Smithsonian Libraries via Wikipedia Commons
If you read volumes one and two of this series, you likely noticed many parallels. As I add more volumes those parallels will grow into recurring themes. Wilhelm Reich, Alfred Lawson and now Hanns Hörbiger are very much the same “type of guy”.
They enjoy some success for which they’re celebrated, and that praise goes to their heads. They conclude they’re unparalleled visionaries, devise a “theory of everything” despite having no background in science and denounce all opposition as a conspiracy against them.
What sets Hanns apart is governmental support. Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Lawson both eventually ran afoul of the government, which absolutely wrecked their shit. Hanns, on the other hand, had the good fortune to descend into madness during the short-lived Third Reich, when the government in power was even crazier than he was.
Johannes “Hanns” Evangelist Hörbiger was born in Austria, also where a certain notorious man with a funny little moustache was born. Hanns was born in 1860, while funny moustache man was born in 1889, about three decades his junior. Close enough however that their fates would become entangled.
In his youth, Hanns moved from Atzgersdorf to Vienna, also someplace that a young Hitler would spend a great deal of time moping about and being broke. Following WW1, Germany and Austria generally, and Vienna specifically, became areas of high receptivity for weird new ideologies. There was during this time an explosion of interest in disciplines both legitimate (like psychoanalysis) and illegitimate (like spiritualism).
The old ways had evidently failed. The people were hungry for new ideas. And for food, following the material and economic devastation of the great war. Besides looking for new ways forward, the people sought escapism as an emotional refuge from their meager, brutal postwar quality of life. Psychics, mediums, prognosticators and all manner of other frauds flourished during this time.
Hanns was among them, though he never considered himself as such. He was an engineer by trade, inventor of a vitally important valve still found in compressors today. Without the Hörbiger valve, many industrial necessities like high temperature metallurgy and long distance transport of gases wouldn’t be feasible. It’s not for nothing that, during the 20th century, Germany was considered a STEM powerhouse.
Right up until Germany went crazy and destroyed much of Europe, it was a popular trope in animation and film for “kooky scientist” characters to have a German accent. Wernher Von Braun kept that trope alive in the US, noticeably in Disney animation, for some years after the war. Point being that Hanns was in good company, one of many brilliant Teutonic minds of his era, many of which were soon to be wasted on a doomed war.
Hanns followed up his successful invention with the establishment of an engineering office in Budapest where he worked on technical designs for the Budapest subway system. Following its completion, in 1903 he moved the office to Vienna. There he grew the company until Hörbiger became a trusted brand for the supply of high quality valves in Germany, England, and North America.
That company in fact still exists today as “Hoerbiger”, a testament to the soundness of Hörbiger’s engineering knowhow. During the next ten years, among other projects, Hanns would occupy himself with the promotion of Occidental, a planned universal language conceptually similar to Esperanto. It never gained widespread acceptance, but lives on today as ‘Interlingue’.
Then in 1913, Hanns would publish “Wirbelstürme, Wetterstürze, Hagelkatastrophen und Marskanal-Verdoppelungen” which translates to “Hurricanes, sudden storms, hail disasters and doubling of the Mars Canal”. It introduced to the academic world Hörbiger’s concept of “Welteislehre”, or “World Ice Theory”, originally known as Glacial Cosmology.
It was developed with the help of amateur astronomer Pillipp Fauth and popularized by H.S. Bellamy, but in the beginning it was based principally upon a dream Hörbiger had in 1894 of a pendulum which grew longer with each swing until it broke. This convinced him that “…Newton had been wrong, and that the sun’s gravitational pull ceases to exist at three times the distance of Neptune.”
The premise of World Ice Theory is that everything is ice. Even the ether between planets and stars is ice. It’s like those tiktoks where they cut into regular objects revealing them to be cake on the inside, but with ice. This conclusion struck Hanns one night while looking at the Moon, thinking “the Moon looks rough and white. I bet it’s made of ice.”
Under World Ice Theory it is postulated that the solar system began when a huge star fell into a smaller, water-logged one. The resulting explosion flung fragments of the smaller star out into space where they froze into chunks of ice. These were accumulated by gravity into a ring shape, what we know as the Milky Way galaxy.
The academic world reacted as you might imagine, with a mixture of shrugs and ridicule. Hörbiger concluded from this experience that a more promising strategy for the promotion of his profound cosmic truth would be taking it straight to the people. If he could convince a majority of the common folk that his ideas were correct and important, they could collectively force it on the academic world.
This populist strategy should sound familiar as it bears much in common with how creation science and later intelligent design were advanced in public schools prior to a series of high profile court cases which mostly put a stop to that. Hörbiger did not encounter any such show-stopping barriers. The newly ascendant Nazi movement liked Hörbiger’s style and very much picked up what he was laying down.
The capture of an ice moon prior to Earth’s current moon, and the subsequent melting of that ice moon as it fell to Earth was postulated to have caused the Biblical flood. So, Welteislehre was of a Biblical literalist bent, though it was also postulated that the fall of prior moons (there were supposedly six in total) is what sunk Atlantis. So, extensive scientific and theological liberties were taken, to say the least.
These six moons and their falls to Earth not only explained mythical cataclysms but supposedly corresponded in a testable way to the different mineral composition of various layers in the geological strata. Very elaborate post-hoc rationalization of a notion which came to Hanns originally in a dream, and which his greatest supporter H.S. Bellamy became convinced of because it lined up with…you guessed it…dreams he also had as a boy.
Bellamy, as a child, had recurring dreams about a large moon spiraling gradually closer and closer to the Earth until it disintegrated. When he first read about Welteislehre in 1921, he felt he recognized in it an account of cosmological origins that lined up perfectly with his childhood dreams.
If that’s not a sufficiently dubious basis for cosmological convictions, Welteislehr was promoted to the NSDAP as an “Aryan theory” (because of all the ice, you see) contrasted against “Jewish physics”. Where “Jewish physics” constituted all physics other than Welteislehre, notably including the then-new theory of relativity.
We all know how that turned out. The Jewish theory of relativity is like the successful stock broker with a condo on Venice beach who looks up his old highschool bully, Welteislehre, to find he’s a tweaker living in a van down by the river. Actually come to think of it the prolific substance abuse of Nazi top brass probably explains their strong affinity for Welteislehre, as well as a great many of their other bad decisions.
Juden physik gave the allies the bomb. Deutsche physik gave the Nazis a propaganda win but nothing else of substance. In that sense we might celebrate Hanns for distracting the Nazi leadership from workable theories, though they ultimately did pursue development of their own nuclear weapon in secret. As it turned out, the physics that were suitable for the party’s public image were not the same as the physics that would give them working super weapons.
Hörbiger died in 1931, not living to witness the war, nor the atrocities of the movement which took up his cause. His followers went on believing fully in Welteislehre, rallying further support for his ideas with the help of the Nazi government, learning from them the power of intimidation and violence to overcome reason.
During his twilight years, when Hörbiger was challenged on the mathematical coherence of Welteislehre he would say “calculation can only lead you astray”, the close cousin of “Lean not on your own understanding”, “we walk by faith not by sight” and “there is a way that looks right to a man, but leads to death”.
When evidence directly contradicting the predictions of Welteislehre was brought to his attention, Hörbiger would reply that they were fabricated by reactionary astronomers, which is to say “fake news”. Once, when it was demonstrated to him that the Moon’s temperature could be measured at a distance and that it was over 100 degrees centigrade during the day, he flatly replied “Either you believe in me and learn, or you will be treated as the enemy.”
That should also sound familiar. He might’ve said only he was the way, the truth and the life. That those who follow him would be blessed, and to cut off family members who disapproved, as unbelievers were due a terrible punishment. These are the sounds men make when they need you to believe them, but haven’t got any proof. It’s all just thinly disguised threats and bribes.
Whether movements like this survive the deaths of their founders depends a great deal on how emotionally and politically compelling the core ideas are. Even moreso what the government decides to do with them. You’ve seen how the government crushed Wilhelm Reich and Alfred Lawson.
But also how securing government favor, because his ideas were politically compatible with the government’s goals, guaranteed Hörbiger’s ideas a great deal more success than they might otherwise have enjoyed. Not longevity though, as in this case he hitched his wagon to the wrong horse. Unlike Wernher Von Braun, he would not live long enough to switch horses.
When you hitch your wagon to the right horse from the start (like, say, the Roman government) it can propel your movement astonishingly far. Ideas that might’ve otherwise died with you may instead persist multi-generationally as they’re injected into all facets of life, gradually embedded into the backdrop of society by a complicit government.
One might argue this is just the ultimate expression of the mob rule strategy Hörbiger was already using though: Stoking outrage in the commoners under the false pretense that academia conspired against him. Outraged mobs are a force of nature. If you can accumulate sufficiently numerous members and stay in control of them, it no longer matters whether you’re right.
This is what made fascism such a perfect vehicle for Welteislehre and a long list of other bad ideas that should’ve withered on the vine. Fascism doesn’t regard truth as the highest ideal, which we are to live in service of. Instead it regards truth as something which must service the movement. A tool to be used when it agrees with your goals, but shelved when it doesn’t.
There’s a cautionary tale in all of this, about departing from the truth in favor of a seductive falsehood. We are reminded by this story that reality is not decided by vote. I feel it also furnishes us with a list of criteria for recognizing guys like Hanns Hörbiger, and situations where such men make populist appeals as a means to brute force their way past all the usual barriers to the acceptance and implementation of wrong ideas.
It’s chilling how easily facts can be overturned and buried if you tell a beautiful lie that becomes sufficiently popular. When this happens, you always hear the same few defenses, using the same language: That your own reason can only lead you astray. That all evidence to the contrary is part of a conspiracy. Either join and believe, or be treated as the enemy.
You’d think by now we’d have seen enough guys like Hanns Hörbiger come and go that they’d no longer be able to cast their spell on the masses. Then again, there are still people out there today who think Herbalife is a golden business opportunity, or that the Nigerian prince who emailed them recently just might be for real.
P.T. Barnum said “There’s a sucker born every minute”, and Mark Twain said “it’s easier to fool a man than to convince him that he’s been fooled”. So long as these maxims remain true, the Hanns Hörbigers of the world will never go hungry. It’s up to us to know better, so we’re never among their supporters.