Adolf Hitler used the concept of Lebensraum (“living space”) to justify the invasion of Poland, Russia and other eastern European nations to his people. But one small chapter in Hitler’s drive for new land is often overlooked: how the Third Reich’s hunger for margarine led to a secret expedition to Antarctica 80 years ago.

The tale begins in the summer of 1936. Hitler had completed a four-year plan to boost the German military and the domestic economy to be ready for war by 1940. He put Hermann Göring in charge, and then he developed a “German Fat Plan” to enable Germany to improve the efficiency of its domestic consumption of butter, milk, cream, lard, cheese, bacon, margarine, salad oils, detergents, candles, linoleum and paints. The idea was to find substitutes for these oil- and fat-based products in case imported sources were cut off. At the time, whale oil was one of the main ingredients for margarine, and Germans ate a lot of margarine.

“To prepare for war, they needed whale oil,” says Cornelia Lüdecke, professor of the history of science at Hamburg University and co-author of the 2012 book The Third Reich in Antarctica: The German Antarctic Expedition 1938-39 with Colin Summerhayes. “They had to buy whale oil from Norway before and they didn’t want to spend the currency on Norway. They wanted to produce whale oil by themselves.”

So Germany began building factory whaling ships to ply the Southern Ocean. At the time, commercial whaling had been decimated in the North Atlantic and North Pacific. German whaling ships were operating far from home, so the idea of establishing an Antarctic base seemed like a good idea. In August 1936, the German Foreign Office found some unclaimed territory in Antarctica between Norwegian and British zones and an expedition to explore and claim the region between 20 degrees east and 10 degrees west—part of an area known as Queen Maud Land—took shape.

The expedition was organized in the summer of 1938, led by Capt. Alfred Ritscher, a decorated World War I naval commander who had married a prominent Jewish artist. He selected his crew for the secretive mission based on polar experience rather than membership in the Nazi party.

The Schwabenland, the ship of the 1938 German Antarctic expedition. (Credit: Institute of Regional Geography, Leipzig, Ritscher)

After three months of repairs to turn the Schwabenland into an icebreaker, the captain sailed from Hamburg on December 17, 1938, with a crew of 82 scientists, officers and enlisted men, as well as two Dornier flying boats perched on catapults.  

There was one Nazi official on board, as required by the regime. He stipulated that everyone listen to radio broadcasts of Hitler’s speeches around Christmastime,” Lüedecke explains. “Everyone had to sit in the room and listen. There was one speech where there was some atmospheric disturbances, so they had to switch off the radio.”

The ship reached the Antarctic coastline a month later, and began aerial reconnaissance using the flying boats. The mountainous region had never been explored and the German scientists named it “Neu-Schwabenland” after the ship. These flights had two purposes, to photograph the area for scientific research and cartography, and also to claim it for Nazi Germany.

But things didn’t always work out as planned. On one air flight, the crew was running low on fuel and was forced to throw out extra gear to lighten the aircraft weight. That included boxes of the tiny metal swastikas, which were supposed to be dropped across that part of Antarctica to cement the Nazi territorial claim. Those little swastikas were never recovered.

New Swabia
A map of Antarctica highlighting the Nazi-claimed area, New Swabia. (Credit: Ritscher, A, Hrsg. in Auftrag der Deutschen Forschungsgemeinschaft)

Still, these photographic surveys covered a huge part of Antarctica and increased the size of the known area by 16 percent, according to Lüdecke’s historical research. The surveys covered more territory than the German homeland at the time. The Schwabenland expedition didn’t last long, they completed their work and began the long trip home on February 5, 1939.

On the way home, the ship conducted scans of the seafloor along the Atlantic Ocean. The ship’s scientists detected seismic activity that they believed was a line of volcanoes running north to south along the middle of the Atlantic. Decades later, this line of volcanoes was found to be the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, a region where two of the Earth’s tectonic plates are pulling apart and forming new sections of the seafloor.

Much of the expedition’s science was either lost during the war, or kept under wraps until it was finally published in 1958.

Although tales of secret Nazi bases or lost Antarctic colonies still populate the internet and make good TV fodder, there’s no evidence that Hitler had any further interest in the frozen continent after this expedition returned. Co-author Summerhayes wrote a 2007 journal article spelling out how people have been confusing other military activity after World War II in the region with the earlier Nazi-commissioned expedition. Germany would not set up its first permanent station in Antarctica until 1981.

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