Society for the History of Discoveries

Murphy, David Thomas. German Exploration of the Polar World: a History, 1870-1940. London, Great Britain and Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2002. xiii, 273 p. ISBN 0803232055.

As tongues stick to cold surfaces, so the names have adhered: Ross Sea, Filchner Ice Shelf, Cape Evans, Nansen Sound, Franklin Strait, Peary Channel; the list goes on. But beware these names that have become attached to the polar regions for they have served to reduce the geographic discourse of those regions to the dimension of biography and this has hindered our fuller understanding of their constructed geography.

Those who thrill to stories of dogs being thrashed up the Beardmore Glacier or who relish tales of self-discovery by explorers hacking north from Thule will be disappointed by the recent book by David Thomas Murphy: German Exploration of the Polar World: a history 1870-1940. However, those who seek geopolitical explanations of why the polar regions have historically loomed so large in the national purpose of various countries will be richly rewarded by this study. This book is a necessary corrective to historical discussions that are notable for their own inner polarities, casting the exploration of the Arctic and Antarctic not only in excessively biographical terms but also in culturally privileged forms that stress British endeavors. 

The history of German association with the poles is necessarily short for the history of a united German territory is short, formed only in the 1860s. But this is long enough for a tradition of German involvement to be shaped, beginning, Murphy argues, with August Petermann’s belief in a navigable northern polar ocean. The six chapters of this book form a chronological sequence in detailing the German interest in the poles. Chapter 1 discusses the explorations of Petermann and also of Karl Koldewey whose 1868 expedition yielded the first scientific maps of Spitsbergen. Murphy believes Koldewey was “Germany’s greatest polar explorer of the nineteenth century.” The second German North Polar Expedition to eastern Greenland reconnoitered a hypothesized route to the pole and is the subject of Chapter 2. One of the two ships was under the command of Koldewey and the expeditions attained a farthest north of 77.1 degrees, a record that would hold until 1907. In Chapter 3, the genesis of German interest in the South polar region is examined and the German Antarctic Expedition of 1901-1903 described, a venture driven by burgeoning German confidence in its naval abilities and the desire for national prestige in science. Also described in Chapter 3 is the 1911-13 Antarctic Expedition of Wilhelm Filchner, a venture that was seen at the time as ending in national disgrace. An attempt at redemption would come in 1931 in the improbable form of an airborne expedition aboard the Graf Zeppelin. Chapter 4 describes this venture, a mixture of technological savvy and hubris, but one that attained remarkable 81.9 degrees north latitude and was an undoubted scientific success. The author usefully sets discussion of the Graf Zeppelin voyage in the broader context of technological innovation and its potential for a more painless relationship with polar exploration; in that, the venture is of a piece with the relationship we have today.

No further flowering of the German polar spirit would follow the Zeppelin venture. The death of Alfred Wegener in 1931 portended the end of scientific idealism, and end it did with the darkness of Nazi ascendancy. Before discussing, in Chapter 6, National Socialist aspirations, Murphy pauses to reflect, in Chapter 5, on the “German image of the polar world” and the recurring themes that informed the national encounter with that world, including the notion of purification through struggle against adversity, and the mystical potential of the poles.

Throughout his discussions, Murphy displays an enviable ability to vary his scales of scrutiny, ranging seamlessly from the minutiae of hull dimensions, propeller specifications and expedition provisioning, to the societal contexts of academic and commercial support for exploration. This makes for an exquisite blend. Consider, for example, the discussion of Nazi territorial expansion poleward and the voyage of the Swabenland (1938-39). On page 193 we are told that in the course of this expedition dart-bombs embossed with swastikas were dropped by specially equipped aircraft onto the Antarctic ice. They are embedded there still, presumably, enfolded into the very ice over which they signified dominion. In his preface, Murphy refers to the place of “the polar world in the German popular imagination of the era” and he comes closest to engaging with that topic in chapter 5. Although there is much more that could be said here about the imaginative construction of that world, particularly as an outcome of post-Romantic enthusiasms, it would take another book to do it justice, and the author’s decision to stress instead political, institutional and technological contexts is undoubtedly appropriate. There are some minor quibbles with the text, relating more to production than substance. The photographs, for example, have questionable relevance to the thrust of the discussion and less than excellent reproduction quality. That said, the two maps towards the front of the text showing dates and routes of expeditions are helpful companions.

In sum, German Exploration of the Polar World: a History, 1870-1940 is an attempt to examine polar exploration from a multi-dimensional perspective. In my opinion, it is only this perspective that can make clear the institutional and cultural and scientific fundamentals that have driven high-risk endeavors to the ends of the earth and it is regrettable that so few texts adopt this viewpoint. This book stands as an exemplar of how it should be done.

Roger Balm
Rutgers University

Society for the History of Discoveries home page

All Original Material, Translations and HTML Coding Copyright © The Society for the History of Discoveries 1999 - 2004. All rights reserved.