1. To Neuschwabenland
June 21, 1939.
Goebbels had just given his speech at the Olympic Stadium in Berlin, and the huge bonfires of the midsummer celebrations were being lit. It mattered little to us, as far as we were from the summer and the flames. We were in the hold of the Hölderlin, a freighter bound for Antarctica. Packed with three of the very latest snow crawlers, a disassembled Messerschmitt, and massive amounts of arms and ammunition, the ship was headed toward an “Antarctic paradise” that couldn’t possibly exist.
It was all due to the absurd reports filed by that crackpot Nazi adventurer, Kriegsmarine Kapitän Ritscher, and Hitler’s fawning sycophants. In 1938, Kapitän Ritscher was given a secret order by the Führer himself, who had discovered a cryptic note in von Junzt’s Unaussprechlichen Kulten. They were headed to a spot about a thousand kilometers south of the northernmost tip of the Antarctic continent, called Queen Maud Land by the British.
Their orders were to investigate some six hundred thousand square kilometers of land.
According to von Junzt, water temperature was high in the region due to volcanic activity, with a warm-water lake, lush vegetation, and a balmy climate warm enough to walk about outdoors in your shirtsleeves in the summer. Anyone claiming that such a temperate zone existed in this southernmost continent of snow and ice was clearly insane, but the Führer believed the delusion. He allocated a massive sum from the national treasury, gave Kapitän Ritscher command of a team of eighty-two military and scientific personnel, and sent them on their way south.
The reports sent back by Ritscher became increasingly unbelievable. Using an aircraft, he had flown in the depths of the continent, dropping swastika flags every twenty kilometers, claiming the land in the name of the Third Reich. Using dogsleds and snow crawlers, he advanced into the region on the ground as well, to discover a mountain range on the scale of the Alps, soaring to four thousand meters, ground free of ice and snow, and a warm-water lake surrounded by a profusion of beautiful flowers and lush greenery.
Ritscher ended his 107-day expedition and returned via the Cape of Good Hope, bringing with him a large number of photographs and even movie film. Hitler was delighted at “the discovery of the century” and christened the new, ice-free land Neuschwabenland—New Swabia. Many officers in the Wehrmacht decried the discovery, calling Ritscher a charlatan who had falsified reports out of ambition. One of them was Army Major Richter von Hausen: me.
I asked a newspaper reporter friend of mine to look into Ritscher’s background, revealing that he had close connections with the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper, a propaganda masterpiece run by the Nazis. We were convinced that the lush greenery shown in those photographs was created by photomontage techniques, and the films shot not in Antarctica, but in some Universum Film studio. Our research proved it. Unfortunately, the SS heard of our interest and thought it disloyal of citizens who were neither soldiers nor members of the Nazi party. And so when I was drafted into the Wehrmacht on March 24, 1939, I was ordered to guard duty for one year in Neuschwabenland. The order was signed Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer.
In other words, I was being exiled to Antarctica. In all, thirty-two of us were assigned to guard this nonexistent domain. We were all Wehrmacht, and all deemed to be uncooperative in the eyes of the Nazis. To keep us under control, a party of fourteen SS soldiers and two Gestapo agents was also attached to the mission, under the command of SS Oberstleutnant Wilhelm Weber… who, as it happens, had been in prison on suspicion of murdering five prostitutes. In fact, all of the security force were criminals or, to be kind, unusual people, not only Weber. It was pretty clear what it all meant. The Wehrmacht had decided to take advantage of the opportunity to rid itself of all its undesirable soldiers at once, along with the SS soldiers who might prove an embarrassment. Just ship them all off to Antarctica!
The Hölderlin departed the military port of Kiel on April 1, 1939. An old freighter, it was close to scrap, but I got along well enough with the three men sharing my quarters. The trip was uneventful and even restful. At first. The oldest of my bunkmates was Kriegsmarine Leutnant Krenz, age 41. Two years older than I. With pale blonde hair and a tough, decisive expression, he looked the perfect German professional soldier, and had been assigned to naval intelligence. His father, we came to know, had commanded a U-boat in the first Great War, going down with his boat in battle with the enemy in the Atlantic. The other two, younger than I, were Army Oberstleutnant von Müller and Kriegsmarine Unterleutnant Heinrich. Eric von Müller was 29, born to a noble family in Karlsruhe. Intelligent and handsome, he made friends easily, although he seemed somewhat high-strung at times. Heinrich, on the other hand, was a brash giant of a man who said he had come from the Ruhr. When he added that his mother had been Belgian, I at once understood his sunny personality. He was 27.
We became close friends, joking and laughing together as if we had known each other for a decade… that gaiety began to fade after about ten days, finally turning to leaden despair.
It all began at seven in the evening on April 11, with a furious knocking on the hatch. “Come in!” called Heinrich, sprawled out on his bunk reading a magazine. The hatch immediately sprang open to reveal Oberstleutnant Weber and one of the Gestapo officers, dressed in plain clothes and wearing rimless eyeglasses. I recalled that the Gestapo man was named Heinicke as I asked what they wanted.
“Nothing from you,” snapped Weber. With exaggerated politeness, he added, “Count von Müller, would you come with us?”
“Me!? But why?” responded von Müller, only to be cut off by Heinicke.
“We have just received orders from Reichsführer Himmler to put the Mask of Yoth-Tlaggon on you.”
At his words, von Müller paled.