“The dream of a great poet.”
“A fairy tale.”
“Moving crust disease and wandering pole plague.”
In the early 20th century, all these terms—and dozens of other equally colorful ones—were hurled at an emerging scientific idea that we’ve since come to accept as irrefutable and treat as common knowledge.
You may know it as the science of plate tectonics, the explanation of the mechanics of how the puzzle pieces that make up the earth’s surface move around and came to settle (somewhat) into the position they’re in today. In its infancy, though, the idea was known as continental drift, or continental displacement, and was widely regarded by geologists as BS.
Catch My Drift?
Continental drift was proposed by German scientist Alfred Wegener, an untenured and unsalaried lecturer at the University of Marburg. Geology was not his field—he specialized in meteorology and astronomy—but after he became fascinated with the apparent matching coastlines of the various continents while browsing through an atlas, he threw disciplinary boundaries to the wind and pursued his idea. What he proposed was that the continents had once all been joined together in a larger landmass he dubbed the Urkontinent, and was later called Pangaea (from the Greek pan- (“all”) and gaia (“earth”). At some point in time, the seams running along the supercontinent became unraveled and Pangaea broke into smaller pieces, which drifted, slowly but surely, into their current positions. As evidence, he pointed to live and fossil plants and animals on opposite sides of oceans that were the same or very similar, and geological formations that abruptly ended at the edge of one continent and picked up again on another’s shores.
Wegener first presented his theory of continental drift in a lecture to Frankfurt’s Geological Association in 1912, then in a journal article months later, and finally in a book published shortly after he returned from service in World War I. None of this received very much attention until the book was published in English, at which point Wegener was ridiculed by scientists in Britain, the United States, and even his own country. They poked holes in his evidence and his methods, picked at his credentials, and blasted him for not providing a plausible mechanism powerful enough to actually move the continents.
Wegener worked through the assault, addressing valid criticisms with additional evidence, correcting mistakes, and hypothesizing six different mechanisms for the continents’ drift in new editions of his work. Sadly, he died in 1930 on an expedition to Greenland, decades before his theory began to see widespread acceptance with the discovery of seafloor spreading, Wadati-Benioff zones, and other supporting data and evidence.
Friends in Weird Places
Not all the early reactions to continental drift were harsh, though. In the bizarre intellectual atmosphere of the Third Reich, Wegener’s theory had support and approval from an unlikely champion: the Nazi propaganda machine.
While Nazi science is largely remembered today for its more outrageous ideas and experiments, both real and apocryphal—flying saucers, secret Antarctic bases, talking dogs, supersoldiers, ancient Aryan ruins, and more—the Nazis did come down on the right side of continental drifting before most other geologists did.
Under the Nazis, Deutscher Verlag of Berlin published a bimonthly propaganda magazine called Signal. It was distributed throughout Germany, its allied nations and German-occupied areas in more than 20 languages. It featured war reports, essays on national socialist policies, German technology innovations, and drawings and photographs, all meant to praise the German government and its allies.
The first issue of 1941, mostly devoted to the German invasion of the Soviet Union, contained a peculiar piece of popular science writing: a two-page article on continental drift. In the piece, titled “And Yet They Do Move,” writer K. von Philippoff defended Wegener’s ideas, citing then-new data that showed an increasing distance between the American and European continents (and replicating one of Wegener’s own mistakes by placing too much emphasis on longitudinal measurements that were not accurate enough at the time to really demonstrate his conclusions) and reminding readers of Wegener’s other evidence, like the scattered flora and fauna and the fit of various continental coastlines. He concluded that continental drift provided a plausible and satisfactory answer to many geological and biological questions that couldn’t otherwise be explained and that “no mistake was possible” about the validity of Wegener’s theory.
While continental drift had a few supporters scattered here and there (like British geologist Arthur Holmes, whose own model of the mechanism for the movement of continents featured an early consideration of seafloor spreading), von Philippoff’s article is notable in that its presence in an official German propaganda magazine, reflecting the views of the government, implies approval and support by at least some members of the Nazi higher-ups. For all the horror and suffering they unleashed upon the world, history’s greatest villains were at least far ahead of their time in the field of geology.