At the end of the nineteenth century, Werner Siemens proclaimed the beginning of the scientific age in Germany. At the same time, academic scholars, popularizers, and journalists were confronted with a huge number of theories that did not meet the requirements for new scientific knowledge that had recently been expressed at the Versammlung deutscher Naturforscher und Ärzte. These theories, appearing both as universal cosmologies and holistic Weltanschauungen, explicitly disapproved of the development of modern science, sharing a popular fear that a purely materialistic, abstract science would lead to cultural decline.
This project dealt with one of the most popular of these ideas, one of the supposed “strange dissonances” that accompanied scientific modernism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. This so-called Welteislehre (cosmic ice theory) or Glazialkosmogonie serves as a case study to show that these alleged expressions of scientific esotericism were not anachronistic, marginal ideas but were an integral part of the discourse of modern science. The cosmic ice theory was “discovered” by the Austrian engineer Hanns Hörbiger in 1894 in the course of an epiphanic vision. He supposed ice to be the basic substance of all cosmic processes, most impressively materialized in the moon, the Milky Way, and the ether. Apart from purporting to explain all astronomical, geological, and meteorological phenomena, the Welteislehre was also said to be the foundation of a new “cosmic cultural history,” forming both a scientific and philosophical, poetic, and artistic “kosmotechnische Weltanschauung” (a cosmotechnical world view) that Hörbiger called an “astronomy of the invisible.”
The history of the cosmic ice theory was examined in three distinctive periods, each characterized by a series of particular themes.
For the first period (1894–1918), the focus was on questions concerning the generation of cosmotechnical knowledge and the role of experiments within the theory. Special interest was drawn to the dialectic relation of Hörbiger’s intuitive visions and his experimental program—that is, the relation between what he called “certain facts” gained via “creative intuition” and “mathematical fictions” resulting from “artificial experiments.”
The first attempts to introduce the cosmic ice theory to the scientific community before WWI were in vain. The second period (1919–31), however, marked the highpoint of public enthusiasm for the Welteislehre. In 1919, Hörbiger decided to change his strategy. He aimed to promote the new cosmic truth not only to people at universities and academies, but also to a broader public. Hörbiger theorized that if the “masses” accepted his ideas then they would put sufficient pressure on the academic establishment to “force” the cosmic ice theory into the mainstream of scientific discourse. To actively advance this process of making the idea of the universal Welteis widely known, no efforts were spared. Cosmotechnical societies were founded, offering public lectures that attracted audiences of up to 1,200 people. There were cosmic ice movies and radio programs, and cosmic ice journals and novels. Thus, the history of the theory in the 1920s was mainly a history of popularization. Taking a closer look at representations of the theory’s epistemic objects as they appear in the media of popularization suggests that the popularity of the Welteislehre was to a large extent the result of its subversive attraction based on an unsettling and fascinating amalgam of scientific terminology and methodology with popular images and clichés. How exactly did this differ from representations in contemporary physics and cosmology? How should fiction in science at this time be understood? Similar questions are raised concerning Hörbiger’s strategies of self-fashioning which mixed equally the fantastical and the serious, drawing on personae as disparate as Renaissance polymaths and contemporary experimentalists. By providing all the necessary clues to convince his audience that what they saw was truly “scientific,” he produced sensations of authenticity that made the distinction between “serious” scientific work, committed to objectivity and rationality, and mere dramatic banter about it almost impossible, at least for the broader public.
The third period (1931–45) involved the adoption of the cosmic ice theory by the National Socialists and its institutionalization in their research organization "Ahnenerbe" (ancestral heritage). The Welteislehre had already been heavily and successfully promoted as the “German antithesis” of the “Jewish” theory of relativity in the late 1920s. After Hörbiger’s death in 1931, the followers of the cosmic ice theory came to the conclusion that, given the changing political situation in Germany, aligning the theory with National Socialism would eventually lead to its acceptance. What status did the cosmic ice theory subsequently have within the NS research system? Was it just another “obscure dogma,” the personal hobby of Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Göring and Hitler himself, or a field of research well integrated into the academic discourse of the time? What were the relations of Welteislehre and Deutsche Physik?
The investigation of the social and political conditions that made the cosmic ice theory’s enormous popularity possible shed light on the specific circumstances that led to the renaissance of esoteric cosmologies in the first three decades of the twentieth century. It showed that phenomena like the Welteislehre were not anachronistic, marginal ideas, but that these forms of “scientific esotericism” were instead an integral part of the discourse of modern science.