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Hörbiger did not arrive at his ideas through research, but said that he had received it in a "vision" in 1894. According to his ideas, ice was the basic substance of all cosmic processes, and ice moons, ice planets, and the "global ether" (also made of ice) had determined the entire development of the universe.
By his own account, Hörbiger was observing the Moon when he was struck by the notion that the brightness and roughness of its surface was due to ice. Shortly after, he experienced a dream in which he was floating in space watching the swinging of a pendulum which grew longer and longer until it broke. "I knew that Newton had been wrong and that the sun's gravitational pull ceases to exist at three times the distance of Neptune," he concluded. He worked out his concepts in collaboration with amateur astronomer and schoolteacher Philipp Fauth whom he met in 1898, and published it as Glazial-Kosmogonie in 1912. Fauth had previously produced a large (if somewhat inaccurate) lunar map and had a considerable following, which lent Hörbiger's ideas some respectability.
It did not receive a great deal of attention at the time, but following World War I Hörbiger decided to change his strategy by promoting the new "cosmic truth" not only to people at universities and academies, but also to the general public. Hörbiger thought that if "the masses" accepted his ideas then they might put enough pressure on the academic establishment to force his ideas into the mainstream. No effort was spared in popularising the ideas: "cosmotechnical" societies were founded, which offered public lectures that attracted large audiences, there were cosmic ice movies and radio programs, and even cosmic ice journals and novels.
The followers of WEL exerted a great deal of public pressure on behalf of the ideas. The movement published posters, pamphlets, and books, and even a newspaper, The Key to World Events. A company owned by an adherent would only hire people who declared themselves convinced of the WEL's truth. Some followers even attended astronomical meetings to heckle, shouting, "Out with astronomical orthodoxy! Give us Hörbiger!" During this period, the name was changed from the Graeco-Latin Glazial-Kosmogonie to the more Germanic Welteislehre [WEL] ("World ice theory").
Two organizations were set up in Vienna concerned with the idea, the Kosmotechnische Gesellschaft and the Hörbiger Institute. The first was formed in 1921 by a group of enthusiastic adherents of the idea, which included engineers, physicians, civil servants, and businessmen. Most had been personally acquainted with Hörbiger, and had attended his many lectures. Among Hörbiger's followers was Viennese author Egon Friedell, who explained the World Ice Theory in his 1930 Cultural History of the Modern Age.
In the Third Reich
After Hörbiger’s death in 1931, the followers of WEL came to the conclusion that given the changing political situation in Germany, aligning the idea with National Socialism would eventually lead to its acceptance; WEL had already been heavily and successfully promoted as the "German antithesis" of the "Jewish" theory of relativity in the late 1920s. And so the movement became more and more pro-Nazi, with WEL supporters saying things like: "Our Nordic ancestors grew strong in ice and snow; belief in the Cosmic Ice is consequently the natural heritage of Nordic Man.", "Just as it needed a child of Austrian culture - Hitler! - to put the Jewish politicians in their place, so it needed an Austrian to cleanse the world of Jewish science.", and "the Führer, by his very life, has proved how much a so-called 'amateur' can be superior to self-styled professionals; it needed another 'amateur' to give us a complete understanding of the Universe."
Heinrich Himmler, one of the most powerful Nazi leaders, became a strong proponent of the idea and he stated that if it were corrected and adjusted with new scientific findings it could very well be accepted as scientific work. However, the Propaganda Ministry felt obliged to state that "one can be a good National Socialist without believing in the WEL."
Adolf Hitler, an enthusiastic follower of WEL, adopted it as the Nazi party's official cosmology. He claimed that Hörbiger was not accepted by the scientific establishment because "the fact is, men do not wish to know." The World Ice Theory was intended to form part of a planetarium Hitler planned to build on Linz's Mount Pöstling. According to the structure's plans, the ground floor was to centre around Ptolemy's universe, the middle floor Copernicus' theory, and the top floor, Hörbiger's theory.
It has been said that the real reason both Hitler and Himmler favored the idea was to counterbalance the perceived Jewish influence on the sciences, similar to the Deutsche Physik movement. Hörbiger's WEL was, for instance, opposed to Albert Einstein's theory of relativity. Dozens of scientific journals, books, and even novels were published on this topic. Hörbiger's ideas became generally accepted among the population of Nazi Germany and a German Hörbiger Organization had thousands of members.
The Nazis also considered the World Ice Theory valuable because of its supposed value in weather forecasting. The 1938 Zur Welteismeteorologie ("On World Ice Meteorology") by Dr. E. Dinies, published by the Reichs Office for Weather Service quotes from Hörbiger's Glazial-Kosmogonie and provided tables of data comparing ice and air temperatures for relative humidity values.
A growing group of 'believing scientists' expanded the "theory" during the last years of World War II.
Following the Anschluss of March 1938, the Kosmotechnische Gesellschaft was liquidated by the Nazis and its funds seized. The Hörbiger Institute, which was a small association which collected funds for research, was left in possession of all Hörbiger's scientific material, including a library and a large collection of valuable drawings covering astronomy, meteorology, and geology as they related to the Hörbiger Theory. The Nazis wanted to close the Institute down as well, but Hörbiger's son Alfred and the Chairman avoided this by having a Nazi Commission appointed. They also managed to prevent the archives being taken to Berlin and absorbed in Himmler’s Ahnenerbe organization, and established that the Institute was the private property of Hörbiger's sons.
Despite the outbreak of World War II, Alfred Hörbiger managed to continue publishing the Institute's Proceedings, in spite of being cut off from all foreign publications and correspondents. Eventually they were contacted by the German Propaganda Ministry, who said they considered that the publications constituted high treason and ordered them to stop circulating their reports.
In February 1945 the Hörbiger engineering works were destroyed, and in March the Institute's premises were hit and were boarded up just before Soviet troops arrived. Alfred Hörbiger died in August 1945 but the Institute hoped to restart publication of its Proceedings by 1949.
After World War II, the WEL cult dropped out of sight. But it revived sometime afterwards, and continued to have members in both Germany and England for several years, even though it was quickly discredited again. In the 1950s, a pamphlet supporting the WEL stated that "proof of the theory awaits the conclusion of the first successful interplanetary flight, a matter in which the Institute is greatly interested." A survey conducted in 1953 showed that over a million people in Germany, England, and the U.S. believed that Hörbiger was correct. More recently, some of its supporters have dropped the idea of an icy lunar surface, though they continue to support the view that it was captured and that its capture destroyed Atlantis.
According to the idea, the solar system had its origin in a gigantic star into which a smaller, dead, waterlogged star fell. This impact caused a huge explosion which flung fragments of the smaller star out into interstellar space where the water condensed and froze into giant blocks of ice. A ring of such blocks formed, which we now call the Milky Way, as well as a number of solar systems among which was our own, but with many more planets than currently exist.
Interplanetary space is filled with traces of hydrogen gas, which cause the planets to slowly spiral inwards, along with ice blocks. The outer planets are large mainly because they have swallowed a large number of ice blocks, but the inner planets have not swallowed nearly as many. One can see ice blocks on the move in the form of meteors, and when one collides with the Earth, it produces hailstorms over an area of many square kilometers, while when one falls into the Sun, it produces a sunspot and gets vaporized, making "fine ice," which covers the innermost planets.
It was also claimed that the Earth had had several satellites before it acquired the Moon; they began as planets in orbits of their own, but over long spans of time were captured one by one and slowly spiralled in towards the Earth until it disintegrated and its debris became part of the Earth's structure. One can supposedly identify the rock strata of several geological eras with the impacts of these satellites.
The last such impact, of the "Tertiary" or "Cenozoic Moon" and the capture of our present Moon, is supposedly remembered through myths and legends. This was worked out in detail by Hörbiger's English follower Hans Schindler Bellamy; Bellamy recounted how as a child he would often dream about a large moon that would spiral closer and closer in until it burst, making the ground beneath roll and pitch, awakening him and giving him a very sick feeling. When he looked at the Moon's surface through a telescope, he found its surface looking troublingly familiar. When he learned of Hörbiger's idea in 1921, he found it a description of his dream. He explained the mythological support he found in such books as Moons, Myths, and Man, In the Beginning God, and The Book of Revelation is History. It was believed that our current Moon was the sixth since the Earth began and that a new collision was inevitable. Believers argued that the great flood described in the Bible and the destruction of Atlantis were caused by the fall of previous moons.
Hörbiger had various responses to the criticism that he received. If it was pointed out to him that his assertions did not work mathematically, he responded: "Calculation can only lead you astray." If it was pointed out that there existed photographic evidence that the Milky Way was composed of millions of stars, he responded that the pictures had been faked by "reactionary" astronomers. He responded in a similar way when it was pointed out that the surface temperature of the Moon had been measured in excess of 100°C in the daytime, writing to rocket expert Willy Ley: "Either you believe in me and learn, or you will be treated as the enemy."
Astronomers generally dismissed his views and the following they acquired as a "carnival". Although Hörbiger's ideas have much in common with those of Immanuel Velikovsky (parallels between the two were drawn by Martin Gardner in Chapter Three of his Fads and Fallacies in the Name of Science), the scientific community had a much calmer reaction to Hörbiger's ideas than to Velikovsky's, and his publisher was never boycotted.
- Willy, Ley (1966). Watchers of the Skies: An Informal History of Astronomy from Babylon to the Space Age. Viking Press. p. 515.
- Moore, Patrick (1999). The Wandering Astronomer. CRC Press. p. 95. ISBN 0-7503-0693-9.
- Wessely, Christina. "Cosmic Ice Theory – science, fiction and the public, 1894–1945". Max Planck Society.
- Hamann, Brigitte; Thomas Thornton (2000). Hitler's Vienna. Oxford University Press. p. 226. ISBN 0-19-514053-2.
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