- The Washington Times - Monday, September 8, 2008

HAMBURG, Germany

For Peter Tamm, the passion that launched a thousand ships - and Hamburg’s newest museum along the port city’s old docks - began with a gift from his mother in 1934.

“A 500-gross tonnage coaster from the North Sea-Baltic line,” Mr. Tamm said, rattling off specs of that first vessel in his possession.

Of course, 500 gross tons was a little too big for a 6-year-old. What Mr. Tamm’s mother gave him was an inch-long model of the cargo ship.

“Then came the second, then came the third, until I lost count,” he said.

Today, Mr. Tamm has 36,000. Each and every one built to the same 1:1,250 scale - and that’s not all.

He also has amassed thousands of photographs of ships and their crews, a flotilla of larger models and a maritime library of more than 100,000 volumes ranging from knot manuals to rare 17th-century ship blueprints.

Now, the objects of Mr. Tamm’s lifelong obsession have a new home.

In June, the cigar-puffing, 80-year-old millionaire opened the International Maritime Museum in a warehouse near Hamburg harbor that was renovated with city funds.

Hamburg, where Mr. Tamm has lived his entire life, is a fitting home for the museum. The city is Germany’s biggest port and one of Europe’s busiest.

“Without a harbor, Hamburg wouldn’t be here at all,” Mr. Tamm said.

Mr. Tamm’s father served aboard a German submarine cruising the Mediterranean in World War I. During World War II, Mr. Tamm was a high school student in Hamburg - a center for building German warships - and witnessed some of the war’s worst destruction.

In July 1943, Allied bombs leveled much of the city and stirred up a fire that raged to nearly 1,500 degrees Fahrenheit. About 40,000 civilians were killed in a week.

“Half of my classmates died in the bombing,” Mr. Tamm told the Associated Press. “I was lucky enough to survive. My entire life has been a coincidence.”

For three years after the war, Mr. Tamm and his family struggled just to find enough food to survive.

“That was the worst time,” he said.

But he didn’t stop collecting. He traded German chocolate for model battleships with the Allied soldiers stationed in his city.

He stayed in Hamburg and earned a fortune, but not in the shipping trade that made the city rich. To pay his college tuition, Mr. Tamm wrote feature stories about tankers and cargo ships arriving from exotic ports and sold them to the newspaper Hamburger Abendblatt. The paper hired himfull time, and he started a climb to become a captain of the German media industry.

Mr. Tamm spent more than two decades as chief executive of Axel Springer AG, one of Europe’s largest publishers with about 170 newspapers and magazines in 33 countries. That gave him the wherewithal to indulge his hobby, one carved ivory model, one faded ship’s log at a time.

The death of Axel Springer’s founder and namesake in 1985 involved Mr. Tamm in a lengthy power struggle that eventually led him to retire from the company in 1991. Retirement gave him more time to spend at auctions and estate sales and to found a ship and marine history institute.

At the new maritime museum, his collection fills nine floors - called decks in Mr. Tamm’s ship-obsessed universe - and traces the history of humanity’s adventures at sea.

The journey starts with a blackened dugout log - a primitive boat, perhaps 3,000 years old, excavated near the riverside village of Geesthacht in northern Germany.

An interactive display invites visitors to try navigating with a sextant, an instrument that helps calculate a ship’s position by measuring the angle between a known celestial object and the horizon. The next room is full of the maps made by early explorers, often showing the continents they discovered in comical disproportion.

Mr. Tamm collected dozens of sailor’s uniforms, and many are on display in floor-length glass cases next to scabbards and the gold-colored epaulets that would denote a seaman’s rank.

The most comprehensive set of outfits comes from the British Navy - Mr. Tamm speaks of the British with awe-struck admiration for their maritime accomplishments - but a case of hats also holds fezzes worn by Muslim sailors in the Austro-Hungarian navy and white caps from seamen in Thailand.

Another room holds some of Mr. Tamm’s 15,000 ship’s menus, dating back to the 1890s. Among them are examples of what was being served aboard the Queen Mary, retired in 1967, and the Lusitania, the British liner sunk by a German submarine in 1915 that helped create the climate for the U.S. to enter World War I because many American passengers were among the more than 1,100 lost at sea.

The museum is equal parts education center and showroom. A model cutter made of solid gold guards the entrance to a room full of sailing ships carved from ivory. Another 20 models are made entirely from pig’s bones. They were carved in the 18th century by bored ship’s prisoners using the bones they picked out of their salted pork rations.

During an interview at his sprawling museum office decorated with large oil paintings of Russian and German sail ships, Mr. Tamm shuffled over to his desk to stamp out a cigar and retrieve that first model coaster ship. As he held the tiny model and looked out the window at a forest of cranes in Hamburg’s redeveloping harbor, he said he hoped the museum would inspire a new generation to love the sea.

“I hope children will wander through the museum and be fascinated by the ships,” Mr. Tamm said. “After all these years, I know the joy of finding a passion and following it. Age has its advantages.”

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