BALTIMORE (WJZ) — A story that put Baltimore in the middle of an international scandal is once again being told by the Maryland Historical Society.
A hundred years ago, our president vowed to keep the United States out of World War I. The Allies blockaded German ships on both sides of the Atlantic. Soon, Germany was in trouble.
Meantime, on Charles Street, in a building that still exists, the offices of a German shipping line and businessman Paul Hilken were about to make millions — thanks to a German submarine.
Because of the blockade, the submarine was built by that shipping company to carry cargo. It did not have guns or torpedoes.
“They needed to avoid the British blockade,” said chief curator Alexandra Deutsch. “It had to dive. It had to go under.”
What was so important to take such risk? Synthetic dyes for clothing. The world’s only supply was in Germany.
Enter Paul Hilken. He cut a deal to get the sub to come to Baltimore.
“They, in fact, couldn’t be stopped. The Deutschland is the first vessel to evade the British blockade,” said Deutsch.
In its hold — tons of synthetic dye.
“[Hilken] then establishes an American monopoly,” Deutsch said.
He jacked the price and pocketed $132 million in today’s money.
While the Allies were furious, with 90,000 Germans and a German newspaper in Baltimore, the sub was celebrated. Its captain and crew were taken to the best restaurants — like the one in the Belvedere Hotel.
The Deutschland sailed back home, filled with the nickel and rubber crucial to keep the war going.
That 100-year-old Baltimore connection is now on display in downtown Baltimore at the Maryland Historical Society.
“The depth of our collection and the range of the stories we tell is so broad that we can still surprise people,” Deutsch said.
Within seven months of that visit, America joined World War I.
Hilken left for Connecticut, and was later accused of plotting German sabotage on the East Coast.