This post was written by Dr Eleanor Peers, Arctic Information Specialist at the Scott Polar Research Institute Library, University of Cambridge for History Day 2020. Thanks to Naomi Boneham, Archivist at SPRI, for help with photographs.
The little-known Breitfuss collection at the Scott Polar Research Institute reveals the fervent dreams of Arctic exploration in the early twentieth century. It documents the extraordinary energy, ingenuity and imagination with which academics and entrepreneurs sought to probe the Arctic and harness its resources, as part of the modern era’s broader aim to create new worlds of human prosperity through technological development. In doing so, it demonstrates the overwhelming allure of the modernist vision, in addition to its fragility. Much of what we now regard as inevitable in fact emerged through chance concatenations of people, events and politics – like the ubiquity of aeroplanes in air transport. The Breitfuss collection helps us to see the dominance of humans over the natural world as a historically situated narrative rather than a given, enabling us to consider different and more harmonious ways for humans to inhabit the earth.
The Russian-German marine biologist and polar explorer Leonid Breitfuss (1864 – 1950) amassed a comprehensive literature on international polar exploration, now held at the University of Cambridge’s Scott Polar Research Institute (SPRI) Library. His life and work are representative of his time. He was deeply committed to polar exploration, and yet had to navigate between two increasingly dangerous political regimes – Soviet Russia, and Nazi Germany. His status as a highly educated Russian-German offered opportunities – he could mediate between different national academic establishments – but also threats, as war and regime change could render his hybrid background a liability in both Russia and Germany. In 1946 the British naval officer James Carruthers in collaboration with SPRI extracted the octogenarian Professor and his collection from a small town in Bavaria, securing him a position at the German Hydrographic Institute in Hamburg. SPRI bought the collection from Breiftuss’ brother in 1951.
In happier times, Breitfuss was a member of the ‘International Association for Exploring the Arctic by Means of Airships’, or AEROARCTIC, which was set up by the Norwegian polar explorer Fridtjof Nansen in 1926. As a number of books, papers and pamphlets from the Breitfuss collection shows, academics, policy makers and entrepreneurs across Europe were becoming increasingly excited about the possibilities for transportation and exploration offered by airships. One example is the report on the organization of trans-Siberian airship travel written in 1927, which contains detailed plans of routes, timetables, and the meteorological conditions necessary for flight. The authors point out a number of advantages to using airships rather than aeroplanes. Airships use considerably less energy, for instance, because they do not require a working machine to keep them in the air; they are easier to manoeuvre, since they can move vertically as well as horizontally. In the minds of these authors the mass air transportation of the future could just as easily have relied on airships as aeroplanes.
The possibility of travelling to the North Pole by air balloon was first mooted as early as 1845, in France.* The Swedish explorer Salomon Andrée and two others were the first successfully to launch a hydrogen balloon on an Arctic expedition in 1897. Their intention was to communicate with those they left behind using carrier pigeons. Tragically, they were never seen again. Nonetheless further attempts were made over the first decades of the twentieth century, by people seeking either scientific discovery or renown – or both.
By the end of the 1920s it seemed that airships were indeed enabling man to conquer the Arctic. In 1926 the leading polar explorer Roald Amundsen joined the Italian Umberto Nobile in the first flight across the North Pole, in an Italian airship called the Norge. Nobile’s second expedition to the Arctic in the airship Italia in 1928 ended badly, however. The Italia reached the North Pole, but crashed on the ice a couple of days later. The surviving crewmembers were eventually rescued by a Russian icebreaker, having spent 49 days on the ice. Nothing daunted, the AEROARCTIC commission approached the German Zeppelin airship captain Hugo Eckener about a flight to the Russian Arctic in 1928. This flight took place in 1931 and was a resounding success, enabling its international crew of scientists to take innumerable photographs and measurements of the region they surveyed. It seemed that airships really were the future of Arctic exploration – as Eckener exclaimed in his memoirs, “Even the steel-armoured and fully provisioned icebreaker down below on the “Quiet Sound” was a miserable instrument compared to our airship!” (Eckener 1958, 131).
Eckener found the experience of flying over the Arctic so astounding that he was later to remark, “‘Whoever has not seen a Polar landscape like Franz Josef Land, with its gleaming and transparent glaciers, in fairy-like delicate tones, and the endless symphony of colour of its ice-masses … has not known anything of the most beautiful thing which this earth has to offer to our eyes and our souls.’’’ (Eckener 1958, 129). His memoirs evoke the tremendous excitement of discovering new possibilities for mankind – an excitement that paralleled the tragedy and hardship of polar exploration, with its many fatalities. Back home the huge audiences generated by mass communication were also fascinated by both the excitement of discovery, and the horror of its human cost. Indeed, public donations were a key source of funding for polar exploration: Eckener’s Zeppelin expedition was funded in large part by selling commemorative postage stamps, for mail that would be exchanged in the Arctic between the Zeppelin and a Russian icebreaker. Polar exploration was fuelled by the public imagination.
If the dreams and desires of a mass public were instrumental to polar exploration, then so also were successive political establishments, as they negotiated the ebb and flow of public opinion. Both the Mussolini and Nazi governments hoped that airship expeditions would boost their international prestige; it was not long before the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was ordering Eckener to launch Zeppelin flights against his better judgement. International relations were part of the haphazard chain of events that led to the collapse of airship manufacture, after the crash of the Hindenburg airship over New Jersey in 1937. This disaster became one of the first global media events – and pictures of the explosion in the sky combined with the increasing notoriety of Nazi Germany stopped airship development in its tracks.
The world we take for granted now could have been very different. We could be taking airship tours of the Arctic for our holidays for example, as Eckener envisioned, instead of flying on aeroplanes to sun-kissed beach resorts. Conversely none of the polar explorers we encounter through the Breitfuss collection could ever have imagined the world we live in now, despite their determination and technological expertise – just as in 2019 we could never have foreseen the complexity of the Coronavirus pandemic and its impact. The Breitfuss collection reveals the power of human dreams, and of human frailty – as it guides us into a better understanding of ourselves in relation to the worlds we inhabit.
The Breitfuss collection is one of many collections on polar exploration at the SPRI library and archives. The library has been collecting material on the polar regions since the 1920s, in a variety of languages. Information about the library can be found here https://www.spri.cam.ac.uk/library, and the library team can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eckener, Hugo. 1958. My Zeppelins. Translated from the German by Douglas Robinson. London: Putnam.
*This sentence was corrected from ‘In 1876 the American John Cheyne first mooted the possibility of travelling to the North Pole in an air balloon’, with thanks to Michael Suever for the correction.