Sunday, 28 March 2010

Miguel Serrano's El Cordón Dorado, Hitlerismo Esotérico

Miguel Serrano and the Dalai Lama

El Cordón Dorado: Hitlerismo Esotérico
Miguel Serrano
(Bogota, Colombia: Editorial Solar, 2001)

As far as I am aware, this is the first published review in English of The Golden Thread: Esoteric Hitlerism, the first volume in Miguel Serrano’s Esoteric Hitlerist trilogy. Having recently reviewed Savitri Devi’s Defiance, it seems pertinent to examine the work of the other main proponent of Esoteric Hitlerism.
The esoteric syntheses of Serrano and Savitri Devi were developed independently of one another. Any parallels we encounter in our exoteric plane of existence are due to common sources of inspiration. The two writers corresponded briefly when they encountered each other’s work in the late 1970s; by then, however, their respective worldviews were already well-formed.
Miguel Serrano
Miguel Joaquín Diego del Carmen Serrano Fernández was a Chilean diplomat, explorer, and poet, and, in Spanish letters, a celebrated author of the Generation of 1938. Born in Santiago, Chile, he was first attracted to Marxism, but quickly grew disillusioned with Communism and became associated with the Movimiento Nacional Socialista de Chile (later known as Vanguardia Popular Socialista), headed by Jorge González von Marées.

In 1941—the year he discovered the Protocols of the Elders of Zion— he was introduced to an occult order by ‘F. K.’ a German immigrant to Chile; the order, to which he was initiated in 1942, claimed allegiance of a Brahmin elite based on the Himalayas, and blended kundalini and tantric yoga with the Nietzschean will to power, emphasising the subtle or astral body and regarding Adolf Hitler as an initiate and the saviour of the Aryan race, who had incarnated in the Kali Yuga, or Age of Chaos.

The order’s master, who claimed to maintain astral contact with Hitler during and after the war, claimed that the Führer was alive and had survived the Berlin bunker. In the midst of popular speculation about Hitler’s survival in secret Nazi bases in Antarctica (see below), in 1947 Serrano travelled to the continent as journalist; the experience left a lasting impression.

Serrano subsequently travelled to Europe, where he made friends with Hermann Hesse and Carl Gustav Jung, about whom he eventually wrote El círculo hermético, de Hesse a Jung (in English, C. G. Jung and Hermann Hesse: A Record of Two Friendships (1965)). Jung’s pre-war characterisation of Hitler as a semi-divine embodiment of the collective consciousness of the race also made a lasting impression.

From 1953 to 1970 Serrano held a series of ambassadorial posts, heading the Chilean diplomatic mission in India, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Austria. Dismissed from his post in 1970 by the Allende government, Serrano established himself in Switzerland, where he cultivated friendships with National Socialists, such as Léon Degrelle, Otto Skorzeny, Hans-Ulrich Rudel, Marc Augier (Saint-Loup), and Hanna Reitsch, as well as writers such as Julius Evola, Hermann Wirth, Wilhelm Landig, and Ezra Pound.

He subsequently returned to Chile, and from 1978 onwards wrote a series of books with occult and National Socialist themes, including El Cordón Dorado: Hitlerismo Esotérico (1978), NOS: El Libro de la Resurrección (1980), Adolf Hitler, el Último Avatãra (1984), Nacionalsocialismo, Unica Solución para los Países de América del Sur (1986), La Resurrección del Héroe: Año 97 de la era Hitleriana (1986), Manú: “Por el hombre que vendra” (1991), No Celebraremos la Muerte de los Dioses Blancos (1992), and Nuestro Honor se Llama Lealtad (1994), plus a book on cyberpolitics, a four-volume autobiography (1996-1999), and his final monograph, Se Acabó Chile (2001).

El Cordón Dorado is a singularly dense and arcane work that will challenge all but the most erudite of scholars. To appreciate it fully requires several careful readings, as well as being steeped in Ancient and Mediaeval history, Western and Eastern mythologies, Ariosophy, conspiratology, Jungian archetypes, Nietzschean philosophy, and National Socialism, including its survival after the war.

Although the book is not very long (227 pages), although it is divided into five themed parts, and although these are broken into short chapters (totaling 143), each chapter contains a relatively desultory discussion weaving many disparate strands, comprised of numerous obscure facts, incidents, anecdotes, speculations, myths, and occult insights, and taking the narrative through tortuous, labyrinthine paths that seldom end at the destinations suggested by the chapter headings.

Serrano, moreover, only very loosely stays within the ostensible themes governing each of the four parts: he discusses the Cathars, the Druids, the Knights Templar, and the Rosicrucians, but infuses into each part a dizzying constellation of historical and metaphysical references, legends, imaginations, and recollections.
Among these we find his discussion of Hitler’s mythical survival. Obviously, Serrano interpreted this in mystical, metaphysical terms: Hitler, having lost the exoteric war, was supposed to continue the war esoterically from Antarctica, in whose polar regions lay hidden the entrance to the Earth’s interior, which Serrano believed to be inhabited by a highly advanced civilisation of extraterrestrial origin and where he believed Hitler was presently, his youth restored.

Serrano also subscribed to the Nazi UFO conspiracy theory: towards the end of the war, the Nazis were said to have been working on highly advanced aircraft, including the famous flying discs (Haunebu I, II, and III); according to the theory, the Nazis continued their development from their underground base (Base 211) in New Berlin, New Swabia, the German Antarctic claim that lies in Queen Maud Land. Some ufologists claim this is what people saw during the UFO sightings of the 1950s. Serrano shared the ufologists’ belief that US Navy’s Operation Highjump (1946-47) was not launched for the purposes of mapping and training, as was officially claimed, but to destroy the Nazi base.

The various themes, however, are held together by a common thread —the golden thread—which is a worldview that is hierarchical, elitist, neo-pagan, Gnostic, ariosophical, neo-Romantic, Nietzschean, and, of course, National Socialist.

Serrano’s narrative is like a firmament of stars: slowly, as our knowledge accretes, we begin to glimpse galaxies, galactic clusters, and, finally, the cosmos. His method of argumentation does not follow the Anglo-Saxon linear model, where one thing leads to the next; nor the German model, which goes from general to specific; nor the East Asian, which goes from peripheral to central; but, rather, anti-entropic, whereby through his agency chaos resolves into organisation. From this perspective, we can see that in the downward rush of history, in the Kali-Yuga, in a cyclical universe governed by the laws of progressive degeneration, Serrano was perhaps also a man against time.

What do we learn in El Cordon Dorado?

It would be wrong to think of Serrano as a political ideologue: he had a well-defined Weltanschauung, and, yes, he had clearly-defined and radically anti-establishment political views; but he was not a writer of political tracts. Rather, his prose inhabits an indefinable literary space, somewhere between poetry, metahistory, metapolitics, metaphysics, religion, conspiracy theory, memoir, and philosophy; it is neither entirely factual nor entirely fictional: Serrano mediates between the outer world of matter and the inner world of spirituality, questioning rather than answering, searching rather than finding, and suggesting rather than asserting, but always affirming a core set of spiritual, elitist, traditionalist doctrines.

A rationalist-materialist would read this as an extended prose poem, as an elaborate work of fiction that draws from many antiquarian, pagan, and occult traditions to create a sense of the mystic and the fantastic; his counter-part would read this as a profound work of revelation and a life-affirming profession of faith. I can well imagine this, under the right circumstances, becoming a religious text in a distant, post-apocalyptic future; read, interpreted, and re-interpreted by mystics and monastic scholars. In the West today, however, Serrano is so far from currently accepted moral and philosophical suppositions, that only outsiders well versed in pre-modern and non-Western traditions will be able to read this and his other later writings with anything but incomprehension.

Of what there can be no doubt, is that Serrano is a highly accomplished literary artist and a man of vast erudition, able to produce sublime prose, rich with lyrical beauty and spiritual and cultural profundity.

Monday, 22 March 2010

Savitri Devi's Defiance: The Prison Memoirs of Savitri Devi

Defiance: The Prison Memoirs of Savitri Devi
Savitri Devi
Ed. R. G. Fowler
The Savitri Devi Archive, 2007

One feature of Mister (Iron Sky Publishing, 2009), that has stirred up a ferment of discussion and questions is the shadowy conspiracy of “Esoteric Hitlerists” that runs like a golden thread through the labyrinth of the plot.
Savitri Devi - Defiance
As much as I would like to take credit here for a brilliant stroke of imagination, this is a case of truth being stranger than fiction, for there really is something called “Esoteric Hitlerism,” and I am fairly sure that it already exists as a world-wide conspiracy— although, of course, nobody has let me in on the secret.
The two founders of Esoteric Hitlerism are the French-born Savitri Devi (1905–1982) and the Chilean Miguel Serrano (1917–2009).

A hundred and five years after Savitri Devi’s birth, we are gradually seeing her entire literary corpus brought back into print. This 2007 Centennial Edition of Defiance: The Prison Memoirs of Savitri Devi, published by the Savitri Devi Archive is the most recent contribution to this effort.

Defiance is Savitri Devi’s memoir of her arrest, trial, and imprisonment for distributing Nazi propaganda in occupied Germany during the early months of 1949. She was sentenced to three years and served six months before being deported to India. The story is told in a gripping first-person narrative, and it constitutes not only a fascinating historical document of Allied justice and prison life for Nazi women during the immediate post-war years but also provides a hugely engaging insight into Savitri Devi’s incandescent personality.

Born Maximiani Portas in Lyons, France in 1905 of an English mother and a father of mixed Greek and Italian ancestry, Savitri Devi was repelled by egalitarian, democratic, Christian, and humanistic doctrines from an early age, and enjoyed overtly mocking them in school, much to the shock of her tutors. She nevertheless impressed them with her penetrating mind and performed well academically, earning two masters degrees and a doctorate in philosophy, as well as learning eight languages. The realisation that she was a National Socialist took place in 1929, while on a pilgrimage to Palestine during Lent.

From 1935 to 1945 Savitri Devi lived in India, where she went in search of the pagan Aryan culture, and where her formal adherence to Hinduism led to the acquisition of her adopted name. Despite her ardent – and religious – belief in National Socialism, Savitri Devi never experienced Germany during the National Socialist era; her first opportunity to visit the country would not be until 1948, three years after Hitler’s empire had perished in the inferno of the Allied bombing. The lost opportunity proved a tremendous source of regret and disappointment, and resulted in a burning desire for expiation, for making up lost time. It is this that compelled Savitri Devi to make a passionate – and indeed “quixotic and futile”—profession of support for National Socialism, even though by then all had been long lost.

Savitri Devi made three visits to Germany between 1948 and 1949, funding the journeys and the printing of thousands of propaganda leaflets and posters with the sale her gold jewelry. We learn in Defiance that she began writing Gold in the Furnace: Experiences in Post-War Germany and her magnum opus, The Lightning and the Sun, during this period, mostly in cafés.

We also learn to what intense, fanatical, even foolhardy degree Savitri Devi identified with National Socialism: once arrested, and once convinced that a conviction was inevitable, she became inflamed with the truculent euphoria of a righteous martyr, from then on almost sadistically relishing every opportunity afforded by the legal process to make a dramatic show of her scorn for the values of the victors as well as of her uncrushable defiance in the face of their power.

As by this time Savitri was a British subject (having previously held Greek and French nationalities), she was the responsibility of the British authorities, and they treated her rather kindly, given the nature of her offence. Indeed, they show a great deal of baffled patience in the face of Savitri’s strident support for every National Socialist policy, even the most cruel.

Savitri is unimpressed and unmoved, however, and on the day of her trial, which she sees as the paroxysmal moment in which she is to show the world what she is and what she thinks of the democratic powers, she even makes it a point to wear her gold swastika ear-rings. (And rather appropriately, on the front cover of this volume we find a photograph of Savitri Devi at the height of her powers, aged 46, looking into the distance with the aforementioned ear-rings and the expression of a wrathful demi-goddess.)

Savitri Devi is so over the top, her prose so high-flung with joyous visions of Nazi palingenesis, poetic revanchism, and cruentous glory, that one cannot help but smile when Mrs Taylor, the British policewoman escorting her to and from the court house in Düsseldorf, finally says “What a baby you are for a woman of forty-three”. The pragmatic Mrs Taylor, however, did not understand Savitri Devi’s need for redemption.
Savitri’s “glorious day” ends in disappointment. When sentenced to three years’ imprisonment, she is outraged: Is that all? She had been hoping for the death penalty, or at least life imprisonment. The phlogiston of the immediate aftermath of the war, however, had abated somewhat, and by 1949 Nazi propaganda no longer entailed capital punishment.

This only exacerbated Savitri’s contempt for democracy: she tells us that she would not have been so lenient herself, had she been on the other side; she thinks the democracies are soft, craven, ideologically vacuous, and interested only in material comfort and money. She promises that one day—never mind when—they will pay a millionfold for their foolishness and their weakness. She only hoped that she would be there personally to mete out justice, or at least gloat while democrats wail.

Despite Savitri’s electrifying intensity, velocious extremism, and brutal misanthropy, the “democrats”, as she calls them, often could not help but take a liking for her, and even respect her for her ideological integrity, consistency, courage, and strength of character. This sentiment also affects the reader: Savitri Devi is a very likeable monster.

Once transferred to the Werl prison, Savitri wasted no time to seek out “her comrades and superiors,” namely the Nazi war criminals. She soon developed an intense friendship with Hertha Ehlert, a former deputy wardress at the Bergen-Belsen prison camp, then serving a 15-year term. Colonel Vickers, the British Governor, tried to keep Savitri segregated from the political prisoners, which provoked a good deal of tedious self-pity and complaining. Fortunately, the German wardresses – some of whom were crypto-Nazis—took a liking to Savitri and allowed her regular visits from Ehlert and other “war criminals”. Moreover, equipped with copybooks, she was assigned light tasks so that she may have time to write.
Propelled by a fulgor of inspiration, Savitri poured all her love and energy into her writing, completing large sections of Gold in the Furnace and The Lightning in the Sun within the first few months. One day, however, her cell was searched and her manuscripts confiscated, dealing Savitri a devastating blow. The manuscripts seemed doomed to destruction.

For two weeks, she agonised over her manuscripts, alternating between stratospheric defiance and blackest depression. And it is here, in her darkest hour, that Savitri Devi finally had her most profound insight, which leads to Defiance’s core philosophical meditation on the Nazi ethics of detached and selfless duty. She consoles herself in the face of her manuscript's imminent destruction—the destruction of the favorite children of her brain—by reminding herself that a true Aryan does what is right, regardless of personal consequences, leaving those for the gods to sort out.

For Savitri, the right thing to do is nothing less than the perfection of the cosmos by contributing to the emergence of the Superman, which she takes to be the ultimate aim of National Socialism. She cannot control what is done with her manuscripts, but she can take solace in the fact that she has acted in the cosmic interest, an aim which justifies any expediency—even humiliations, lies (which she detested), and tactical alliances with the hated enemy—and renders her personal suffering of no consequence.

Eventually, for unexplained reasons, Savitri’s manuscripts were returned to her. Far from being grateful to her captors, however, she regarded them with incredulous contempt. All thanks were reserved to “the invisible powers” that she felt were watching out for her.

Savitri then resolved to complete her manuscripts right under Colonel Vickers’ nose, only this time she took additional precautions to ensure their survival. We see that while never compromising or attenuating her extremism, Savitri Devi has learnt the value of employing more careful methods in the interest of long-term results.

Defiance has not a dull moment in it, told in a rousing and poetic style, blending philosophical meditation with personal revelation in a hypnotic, novel-like narrative. In years to come, texts like this one will remain a primary source for scholars and readers seeking to understand the mentality of those in Europe who saw the Allies not as liberators, but as a force of evil.

Unavailable for over half a century, the new Centennial Edition of Defiance is elegantly designed, lavishly illustrated with archival photographs, and carefully edited to the highest scholarly standards. It was initially offered as a limited edition of 200 hand-numbered clothbound copies, which proved highly collectible. If you covet one, you may be in for a wait, as I imagine only death will separate current owners from their copies. Fortunately for collectors of fringe literature, however, the new edition of Defiance has now been released in a high-quality, smyth-sewn paperback edition.

Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Roald Amundsen's The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Expedition in the Fram, 1910-1912

Roald Amundsen at the South Pole, December 1911

Roald Amundsen The South Pole: An Account of the Norwegian Expedition in the Fram, 1910-1912
London: Hurst & Company, 2001
(First Published in 1912 by John Murray)

Having reviewed Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s account of Robert Falcon Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition, it is appropriate now to do the same with Roald Amundsen’s account of his pioneering journey to the South Pole. Scott and Amundsen reached the Pole within a month of each other, and this is, therefore, the other side of the story.

In 1910 two teams of explorers, one British, lead by Scott, and the other Norwegian, led by Amundsen, set sail to Antarctica, with the aim of being the first to reach the South Pole. Both men were successful, but Amundsen arrived first and he and his team returned home without incident; while Scott and his men perished on the Ross Ice Shelf during their return journey. Scott’s tent was found eight months later by a rescue party, who discovered the frozen bodies of Scott and the two remaining members of his five-man polar party, along with their diaries. Scott’s fate turned him into a tragic national hero throughout the British Empire, and, being a skilled wordsmith, it was his story that was told across the English-speaking world: his diaries underwent numerous editions and re-prints, from popular to lavishly illustrated, and became mandatory reading for school children, until eventually the story was made into a film in 1948, starring John Mills. Amundsen’s story, on the other hand, had a much more limited readership and is, therefore, less well known in popular culture.

Scott’s and Amundsen’s accounts, however, are equally interesting, albeit for entirely different reasons. While Scott’s possesses romance and pathos, Amundsen’s is engaging on a technical level: here is where you learn how to mount a successful expedition, and get a sense of the Norwegian temperament as well.
The South Pole by Roald AmundsenThe South Pole is a considerable work, spanning 800 pages in the modern reprint edition (the original edition came in two volumes). It begins with Amundsen’s preparations in Norway in 1909 and concludes with Amundsen’s disembarkation at Hobart, Tasmania, in 1912; what lies in between is more or less as detailed a relation of events as Cherry’s own, written ten years later. Amundsen’s tone and style is very different from that of the Englishmen: the 43-year-old Scott was anxious and prone to depression; the 36-year-old Cherry (writing nearly a decade after the events) was more philosophical and psychological; the 39-year-old Amundsen, by contrast, is colder, calmer, relatively detached, and prone to ironic understatement.

Amundsen arrived in Antarctica in January 1911, and established his base, Framheim, on the Ross Ice Shelf (then known as “the Barrier”), at the Bay of Whales, 803 miles away from the South Pole and 350 miles to the East of Scott’s base in Cape Evans, Ross Island. This placed Amundsen’s base 60 miles nearer to the Pole than Scott’s – a significant distance considering that it was to be covered unsupported in the most difficult terrain on the planet.

The shore party consisted of 97 dogs and eight humans, all Norwegian: Olav Bjaaland, Helmer Hanssen, Sverre Hassel, Oscar Wisting, Jørgen Stubberud, Hjalmar Johansen, Kristian Prestrud, and Roald Amundsen. Like Scott, they built a hut, but, unlike Scott, when the snow and drift started to cover it, Amundsen’s party allowed it to be buried, and expanded their living quarters by excavating a network of caverns in the ice, where they set up their kennel and their workshops. This not only afforded them more space, but also insulated them from the elements.

During the Winter months leading up to the polar journey, Amundsen and his team continuously optimized their equipment, testing it and refining it for the conditions on the ground. Scott’s team were doing exactly the same over at their base, of course, but it seems, from this account, that Amundsen went further, being extra meticulous and paying close attention to every detail. Boots and tents were redesigned; sledges and cases were shaved down to make them lighter; stacking, storage, and lashing techniques were perfected, and so on. In the end, Amundsen ended up with truly excellent equipment and highly efficient arrangements. For example: while Scott’s parties had to pack and unpack their sledges every time they set up camp, Amundsen’s sledges were packed in such a way that everything they needed could be retrieved without unlashing the cases or disassembling the cargo on their sledges. This was a significant advantage in an environment prone to blizzards and where temperatures are often so low that touching metal gives instant frostbite.

Amundsen had spent time observing and learning from the Inuit and possessed a thorough understanding of working with dogs. Scott, on the other hand, although the most experienced Antarctic explorer of the age and indeed a valuable source of information for Amundsen and his men, had become reluctant to use dogs due to their poor performance during the Discovery Expedition he had lead in 1901-1903, during which many of the animals visibly suffered. The problem, however, was not so much dogs in general but the choice of dogs, and Amundsen’s chosen breed of canine was better adapted for Antarctic conditions. So much so, in fact, that Amundsen eventually decided to travel by night, because his dogs preferred the colder temperatures.

The postmortem examination of Scott’s and Amundsen’s expeditions have led experts to conclude that Amundsen’s decision to base his transport on dogs was decisive in the outcome of their respective polar journeys. Scott’s transport configuration, relying on motorised sledges, ponies, dogs, and man-hauling has been described as ‘muddled’. This is certainly the conclusion one draws from reading the accounts of the two expeditions. Amundsen’s dogs afforded him with pulling power that was up to seven times greater than Scott’s, which enabled his men to ski or simply ride the sledges at speed. What is more, Amundsen’s men ate the dogs along the way, in the measure that they were no longer needed because of the staged depoting of supplies for the return journey; this provided them with an additional source of fresh meat (the other was seal meat, obtained at the edge of the barrier), which they needed to stave off scurvy. Scott’s party, on the other hand, was blighted by the early failure of the motorised sledges and the poor performance of the ponies. Although he and his men ate the ponies, they relied heavily—and once on the plateau, exclusively—on man-hauling. Man-hauling is far more strenuous than skiing, and for Scott's party this soon meant a deterioration in physical condition.

This takes us to the diet. Scott’s understanding of a polar explorer’s nutritional demands was the best that could be expected from his era, so he cannot be blamed for having had inadequate provisions. Indeed, having learned from his failed bid for the Pole in 1902 and from Shackleton’s own failure in 1909 (in both cases the men starved and developed scurvy), Scott paid close attention to nutrition and worked closely with manufacturers to obtain specially formulated food supplies. Moreover, Scott also had the Winter party (Cherry, Edward Wilson, and Henry Bowers) experiment with proportions during their journey to Cape Crozier to secure Emperor penguin eggs. Yet, the fact remains that, in terms of its energy content, his diet of pemmican, biscuits, chocolate, butter, sugar, and tea fell well short of what was needed. Ranulph Fiennes and Mike Stroud, the first explorers ever to achieve the unsupported (you-carry-everything) crossing of the Antarctic, found their caloric consumption averaging 8,000 calories a day, and sometimes spiking at over 11,500 calories a day (you can read their respective accounts of their journey here and here). The Scott team’s intake was around 4,000, and the result was—inevitably—starvation, cold, and frostbites. Worse still, lack of vitamin C, the primary cause of scurvy, caused wounds to heal very slowly, a situation that eventually led to the breakdown and death of 37-year-old Petty Officer Edgar Evans in Scott’s South Polar party. Amundsen’s men had an abundant supply of fresh meat, coming from dog and seals, as well as the typically Scandinavian wholegrain bread, whortleberries, and jam, so they were very well supplied of vitamin C. With a lower caloric consumption (typically at 5,000 calories a day), they were well fed throughout their journey, and Amundsen was able progressively to increase rations beyond requirements. As a result, Amundsen’s men remained strong, staved off scurvy, and suffered no frostbites. In fact, they even gained weight.
Scott blamed the failure of his expedition on poor weather and bad luck. Amundsen, who greatly respected Scott, says in the present volume, written before he learnt of Scott’s fate:
I may say that this is the greatest factor—the way in which the expedition is equipped—the way in which every difficulty is foreseen, and precautions taken for meeting or avoiding it. Victory awaits him who has everything in order—luck, people call it. Defeat is certain for him who has neglected to take the necessary precautions in time; this is called bad luck.
It would be too harsh to say this applied to Scott, because Amundsen did, after all, enjoy relatively good weather (he even eventually dispensed with the very warm fur outfits we see in the photographs), whereas unseasonably low temperatures and harsh conditions hit Scott’s party hard during the return journey across the Ross Ice Shelf. (Remember this is a huge geographical feature: a platform, hundreds of miles long, comprised entirely of iron-hard ice up to half a mile deep, flat—except near land—in every direction as far as the eye can see; it is so large that it has its own weather system.) Similarly, on their approach to the Pole, Scott’s team had found conditions on the plateau, particularly after 87°S, especially severe, with bitter head-on winds, rock-hard sastrugi, and snow frozen into hard, abrasive crystals – this made pulling sledges especially difficult. Imagine pulling 200 lb sledges on sticky sandpaper, day after day, week after week, with 50-70 degrees of frost, eating less than half what you need. It must be borne in mind, at the same time, that the Antarctic was for most part terra incognita: Scott’s furthest South in the Discovery Expedition was 82°17'S, a latitude located on the Ross Ice Shelf; Shackleton’s 88°23'S, somewhere on the plateau; no one knew what the South Pole looked like or what they would find there, and Scott only had Shackleton’s verbal account of the conditions on the Beardmore Glacier and Antarctic plateau to go by. Today we know that the continent, approximately the size of Europe, is under a sheet of ice several kilometers deep; that the ice covers 98% of its surface; that the plateau, extending a thousand kilometers, is nearly 10,000 feet above sea level; that there are mountain ranges and nunataks in its more Northernly latitudes; and much more. Also today there is an enormous American-run research station on the South Pole, as well as dozens of stations spread across the continent; we have radio and satellite communications, high resolution imaging, mountains of very detailed data; we also have aeroplanes and motor vehicles able to operate in the Antarctic airspace and terrain. None of this existed in 1911. Much of the nutritional, meteorological, glaciological, and climatological knowledge we have today was discovered decades later. The early explorers were doing truly pioneering work on a landscape as mysterious and as alien as another planet.

It is interesting to note that both Amundsen and Scott were quite surprised to find themselves descending as they approached the South Pole. Indeed, once past the glaciers that give access to the Antarctic plateau from the Ross Ice Shelf, the Pole is hundreds of feet below the plateau summit on that side of the continent.
Amundsen’s original ambition had been to conquer the North Pole. For most of his life, he tells us, he had been fascinated by the far North. That he turned South owed to his being beaten to the North Pole by the American explorers Fredrick Cook (in 1908) and Robert Peary (in 1909), who made independent claims. Therefore, upon reaching the South Pole, Amundsen experienced mixed feelings: he says that it did not feel to him like the accomplishment of his life’s ambition. All the same, aware of the controversies surrounding Cook’s and Peary’s polar claims, he determined to make absolutely certain that he had indeed reached the geographical South Pole, and spent several days taking measurements with a variety of instruments within a chosen radius. He named his South Pole station Polheim. There he left a small tent with a letter for Scott to deliver to the King Haakon VII of Norway, as proof and testimony of his accomplishment in the event he failed to return to base safely.

As it happens, subsequent evaluations of the Polar party’s astronomical observations show that Amundsen never stood on the actual geographical Pole. Polheim’s position was determined to be somewhere between 89°57’S and 89°59’S, and probably 89°58’5’’ – no further than six miles and no nearer than one and a half miles from 90°S. However, Bjaaland and Hanssen, during the course of their measurements, walked between 400 and 600 meters away from the Pole, and possibly a few hundred meters or less. Scott, arriving a month later, did not manage to stand on the actual Pole either. This, however, was the best that could be done with the instruments available at the time.

Amundsen’s success resulted not only from his careful planning and good fortune, but also from his having set the single goal of reaching the South Pole. Comparatively little science was done on the field, as a result, although geological samples were brought back, both from Amundsen’s Polar party as well as Kristian Pestrud’s Kind Edward VII Land’s party, and meteorological and oceanographical studies were conducted. Scott’s expedition, by contrast, was primarily a scientific expedition, and was outfitted accordingly. It was certainly not designed for a race. Conquering the Pole was important in as much as the expedition’s success or failure was to be judged by the press and the numerous private sponsors on that basis: a hundred years ago, the whole enterprise of polar exploration was fiercely nationalistic in character, in marked contrast to the internationalist character of Antarctic research since the signing of the Antarctic Treaty of 1959.
Scott found out about Amundsen’s plans while on route to the Antarctic. Needless to say that this caused a great deal of anger, particularly as Amundsen had kept his plans secret until he was well on his way. Scott’s men obviously hoped that Amundsen would be having a rough time on his side of the barrier (indeed, he experienced lower temperatures, but, on the other hand, he enjoyed fewer blizzards). Yet, when the Englishmen aboard the Terra Nova paid a visit to the Norwegians at Framheim, they quite naturally had a number of questions, but were otherwise cordial. They all took it like soldiers.

It is inspiring to read the accounts from the heroic era of Antarctic exploration. They highlight the most admirable qualities of European man, and serve as an example to modern generations in times when men of the caliber we encounter in these tales have apparently become rare. Enthusiasts have noted the marked difference in tone between the books written by explorers Fiennes and Stroud in the early 1990s, and the books and diaries written by Scott, Amundsen, and Douglas Mawson a hundred years ago: the latter, they say, come across as far more stoic, far harder, and able to write poetically about the hostile Antarctic environment even in the most adverse of situations. This is perhaps not surprising when one considers that European civilisation was at its zenith in terms of power and confidence in the years immediately preceding the Great War. Truly hard men still exist, but sensibilities have obviously changed, perhaps because of the outcome of two great European civil wars, perhaps because the equality-obsessed modern culture encourages men to adopt feminine qualities in the same measure that it encourages women to adopt masculine ones. Whatever the reasons, this type of literature is most edifying and a healthy antidote to all the whinging, fretting, and apologising that has become so prevalent in the public discourse of recent decades.

The South Pole is not as intimidating as it might at first appear: there are numerous photographs and the print is quite large, so a fast reader can whiz through this tome at the speed of light, if in a hurry. In addition, it is not all Amundsen’s narrative: the last 300 pages consist of Kristian Pestrud’s account of his journey to King Edward VII’s land; first lieutenant Thorvald Nilsen’s account of the voyage of the Fram; and scientific summaries dealing with the geology, oceanography, meteorology, and the astronomical observations at the Pole. Pestrud’s and Nilsen’s contributions are also written in a tone of ironic detachment, blending formality with humor, which suggests to me, having met and dealt with Norwegians over the years, that this might be characteristic of the Norwegian temperament.

There is certainly more to Antarctic literature than conspiracy theories about Zeta Reticulans and Nazi UFOs.