The German Empire went through a period of tremendous commercial growth between the 1880s and 1914. A crucial ingredient to this growth for both, the sourcing of raw materials and the exportation of finished goods, was Germany's merchant fleet. Two corporations dominated that market, HAPAG and North German Lloyd. From 1886 up to 1914 HAPAG grew from twenty-six ocean vessels to one-hundred-and-eighty with a gross tonnage of 1.5 million, about half of the total German merchant marine. In 1911, HAPAG liners carried 403,000 passengers and eight million tons of freight. In 1911, the North German Lloyd moved 514,000 passengers and 3.6 million tons of freight. By 1913, it had a fleet of 133 vessels with 821,000 registered tons. In short, together with forty-one smaller lines, the German merchant marine was second only to that of Great Britain at the outbreak of the Great War.
In the German Empire Albert Ballin was the civilian alter ego of Alfred von Tirpitz. Both men had realized their visions of a strong naval fleet for Germany. The pride of the second empire was split between the proud battle cruisers of the High Seas Fleet and the commercial liners, the largest of which, the “Vaterland,” Ballin had put into service in 1913. She not only represented the might of German engineering and ship construction, she was the largest ocean liner in the world, larger than the “Lusitania,” “Mauretania,” or “Titanic.” The “Vaterland” not only eclipsed the British liners in terms of size and power, but also in terms of design and luxury. While larger and wider, she approximately matched “Lusitania” and “Mauretania’s” speed. German ambassador to the United States, Count Johann von Bernstorff commented after traveling on the mighty ship in 1914, “Germans who live at home can hardly imagine with what love and what pride we foreign ambassadors and exiled Germans regarded the German shipping-lines.” To Count von Bernstorff and many others, the “Vaterland” was an ambassador in itself.
Von Tirpitz’ navy and Ballin’s merchant marine were linked together as the symbols of German ambitions for being a naval super power. However, these links were not just symbolic. The two organizations, HAPAG’s merchant marine and the German navy, cooperated all along, but when the war started, they virtually operated as one. Almost every officer of the merchant marine had served actively in the German navy or was listed a reserve officer. Most sailors on Ballin’s ocean liners were reservists. HAPAG’s second man in command was Director Arndt von Holtzendorff. His older brother, Henning von Holtzendorff, a commander of the High Seas Fleet between 1908 and 1913, had risen to the rank of Admiral. At the outbreak of the war, Emperor Wilhelm II called him up to become chief of staff of the navy. He was a fervent supporter of unrestricted submarine warfare in the war years. While Ballin and von Tirpitz both had the ear of the Kaiser and counseled him on naval strategy, the von Holtzendorff brothers represented but one of many other links between military and civilian authorities that reached deep into the German government.