Whenever the airship flew over a village, or whenever she flew over a lonely field on which some peasants were working, a tremendous shout of joy rose up in the air towards Count Zeppelin’s miracle ship which, in the imagination of all who saw her, suggested some supernatural creature. As this paean to the Zeppelin from an early-20th-century issue of the German newspaper Thüringer Zeitung makes clear, the airship inspired a unique sense of awe. These phenomenal rigid, lighter-than-air craft―the invention of Ferdinand Graf von Zeppelin (1838-1917)―approached the size of a small village. Although they moved slowly, there was no mistaking their exciting―or ominous―potential. Friends of the machine believed that it would revolutionize commerce, carry scientists to otherwise inaccessible places, and deliver bombs with great accuracy. Before the airplane proved its reliability and superior practicality―and before the fiery crash of the Hindenburg in 1937―Zeppelins made a deep impression on the minds of Europeans, especially in Germany.
In Zeppelin! Guillaume de Syon offers a captivating history of this technological wonder, from development and production to its impact on German culture and society. De Syon chronicles the various ways in which the airships were used―transport, war, exploration, and propaganda―and details the attempts by successive German governments―autocratic, democratic, fascist― to co-opt Count Zeppelin’s invention. Between 1900 and 1939, Germans saw the Zeppelin as a symbol of national progress, and de Syon uses the airship to better understand the dynamics of German society and the place of technology within it. Though few people actually flew in any of the 119 Zeppelins built, the rigid airship made one of the strongest impressions of any flying machine on Europe’s collective memory. Six decades later, there is still a mystique surrounding these technological leviathans, one that Zeppelin! addresses with insight and wit.