From the ‘Lying Brothers’ to Lilienthal: ‘Der Traum vom Fliegen’ and the birth of German aviation in the 19th & 20th centuries

When the international news broke in 1903 that two American brothers – Wilbur and Orville Wright – had completed the first successful flight in a heavier-than-air bicanard aircraft, the overwhelming reaction in Germany was laughter. The ‘lying brothers’[1], as they were soon christened, initially garnered only a small number of German admirers.

Indeed, even Otto Lilienthal’s pioneering glider flights were not taken very seriously at first by his fellow Germans. [2] Within the same decade as the Wright brothers flight, however, the German public found itself gripped by the Zeppelin craze. In the next one, the Imperial German Army would be assisted by a dedicated Luftstreitkräfte (‘German Air Force’) in the First World War. Eventually, between 1935 and 1945, the Third Reich proudly wielded one of history’s most iconic air forces – the Luftwaffe – to devastating, but ultimately ill-fated effect.
The latter two subjects have commanded the most attention to date in both English- and German-language historiography, yet this scholarly fixation has often come to the detriment of understanding how Germany’s long-standing Traum vom Fliegen (‘Dream of Flying’) was able to materialise in the first place. Before the awe-inspiring construction of powered airships gripped Germans at the turn of the twentieth century, it was ballooning that first signalled a physical manifestation of this ‘Dream of Flying’. Observational balloon units were first adopted in Germany during the 1880s and 1890s after the Prussians recorded France’s use of observation balloons during the Franco-Prussian War (1870-71).
However, the Prussians had also witnessed the non-offensive use of balloons wielded to great effect by their French opponents. In the Siege of Paris between 19 September 1870 and 28 January 1871, the encircled French forces used balloons to evacuate 102 passengers and over eleven tons of mail (11176kg) – around two-and-a-half million letters – away from advancing Prussian troops and to the outside world. [3] Despite their haphazard nature and unpredictable trajectories, their successful evasive deployment in the siege, in Kate Turner’s words, ‘heralded a new era in terms of ballooning.’ [4] Once considered a cheap means of entertainment, this reinvention of their role in warfare strongly illustrated the multifaceted opportunities that ballooning presented in terms of military observation, communication and transportation.

Zeitschrift_luftschiffahrt (1).gif

Turner further notes that their use during the siege offered a ‘powerfully emotional symbol upon which [France] was able to pin its hopes’. [5] This effect of ballooning as a rallying cause for national unity was not lost upon the Prussians. In 1881, the Deutscher Verein zur Förderung der Luftschifffahrt (‘Society for the Promotion of Aeronautics’) was established in order to promote the German development of ballooning for both peaceable and military purposes. [6] This Society possessed an esteemed membership of glider testers that included Lilienthal himself, along with meteorologists and airship engineers. Later, the Deutscher Luftschiffer-Verband (DLV – ‘German Airship Association’) was founded in 1902.
This development reflected the increasing popularity of dirigible construction in Germany at the start of the twentieth century. Indeed, Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin had already succeeded in flying his early airship prototypes over the Bodensee as early as July 1900. Zeppelin’s behemothic dirigibles would become a fixture across the German countryside in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, commanding international attention with each aeronautical triumph. Unfortunately, public awareness of airships also rose with their intermittent crashes – particularly the tragic Deutschland airship disaster at Berlin Tempelhof on 12 June 1897, in which both the pilot, Friedrich Hermann Wölfert, and his mechanic Robert Knabe died. [7]
Nevertheless, ballooning continued to retain its appeal in the face of this early airship craze in Germany, although one German newspaper highlighted the snobbery which free balloon racer pilots often experienced compared to airship engineers and pilots in 1910:
There are people who, very wrongly, want to deny free balloon racing any technical and scientific value. But even they will have to admit, without further ado, that the fulfilling of the same tasks under the same conditions of action spurs each individual competitor to a higher development of his knowledge, ability and determination than he usually uses in a single journey. [8]
The article concludes that ‘all the large and small races in the free balloon have greatly increased the general interest in the airship’[9], and that this wider appeal had further contributed towards the ‘sympathetic participation of all sections of the population in the great and complicated problems of modern engine airships.’ [10]
This exponential interest in German aviation can be further seen in how the original DLV evolved into the Deutscher Luftfahrer-Verband (‘German Aviation Association’) in 1911, which possessed over 74,000 members across 74 separate associations a year later. [11] By September 1913, however, this number had swollen to 78,000 members within 88 different branches: demonstrating how, as Sabine Höhler pointed out, the DLV became one of the largest sporting associations in Germany and thus enjoyed a position of ‘considerable economic and scientific importance’[12] before the First World War. Among the wider German public, then, an obsession with aviation had begun to firmly take root.

Reflecting this trend, a widespread psychological study on ‘zeppelin enthusiasm’ was conducted in 1908 – not long after the Zeppelin LZ4 caught fire at Echterdingen in the August of that year. [13] Despite incident, Peter Fritzsche has documented how the study’s participants cited ‘awe at the immense size of the ship, satisfaction that the air had been conquered, and pride in Germany’s achievements’[14] as having drawn them to the airships. In addition to the aesthetic spectacle that the giant airships provided, some members of the German public were fortunate enough to experience the cutting-edge technology for themselves after the airships increasingly began to run a public service.
Airships were often packaged in Germany and abroad as the ultimate alternative to traditional cruise ships – complete with fine dining, sweeping vistas and luxurious interiors. One German newspaper reporter gave their own favourable review of these new airborne tours:
You cannot have a warm beefsteak or a well-done goose for the time being, but a cold plate can be served. The cabin is so firmly anchored by twelve steel wires […] that no noticeable vibrations are to be perceived. And everything is planned for comfort. We have not only a restaurant, but toilets too, and we sit comfortably on wicker chairs and look like we are in a salon or a luxury train. [15]

An English newspaper, The Daily Express, reported in June 1910 that the local hotels in Düsseldorf were ‘doing an excellent trade catering for those who are awaiting their turn to ascend’[16], with the LZ 7 Deutschland – which sadly crashed later in the month – proving so popular that the next twelve trips in Düsseldorf had already been fully booked.
Such was the keenness of the passengers that their premature assembling enabled the zeppelin to depart a quarter of an hour before schedule. [17] However, though increasingly affordable, airship trip bookings remained dominated by the wealthy and the ‘well-to-do’. [18] For most Germans, the main pleasure derived from the dirigibles came in the form of the community spirit that their presence evoked. Swarms of onlookers and well-wishers congregated to watch the great airships depart and arrive across the nation. In 1909, for instance, 100,000 people witnessed the arrival of the LZ 3 Zeppelin at Berlin’s Tempelhof Field, with an additional two million observers having watched its descent from the city’s rooftops. [19]

Mass German crowds of all ages and both sexes flocked to watch their countrymen’s valiant attempts to realise the Traum vom Fliegen in altitude, endurance and design on behalf of the Kaiser’s Germany: evoking strong feelings of national pride and technological wonder in the little human dots below. The nascent field of aviation in this period, as Felix Ingold has written, wedded ‘the idea of superhuman exaltation and omnipotence with the utopia of total liberation, cosmopolitan solidarity and universal peace.’ [20] Walter Meyerheim, a passenger on the Deutschland in June 1910, spoke with wonder at how the zeppelin had ‘passed over German’s great mining and manufacturing district around Dortmund’[21], providing an entirely new eagle’s eye view of German industry and achievement.

Thus, German aviation became – as Wolfgang Behringer and Constance Ott-Koptschalijski put it – ‘the epitome of the scientific-technical revolution, the new era par excellence’. [22] It represented an elite band of humanity, from glider test pilots to airship engineers, that actively made German aviation history as well as witnessed it. Before biplanes, triplanes, gliders and airliners became celebrated in the national psyche, it was the quainter balloons and airships that had ignited the German public’s early fascination with aviation. By the mid-1910s, der Traum vom Fliegen had truly gripped the nation that had once laughed at the ‘lying brothers’ and Lilienthal: demonstrating a tangible shift in the way that aviation was perceived in the country before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914.

Victoria Taylor, Aviation historian (Britain/Germany) Asst. Ed. @Balloons2Drones@NECAHpostgrade,PhD candidate @uniofhull&@sheffhallamuni




[1] AIR 1/626/17/33. ‘The Flying Ground at Johannisthal in Berlin’. Lecture by Count Zeppelin on German airships. The National Archives [TNA], Kew.

[2] Ibid.
[3] R. Bluffield, Over Empires and Oceans: Pioneers, Aviators and Adventurers – Forging the International Air Routes 1918-1939 (Ticehurst: Tattered Flag, 2014), 60
[4] K. Turner, ‘Balloons over Bismarck: The Interplay of Fact and Fiction in Representations of the Fabulous History of the Balloon during the Siege of Paris’ in N. Harkness, (ed.), Visions/revisions: Essays on Nineteenth-century French Culture (Bern: Peter Lang, 2003), 139 – 156.
[5] Ibid.
[6] H. Fabien, ‘Aeronautical Research Comes into Being During the Time of the Empire’, in E. Hirschel et. al, Aeronautical Research in Germany – from Lilienthal until Today (Berlin: Springer, 2004), 19 – 47.
[7] W. J. Boyne, The Influence of Air Power Upon History (Barnsley: Pen & Sword Aviation, 2005), 23.
[8] AIR 1/2478. ’German aviation: newspaper and periodical cuttings, 1908 – 1911.’ TNA, Kew. Original: „Es gibt Leute, die den Freiballon-Wettfahrten, sehr zu Unrecht, jeden technischen und wissenschaftlichen Wert absprechen möchten. Aber auch sie werden doch ohne weiteres zugeben müssen, dass die Lösung der gleichen Aufgaben unter gleichen Aktionsbedingungen jeden einzelnen Konkurrenten zu einer höheren Entfaltung seines Wissens und Könnens und seiner Entschlusskraft anspornt, als er sie gemeinhin bei einer einzelnen Fahrt anzuwenden pflegt.“
[9] Ibid. Original: ‚Es unterliegt auch weiter keinem Zweifel, dass alle die grossen und kleinen Wettfahrten im Freiballon das allgemeine Interesse für die Luftschifffahrt mächtig gefördert und dadurch den Boden wohl vorbereitet haben für die verständnisvolle Teilnahme aller Bevölkerungskreise an den grossen und komplizierten Problemen der modernen Motorluftschiffahrt.‘

[10] Ibid.

[11] S. Höhler, Luftfahrtforschung und Luftfahrtmythos: wissenschaftliche Ballonfahrt in Deutschland, 1880-1910 (Frankfurt; New York: Campus, 2001), 183.

[12] Ibid.

[13] P. Fritzsche, A Nation of Fliers. German Aviation and the Popular Imagination (Cambridge, Mass; London: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 22.

[14] Ibid.

[15] AIR 1/2478. ‚German aviation: newspaper and periodical cuttings, 1908 – 1911.’ Original: „Man kann dort vorläufig zwar nicht ein warmes Beefsteak oder eine gut gebratene Gans haben, aber eine kalte Platte lässt sich servieren. Die Kabine ist durch zwölf Stahldrähte so fest verankert […] dass keine merkbaren Erschütterungen zu besorgen sind. Und für den Komfort ist alles vorgesehen. Wir haben nicht nur Restaurationsbetrieb, sondern auch Toilette, und wir sitzen bequem auf Korbstühlen und schauen wie im Salon oder im Luxuszug.“

[16] Ibid. ‘100-Mile Flight by Cloud Train. Aerial Express Loaded with Passengers.’ The Daily Express. Düsseldorf, Friday 24th June 1910.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] A. Whitehouse, The Zeppelin Fighters (New York: Ace Books, 1966), 33.

[20] F. Ingold, Literatur und Aviatik. Europäische Flugdichtung 1909 – 1927 (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 1980), 14.

[21] AIR 1/2478. ‘Zeppelin Air Liner, A Regular Service. From Our Own Correspondent in Berlin’. The Daily Express, Thursday 30 June 1910.

[22] W. Behringer & C. Ott-Koptschalijski, Der Traum vom Fliegen: Zwischen Mythos und Technik (Frankfurt a. M.: S. Fischer, 1991), 413.



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