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Why the Nazis were obsessed with finding the lost city of Atlantis
The Nazis actively searched for Atlantis, seeing it as important to their mythology.
- The mythical city of Atlantis was first mentioned in Plato's writings.
- Top Nazis, including Heimlich Himmler, tried to find the city through expeditions.
- The island was key to Nazi thinking about the "Aryan race".
You might think Spielberg and Lucas just made up all the run-ins Indiana Jones kept having with the Nazis. But the truth is likely stranger than fiction - the Nazis were not only obsessed with the mystical and the undiscovered, they staked a large part of their strategy to winning World War 2 on it. And that may be ultimately why they lost.
While beliefs in fringe sciences, pagan religions and the occult spread like wildfire throughout Germany in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the myth of Atlantis had a truly profound impact that was weaved into the emerging Nazi philosophy.
Historically, Atlantis first came to prominence as an island mentioned within an allegory in Plato's dialogues Timaeus and Critias, written about 330 B.C. In these stories, Atlantis is regarded as an enemy force that came to attack the Athenian nation-state. Athens repelled the attack, according to Plato, with island of Atlantis eventually losing support of the Gods and sinking into the ocean. While Plato didn't really say all that much more about Atlantis, he pointed to the supposed location of the island as somewhere "beyond the Pillars of Hercules" (a.k.a. the Straits of Gibraltar). Still, this wasn't much to go on and there's not been strong other evidence to corroborate the existence of Atlantis as more than a fictional creation.
In Nazi lore, however, the legends of Atlantis got mixed with Aryan myths, leading to a resurgence of the concept.
Athanasius Kircher's map of Atlantis, locating it in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, from Mundus Subterraneus 1669, published in Amsterdam. South is on the top in the map's orientation.
Eric Kurlander, the professor of history at Stetson University, traced the strange movements in Germany of about a hundred years ago in his book "Hitler's Monsters: A Supernatural History of the Third Reich". He contends that one of the most influential beliefs was Ariosophy, championed by Jörg Lanz von Liebenfels. This esoteric doctrine "prophesied the resurgence of a lost Aryan civilization peopled by Nordic 'God Men.'"
Lanz told the myths of these "God Men" in a magazine called Ostara which he claims to have given in 1909 to none other than a young Adolf Hitler. In the issues, muscular Aryans defended barely-dressed blonde women from scary "ape-men", as wrote Michael Dirda in the Washington Post.
Were there actually such Aryans whose lineage can be traced to the Nazi ideals? The word "Aryan" generally designated people of Indo-European heritage but in racist Nazi thinking, the idea of the "Aryan race" has come to mean the supposed existence of a distinct and superior race of Germanic people – a proposition not supported by facts. The only historical Aryans have been Indo-Iranian people who spread their languages throughout Eurasia from 4000 to 1000 BC.
Germans of early 20th century, however, were looking to root themselves in ancient traditions, pillaging whatever information they found appealing. Lanz's 1905 book "The Theozoology, or the Science of Sodom's Apelings and the God's Electrons" incorporated Hindu mythology – a common feature of German theosophical texts of the time which claimed that somewhere in India and Tibet were hidden societies of ancient Atlanteans or "secret masters".
This possible connection to India and Tibet was a particular obsession for Heimlich Himmler, the ruthless head of the SS and the Gestapo police. For the Aryan myth to be proven true, he figured, the actual location and history of the Aryans needed to be uncovered. Himmler spent a decade on a semi-mystical project that had an SS unit called the Ahnenerbe (Ancestral Heritage), which included archaeologists and scientists, searching the globe for the lost Aryans of Atlantis.
As the historian Sir Richard Evans of Cambridge University pointed out: "The Nazis saw world history in terms of a struggle between races and survival of the fittest. They thought all races were inferior to the Aryans. Himmler wanted to press forward with a new religion, including sun worship and old gods. He wanted the SS to become a kind of cult, or Aryan aristocracy."
In 1938, Himmler's interests (which also revolved around finding the Holy Grail of Christian mythology) resulted in sending an expedition team of Nazi scientists, led by the explorer and zoologist Ernst Schäfer, to the Himalayas. The location was chosen specifically thanks to the work of Herman Wirth, a contemporary scholar of ancient religions. Wirth conjectured that there is a reason for why similar-looking symbols can be found in different parts of the world. That reason is the race of people who lived in Atlantis in the Atlantic Ocean (likely between Portugal and Britain). The scholar proposed that survivors of sinking Atlantis fled to high places, vowing to avoid the sea that ruined their civilization initially. That's how the descendants supposedly ended up in Tibet.
During the Tibet expedition, Nazi scientists collected thousands of specimens while comparing locals to a list of facial features and concluded that they descended from the Aryans. "Hitler and his anthropologists thought that by measuring people's heads you could tell which race they were," explained Sir Richard.
Ernst Schäfer during his last expedition to Tibet. 1938.
Declaring that they found out what happened to Atlantis was a boost to the myth-fueled Nazi war machine. Becoming convinced that Tibetans were survivors of Atlantis also hardened Himmler's views on racial purity. He decided that the Aryan master race was by now much weaker due to intermixing and needed to be purified (via the ensuing Holocaust).
The mission to Tibet was not the only such endeavor by the Nazis. Similar efforts to find the Aryans were dispatched to Sweden, Scotland, France and Iceland.
One German archaeologist (and eventual SS commander) Edmund Kiss promoted the idea that Bolivia's famous historical site called Tiwanaku was actually Atlantis. He believed in the elaborate and outlandish World Ice Theory, which also had support of Adolf Hitler and other top Nazis. One of the theory's postulates was that Earth at some point collided with its moon, a cataclysm that led to the destruction of Atlantis and an ice age on the planet. Trying to survive their new glacier-filled reality, ancient Atlanteans were believed to have fled to the high Andes, where life could still survive. That's how they would have ended up in Bolivia.
Hypothetical reconstructions of Tiwanaku in Edmund Kiss's book Das gläserne Meer. 1930.
While Kiss's work found enthusiastic support in Germany, especially as he wrote statements proclaiming that "the works of art and the architectural style of the prehistoric city are certainly not of Indian origin." He added that rather they were "probably the creations of Nordic men who arrived in the Andean highlands as representatives of a special civilization."
Nazis publicized such "findings" about the Nordic city of Tiwanaku in Hitler youth publications and other party newspapers. Kiss's larger Himmler-sponsored expedition to Bolivia never materialized, however, due to the start of World War 2, as writes historian Matthew Gildner.
Check out this fascinating documentary on "The Nazi Quest for the Holy Grail" which includes the search for Atlantis here:
Some mysteries take generations to unfold.
- In 1959, a group of nine Russian hikers was killed in an overnight incident in the Ural Mountains.
- Conspiracies about their deaths have flourished ever since, including alien invasion, an irate Yeti, and angry tribesmen.
- Researchers have finally confirmed that their deaths were due to a slab avalanche caused by intense winds.
In February 1959, a group of nine hikers crossed through Russia's Ural Mountains as part of a skiing expedition. The experienced trekkers, all employed at the Ural Polytechnical Institute, were led by Igor Dyatlov. On the evening of February 1, all nine appear to have fled their tents into the Arctic temperatures, for which they were unprepared. None survived.
Six of the members died of hypothermia; three suffered from physical trauma. Some members were missing body parts—a tongue here, a few eyes there, a pair of eyebrows for good measure. According to reports, no hiker appears to have struggled or panicked. They were likely too quickly overtaken by the hostile environment in Western Russia.
All the members were young, mostly in their early twenties; one member, Semyon Zolotaryov, was 38. Good health didn't matter. Given the uncertain circumstances—what made them flee into the bitter cold?—the incident known as Dyatlov Pass has long been the type of Area 51-conspiracy theory that some people love to speculate about. A vicious animal attack? Infrasound-induced panic? Was the Soviet military involved? Maybe it was the katabatic winds that did them in. Local tribesmen might not have liked the intrusion.
Or perhaps it was aliens. Or a Yeti. Have we talked about Yeti aliens yet?
These theories and more have been floated for decades.
a: Last picture of the Dyatlov group taken before sunset, while making a cut in the slope to install the tent. b: Broken tent covered with snow as it was found during the search 26 days after the event.
Photographs courtesy of the Dyatlov Memorial Foundation.
Finally, a new study, published in the Nature journal Communications Earth & Environment, has put the case to rest: it was a slab avalanche.
This theory isn't exactly new either. Researchers have long been skeptical about the avalanche notion, however, due to the grade of the hill. Slab avalanches don't need a steep slope to get started. Crown or flank fractures can quickly release as little as a few centimeters of earth (or snow) sliding down a hill (or mountain).
As researchers Johan Gaume (Switzerland's WSL Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research SLF) and Alexander Puzrin (Switzerland's Institute for Geotechnical Engineering) write, it was "a combination of irregular topography, a cut made in the slope to install the tent and the subsequent deposition of snow induced by strong katabatic winds contributed after a suitable time to the slab release, which caused severe non-fatal injuries, in agreement with the autopsy results."
Conspiracy theories abound when evidence is lacking. Twenty-six days after the incident, a team showed up to investigate. They didn't find any obvious sounds of an avalanche; the slope angle was below 30 degrees, ruling out (to them) the possibility of a landslide. Plus, the head injuries suffered were not typical of avalanche victims. Inject doubt and crazy theories will flourish.
Configuration of the Dyatlov tent installed on a flat surface after making a cut in the slope below a small shoulder. Snow deposition above the tent is due to wind transport of snow (with deposition flux Q).
Photo courtesy of Communications Earth & Environment.
Add to this Russian leadership's longstanding battle with (or against) the truth. In 2015 the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation decided to reopen this case. Four years later the agency concluded it was indeed a snow avalanche—an assertion immediately challenged within the Russian Federation. The oppositional agency eventually agreed as well. The problem was neither really provided conclusive scientific evidence.
Gaume and Puzrin went to work. They provided four critical factors that confirmed the avalanche:
- The location of the tent under a shoulder in a locally steeper slope to protect them from the wind
- A buried weak snow layer parallel to the locally steeper terrain, which resulted in an upward-thinning snow slab
- The cut in the snow slab made by the group to install the tent
- Strong katabatic winds that led to progressive snow accumulation due to the local topography (shoulder above the tent) causing a delayed failure
Case closed? It appears so, though don't expect conspiracy theories to abate. Good research takes time—sometimes generations. We're constantly learning about our environment and then applying those lessons to the past. While we can't expect every skeptic to accept the findings, from the looks of this study, a 62-year-old case is now closed.
Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook. His most recent book is "Hero's Dose: The Case For Psychedelics in Ritual and Therapy."
New data have set the particle physics community abuzz.
- The first question ever asked in Western philosophy, "What's the world made of?" continues to inspire high energy physicists.
- New experimental results probing the magnetic properties of the muon, a heavier cousin of the electron, seem to indicate that new particles of nature may exist, potentially shedding light on the mystery of dark matter.
- The results are a celebration of the human spirit and our insatiable curiosity to understand the world and our place in it.
If brute force doesn't work, then look into the peculiarities of nothingness. This may sound like a Zen koan, but it's actually the strategy that particle physicists are using to find physics beyond the Standard Model, the current registry of all known particles and their interactions. Instead of the usual colliding experiments that smash particles against one another, exciting new results indicate that new vistas into exotic kinds of matter may be glimpsed by carefully measuring the properties of the quantum vacuum. There's a lot to unpack here, so let's go piecemeal.
It is fitting that the first question asked in Western philosophy concerned the material composition of the world. Writing around 350 BCE, Aristotle credited Thales of Miletus (circa 600 BCE) with the honor of being the first Western philosopher when he asked the question, "What is the world made of?" What modern high energy physicists do, albeit with very different methodology and equipment, is to follow along the same philosophical tradition of trying to answer this question, assuming that there are indivisible bricks of matter called elementary particles.
Deficits in the Standard Model
Jumping thousands of years of spectacular discoveries, we now have a very neat understanding of the material composition of the world at the subatomic level: a total of 12 particles and the Higgs boson. The 12 particles of matter are divided into two groups, six leptons and six quarks. The six quarks comprise all particles that interact via the strong nuclear force, like protons and neutrons. The leptons include the familiar electron and its two heavier cousins, the muon and the tau. The muon is the star of the new experiments.
For all its glory, the Standard Model described above is incomplete. The goal of fundamental physics is to answer the most questions with the least number of assumptions. As it stands, the values of the masses of all particles are parameters that we measure in the laboratory, related to how strongly they interact with the Higgs. We don't know why some interact much stronger than others (and, as a consequence, have larger masses), why there is a prevalence of matter over antimatter, or why the universe seems to be dominated by dark matter — a kind of matter we know nothing about, apart from the fact that it's not part of the recipe included in the Standard Model. We know dark matter has mass since its gravitational effects are felt in familiar matter, the matter that makes up galaxies and stars. But we don't know what it is.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned.
Physicists had hoped that the powerful Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland would shed light on the nature of dark matter, but nothing has come up there or in many direct searches, where detectors were mounted to collect dark matter that presumably would rain down from the skies and hit particles of ordinary matter.
Could muons fill in the gaps?
Enter the muons. The hope that these particles can help solve the shortcomings of the Standard Model has two parts to it. The first is that every particle, like a muon, that has an electric charge can be pictured simplistically as a spinning sphere. Spinning spheres and disks of charge create a magnetic field perpendicular to the direction of the spin. Picture the muon as a tiny spinning top. If it's rotating counterclockwise, its magnetic field would point vertically up. (Grab a glass of water with your right hand and turn it counterclockwise. Your thumb will be pointing up, the direction of the magnetic field.) The spinning muons will be placed into a doughnut-shaped tunnel and forced to go around and around. The tunnel will have its own magnetic field that will interact with the tiny magnetic field of the muons. As the muons circle the doughnut, they will wobble about, just like spinning-tops wobble on the ground due to their interaction with Earth's gravity. The amount of wobbling depends on the magnetic properties of the muon which, in turn, depend on what's going on with the muon in space.
Credit: Fabrice Coffrini / Getty Images
This is where the second idea comes in, the quantum vacuum. In physics, there is no empty space. The so-called vacuum is actually a bubbling soup of particles that appear and disappear in fractions of a second. Everything fluctuates, as encapsulated in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Energy fluctuates too, what we call zero-point energy. Since energy and mass are interconvertible (E=mc2, remember?), these tiny fluctuations of energy can be momentarily converted into particles that pop out and back into the busy nothingness of the quantum vacuum. Every particle of matter is cloaked with these particles emerging from vacuum fluctuations. Thus, a muon is not only a muon, but a muon dressed with these extra fleeting bits of stuff. That being the case, these extra particles affect a muon's magnetic field, and thus, its wobbling properties.
About 20 years ago, physicists at the Brookhaven National Laboratory detected anomalies in the muon's magnetic properties, larger than what theory predicted. This would mean that the quantum vacuum produces particles not accounted for by the Standard Model: new physics! Fast forward to 2017, and the experiment, at four times higher sensitivity, was repeated at the Fermi National Laboratory, where yours truly was a postdoctoral fellow a while back. The first results of the Muon g-2 experiment were unveiled on 7-April-2021 and not only confirmed the existence of a magnetic moment anomaly but greatly amplified it.
To most people, the official results, published recently, don't seem so exciting: a "tension between theory and experiment of 4.2 standard deviations." The gold standard for a new discovery in particle physics is a 5-sigma variation, or one part in 3.5 million. (That is, running the experiment 3.5 million times and only observing the anomaly once.) However, that's enough for plenty of excitement in the particle physics community, given the remarkable precision of the experimental measurements.
A time for excitement?
Now, results must be reanalyzed very carefully to make sure that (1) there are no hidden experimental errors; and (2) the theoretical calculations are not off. There will be a frenzy of calculations and papers in the coming months, all trying to make sense of the results, both on the experimental and theoretical fronts. And this is exactly how it should be. Science is a community-based effort, and the work of many compete with and complete each other.
Whatever happens, new science will be learned, even if less exciting than new particles. Or maybe, new particles have been there all along, blipping in and out of existence from the quantum vacuum, waiting to be pulled out of this busy nothingness by our tenacious efforts to find out what the world is made of.
- Benjamin Franklin wrote essays on a whole range of subjects, but one of his finest was on how to be a nice, likable person.
- Franklin lists a whole series of common errors people make while in the company of others, like over-talking or storytelling.
- His simple recipe for being good company is to be genuinely interested in others and to accept them for who they are.
Think of the nicest person you know. The person who would fit into any group configuration, who no one can dislike, or who makes a room warmer and happier just by being there.
What makes them this way? Why are they so amiable, likeable, or good-natured? What is it, you think, that makes a person good company?
There are really only two things that make someone likable.
This is the kind of advice that comes from one of history's most famously good-natured thinkers: Benjamin Franklin. His essay "On Conversation" is full of practical, surprisingly modern tips about how to be a nice person.
Franklin begins by arguing that there are really only two things that make someone likable. First, they have to be genuinely interested in what others say. Second, they have to be willing "to overlook or excuse Foibles." In other words, being good company means listening to people and ignoring their faults. Being witty, well-read, intelligent, or incredibly handsome can all make a good impression, but they're nothing without these two simple rules.
The sort of person nobody likes
From here, Franklin goes on to give a list of the common errors people tend to make while in company. These are the things people do that makes us dislike them. We might even find, with a sinking feeling in our stomach, that we do some of these ourselves.
1) Talking too much and becoming a "chaos of noise and nonsense." These people invariably talk about themselves, but even if "they speak beautifully," it's still ultimately more a soliloquy than a real conversation. Franklin mentions how funny it can be to see these kinds of people come together. They "neither hear nor care what the other says; but both talk on at any rate, and never fail to part highly disgusted with each other."
2) Asking too many questions. Interrogators are those people who have an "impertinent Inquisitiveness… of ten thousand questions," and it can feel like you're caught between a psychoanalyst and a lawyer. In itself, this might not be a bad thing, but Franklin notes it's usually just from a sense of nosiness and gossip. The questions are only designed to "discover secrets…and expose the mistakes of others."
3) Storytelling. You know those people who always have a scripted story they tell at every single gathering? Utterly painful. They'll either be entirely oblivious to how little others care for their story, or they'll be aware and carry on regardless. Franklin notes, "Old Folks are most subject to this Error," which we might think is perhaps harsh, or comically honest, depending on our age.
4) Debating. Some people are always itching for a fight or debate. The "Wrangling and Disputing" types inevitably make everyone else feel like they need to watch what they say. If you give even the lightest or most modest opinion on something, "you throw them into Rage and Passion." For them, the conversation is a boxing fight, and words are punches to be thrown.
5) Misjudging. Ribbing or mocking someone should be a careful business. We must never mock "Misfortunes, Defects, or Deformities of any kind", and should always be 100% sure we won't upset anyone. If there's any doubt about how a "joke" will be taken, don't say it. Offense is easily taken and hard to forget.
On practical philosophy
Franklin's essay is a trove of great advice, and this article only touches on the major themes. It really is worth your time to read it in its entirety. As you do, it's hard not to smile along or to think, "Yes! I've been in that situation." Though the world has changed dramatically in the 300 years since Franklin's essay, much is exactly the same. Basic etiquette doesn't change.
If there's only one thing to take away from Franklin's essay, it comes at the end, where he revises his simple recipe for being nice:
"Be ever ready to hear what others say… and do not censure others, nor expose their Failings, but kindly excuse or hide them"
So, all it takes to be good company is to listen and accept someone for who they are.
Philosophy doesn't always have to be about huge questions of truth, beauty, morality, art, or meaning. Sometimes it can teach us simply how to not be a jerk.
A recent study analyzed the skulls of early Homo species to learn more about the evolution of primate brains.