J. David Goodman for The New York Times, February 8, 2012:
As my colleague David M. Herszenhorn reports, scientists are poised to take some highly anticipated samples from a deep subglacial lake in Antarctica, saying on Wednesday that they had succeeded in boring through more than two miles of ice.
The state-financed broadcaster Russia Today posted video of the researchers at the frigid Antarctic outpost, including clips of them snowmobiling around the endless expanse of ice and snow and watching supply planes land.
What evolutionary secrets Lake Vostok — named after the Russian research station above it — may hold after being sealed under ice for millions of years has tantalized scientists who hope to find evidence of previously unknown forms of life.
Probing the mysterious depths of earth has also fascinated casual observers, some of whom gravitated toward more outlandish theories about what may be discovered in the ancient lake, including alien life forms or Hitler’s remains.
That last theory, based on sketchy rumors of a Nazi base on the frozen continent, received an unlikely boost this week from Russia’s state-run news service, Ria Novosti, which said that the scientific mission had revived an “old theory saying that German Nazis may have built a secret base” at Lake Vostok “as early as the 1930s.”
The state news report then delved deeper into the realm of Nazi conspiracy theory, observing without any evidence that “it was also rumored that later the submarine U-977 delivered the remains of Adolf Hitler and Eva Braun to Antarctica for DNA cloning purposes.”
Bloggers pointed to other rumors of a Nazi base in a vast northern area of Antarctica known as Queen Maud’s Land (or Dronning Maud Land in Norwegian), as the Washington Post blogger Elizabeth Flock observed. Even so, the Moscow Times and others picked up the reported rumors without providing any new evidence or attempting to refute the claims, which appear on their face to be doubtful. For one thing, the subglacial lake reached by scientists this week lies far south of Queen Maud’s Land.
A map published in The Times in 1941 marked the spot where a German naval repair base was said to have been established.
But, like the defrosted alien in the 1982 Antarctic research-themed film “The Thing,” the rumor has survived for years despite strong attempts to put it to rest. Perhaps this is because it is based on a few kernels of truth. For example, The Times reported in 1941 on the existence of a German naval repair station on the northernmost tip of Antarctica near South America.
The journal Nature wrote about several other bits of history that theorists may be drawing from:
There was a German expedition to Antarctica in 1938-39. There was classified British military activity in Antarctica during the war. In July 1945, two months after VE Day, the German submarine U-530 appeared at the Argentine naval base of Mar del Plata. The next month, U-977 did the same.
In 1946-47 the U.S. military mounted Operation Highjump, the largest ever Antarctic expedition, consisting of 4,700 men and 13 ships. And in 1958, they carried out three nuclear explosions in the southern hemisphere that were meant to stay secret, but didn’t.
In 2007, a pair of Antarctic scientists subjected the theory of the Nazi base to a rigorous review. Writing in in the journal Polar Record, they observed in the abstract of their paper that:
Using background knowledge of Antarctica and information concerning these activities that has been published since the early 1940s, it is demonstrated: that the two U-Boats could not have reached Antarctica; that there was no secret wartime German base in Dronning Maud Land; that SAS troops did not attack the alleged German base; that the SAS men in the region at the time had civilian jobs; that Operation Highjump was designed to train the U.S. Navy for a possible war with the Soviet Union in the Arctic, and not to attack an alleged German base in Antarctica; and that Operation Argus took place over the ocean more than 2000 km north of Dronning Maud Land.
Activities that were classified have subsequently been declassified and it is no longer difficult to separate fact from fancy, despite the fact that many find it attractive not to do so.
Many indeed, as The Daily Mail headlined on Tuesday: “Breakthrough! Russian scientists drill into Antarctic lake buried under the ice for 20 million years, amid extraordinary claims the Nazis may have got there first.”
For more on WWII, see The World in Flames: A World War II Sourcebook (Oxford University Press, 2010)