Geschäftsführer, später Vorstandsvorsitzender des Axel-Springer-Verlages. Der leidenschaftliche Sammler maritimer Modelle und Gemälde gründete 2008 das Internationale Maritime Museum Hamburg (IMMH) im Kaispeicher B der Hamburger Hafencity mit 12.000 qm Ausstellungsfläche.