Why Hitler and other Nazis thought the world was really made of ice

Hitler and other Nazis were fond of a strange theory that the world was made of ice.

Why Hitler and other Nazis thought the world was really made of ice
A picture dated 1938 shows German nazi Chancellor Adolf Hitler looking at the Obersalzberg Mountains from a balcony of his Berghof residence near Berchtesgaden. AFP PHOTO FRANCE PRESSE VOIR (Photo credit: AFP/Getty Images)

Nazis came to believe a lot of strange and horrific ideas as they built up their Third Reich and attacked the world. One of the weirdest was the theory about the creation of the universe that Hitler and other top Nazis promoted called the World Ice Theory (Welteislehre” aka just WEL) or Glacial Cosmology (“Glazial-Kosmogonie”).

This obviously discredited concept was developed by the Austrian engineer and inventor Hanns Hörbiger. In a 1912 book, he essentially claimed that ice is the basic element in all cosmic events. In fact, ice moons, ice planets and also “global ether” (made of ice) controlled the development of the universe, according to Hörbiger.

How did the Austrian arrive at such conclusions? Not through research but by having a “vision”. One day in 1894, Hörbiger was looking at the moon and suddenly hypothesized that it was made of ice. What else could account for its brightness and round shape? Later he had a dream where he was floating in space while staring at a swinging pendulum which grew longer until it broke off. "I knew that Newton had been wrong and that the sun's gravitational pull ceases to exist at three times the distance of Neptune," wrote the inventor.

After he met the amateur astronomer and schoolteacher Philipp Fauth, who was known for creating a large lunar map, the two collaborated on explaining the ice theory in the book Glazial-Kosmogonie, published in 1912.

Hanns Hörbiger. Date unknown.

The gist of their idea was that the solar system was born of a gigantic star into which had crashed another star, which was dead, but filled with water. The resulting explosion threw the smaller star’s bits all over interstellar space, where water condensation froze them into enormous blocks of ice. A ring of such blocks created what we know as the Milky Way as well as a host of other solar systems. The large outer planets of our system are that size because they swallowed a large number of ice blocks, says the theory. The inner planets like Earth haven’t consumed as much ice but get pummeled by ice in the form of meteors. 



The theory also says that our current moon is not the first one we’ve had. In fact, several other ones (made of ice, of course) were destroyed by crashing into Earth. Offshoot ideas by Hörbiger’s followers actually linked the flood described in the Bible and Atlantis’s supposed existence and destruction to the fall of prior moons.

When someone criticized his ideas, for example stating that they don’t make sense mathematically, Hörbiger responded with such statements as "Calculation can only lead you astray." If any visual evidence was presented against his theory, the Austrian engineer dismissed such pictures, saying they were faked by “reactionary” astronomers. You know, fake news. 

In a telling answer to the rocket expert Willy Ley, Hörbiger proposed that "Either you believe in me and learn, or you will be treated as the enemy,“ according to Martin Gardner’s 1957 book Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science 

While the ideas didn’t find immediate acceptance, Hörbiger’s efforts after World War I to publicize their theory eventually paid off. He created a whole movement, promoting the ice world vision through societies, public lectures, movies, radio program, magazines, and novels. 



One of the reasons for the eventual spread of his ideas is that Hörbiger positioned them in opposition to mainstream science. In the German society of the time, iconoclastic ideas were bound to find willing ears. One of the early supporters of the WEL theory was Houston Stewart Chamberlain, who was a leading theorist of the developing National Socialist Party (the Nazi Party). 

After Hörbiger’s death in 1931, his followers decided to line up their views even more with National Socialism. The Ice World Theory became the "German antithesis" to the “Jewish” physics and, specifically, to the theory of relativity, developed by Albert Einstein. Supporters of the theory were known to say such things as: "Our Nordic ancestors grew strong in ice and snow; belief in the Cosmic Ice is consequently the natural heritage of Nordic Man." 

Banksy's "The Banality of the Banality of Evil". 2013.

Interestingly, they also saw the fact that these ideas were coming from unprofessional "scientists" as a vindication of amateurism. In fact, the Führer himself was also an amateur who was going to save their race and change the world, according to this line of thinking.

 "Just as it needed a child of Austrian culture – Hitler! – to put the Jewish politicians in their place, so it needed an Austrian to cleanse the world of Jewish science,” supporters were quoted to say. “The Führer, by his very life, has proved how much a so-called 'amateur' can be superior to self-styled professionals; it needed another 'amateur' to give us a complete understanding of the Universe." 

Indeed, along with Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful Nazis (in charge of the SS) who took a liking to the ice world thinking, Adolf Hitler himself became a big proponent of WEL. In fact, Hitler planned to build a planetarium in Linz where a whole floor would be dedicated to Hörbiger's theory. He is also known to have suggested that the World Ice Theory could one day replace Christianity. 

Himmler And Hitler circa 1938: German dictator Adolf Hitler and his chief of police Heinrich Himmler inspecting the SS Guard. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

With such powerful backing, Hörbiger's ideas spread widely throughout Nazi Germany, with the German Hörbiger Organization enlisting thousands of members.  

After World War 2, the theory understandably waned in its influence. It experienced small resurgences occasionally as if to remind us that personal belief is generally not science and if you build a whole philosophy just because you don’t like the people who came up with much better (and provable ideas), you are bound to end up in the dustbin of history.


Iron Age discoveries uncovered outside London, including a ‘murder’ victim

A man's skeleton, found facedown with his hands bound, was unearthed near an ancient ceremonial circle during a high speed rail excavation project.

Photo Credit: HS2
Culture & Religion
  • A skeleton representing a man who was tossed face down into a ditch nearly 2,500 years ago with his hands bound in front of his hips was dug up during an excavation outside of London.
  • The discovery was made during a high speed rail project that has been a bonanza for archaeology, as the area is home to more than 60 ancient sites along the planned route.
  • An ornate grave of a high status individual from the Roman period and an ancient ceremonial circle were also discovered during the excavations.
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Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.


"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.


There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

Why the U.S. and Belgium are culture buddies

The Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural map replaces geographic accuracy with closeness in terms of values.

According to the latest version of the Inglehart-Welzel World Cultural Map, Belgium and the United States are now each other's closest neighbors in terms of cultural values.

Credit: World Values Survey, public domain.
Strange Maps
  • This map replaces geography with another type of closeness: cultural values.
  • Although the groups it depicts have familiar names, their shapes are not.
  • The map makes for strange bedfellows: Brazil next to South Africa and Belgium neighboring the U.S.
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