German Exploration of the Polar World: A History, 1870-1940

German Exploration of the Polar World: A History, 1870-1940

German Exploration of the Polar World: A History, 1870-1940

German Exploration of the Polar World: A History, 1870-1940


German Exploration of the Polar World is the exciting story of the generations of German polar explorers who braved the perils of the Arctic and Antarctic for themselves and their country. Such intrepid adventurers as Wilhelm Filchner, Erich von Drygalski, and Alfred Wegener are not as well known today as Robert Falcon Scott, Roald Amundsen, Ernest Shackleton, Robert E. Peary, or Richard E. Byrd, but their bravery and the hardships they faced were equal to those of the more famous polar explorers.

In the half-century prior to World War II, the poles were the last blank spaces on the global map, and they exerted a tremendous pull on national imaginations. Under successive political regimes, the Germans threw themselves into the race for polar glory with an ardor that matched their better-known counterparts bearing English, American, and Norwegian flags. German polar explorers were driven, like their rivals, by a complex web of interlocking motivations. Personal fame, the romance of the unknown, and the advancement of science were important considerations, but public pressure, political and military concerns, and visions of immense, untapped wealth at the poles also spurred the explorers.

As historian David Thomas Murphy shows, Germany's repeated encounters with the polar world left an indelible impression upon the German public, government, and scientific community. Reports on the polar landscape, flora, and fauna enhanced Germany's appreciation of the global environment. Accounts of the indigenous peoples of the Arctic, accurate or fantastic, permanently shaped German notions of culture and civilization. The final, failed attempt by the Nazis to extend German political power to the earth's ends revealed the limits of any country's ability to reshape the globe politically or militarily.


The boldest voyagers, today and earlier, wagered active lives to solve this
question; but science still looks toward those regions of our globe, without
being able to lift the veil that hangs over them

Die zweite deutsche Nordpolar-Expedition, 1870

This study explores exploration itself. It tells a little-known story, that of German exploration in the polar world at a time when popular interest in the Poles was at its peak. As part of that story, this work considers what such exploration reveals about German society during these years. It is not, and does not intend to be, a detailed account of every one of the many German forays into polar regions in the years between 1870 and the Second World War. Instead, I have selected the most significant polar episodes representative of each of the four German political systems in the turbulent decades under consideration: the competitive, multistate Germany of the pre-Unification era, the aggressive and powerful Wilhelmine Reich, the pluralistic and internationalist “Weimar” democracy of the interwar period, and the Third Reich of Hitler and the Nazis. The pages that follow tell the story of these episodes, consider their political and scientific significance for German society, and place the polar world in the German popular imagination of the era.

German polar enthusiasts tried during these years to establish their country as a leading exploring nation. They failed, despite scientific successes and a number of fascinating and heroic adventures. Nonetheless, the story of the German polar endeavor is both engaging in its own right and historically valuable. The Poles were the last imperial frontier for Germans and other Westerners, and the drama of their opening shaped ideas about the environment, the public uses of science, and the character of nonEuropean cultures. And while the German public thrilled to tales of the valor and self-sacrifice of individual adventurers, in retrospect the story of German exploration reveals a subtler but more historically significant dynamic: the steadily expanding link between science and the state and the gradual absorption of scientific exploration in the political aims of the state.

No work of history is written alone, and this study is indebted to many scholars and institutions. These include the Deutscher Akademischer Austausch Dienst (DAAD), the Falls Faculty Development Fund of Anderson University, and colleagues Guillaume de Syon, Susan Solomon, John Me-

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