• Nick Charlie Key

Hitler And The Secret 'Margarine Whale' Plan


If you have a history podcast it’s simply a matter of time before at least one of your stories involves Adolf Hitler. This is probably a story about him that you won’t have heard before. It does involve Hitler and World War Two, but it also involves whale hunting and a desperate need for German margarine. But how did we get here? Well, we need to go back a few years to understand the rationale behind this bizarre tale.

Adolf Hitler served as a corporal in the first world war and he witnessed first hand how Germany was brought to its knees by the British naval blockade. The warships slowly strangled the German supply lines and eventually forced them into submission. Defeat was tough for him to take and he felt shame at his country’s surrender. Fast forward a number of years and now he is the one in power and calling the shots, and he was adamant that he wouldn’t make the same mistakes his predecessors had.

It was crucial to Hitler that the Nazi forces were not dependent on foreign supply lines and in fact, he aimed to circumvent them altogether. He gave this ambitious task to another famous nazi leader who was known to be Hitler’s right hand man. We’re talking of course about the morphine addicted founder of the Gestapo, Hermann Goering. A thoroughly sinister man in his own right, he was responsible for making sure that Germany ultimately became self sufficient. By this time it was 1936 and Hitler laid out his four year plan for ensuring that Germany hunkered down well and had everything they would need to see them through the war.

Adolf Hitler and Herman Goerring

This plan was not merely about food supplies but included weapons as well as other commodities. Hitler was so obsessed with making sure that they didn’t run out of food, that he also enforced a ban on the distillation of potatoes that were being turned into alcohol.

But it wasn’t alcohol or potatoes that were his major concern, no it was something rather more mundane than that. Margarine. Before Hitler had even come to power, the German people had become hooked on the butter replacement as a cheaper and more readily available alternative. By 1930, the population had become so hooked on the stuff in fact, that estimates say each and every German citizen was consuming nearly 20 pounds of the stuff each year.

The spreadable butter alternative became a fast favourite among the working class families of Germany in exactly the way that it hadn’t in France. Originally having been a French invention, the citizens there despised it as anti-gastronomy and saw it as an incredibly low class foodstuff. Subsequently it was sold off to northern European countries where it began to find favour among the populations but none more so than in Germany.

The margarine industry is still the single biggest buyer of advertising in German history, spending more money than anyone else by a rather considerable margin. In fact, the very first advert ever played on German radio was for margarine, likewise the first ever advert on a cinema newsreel. During the 1920’s every print magazine in Germany was propped up by the money coming in from margarine ads, especially since after the first world war the glycerin that had been used for explosives could go back into the production of margarine.

Margarine Factory Workers On A Tea Break

It was just around the time that Hitler was coming to power that German margarine manufacturers began replacing cow’s milk with leftover animal fat. Manufacturers soon worked out that the cheapest way to produce large amounts of animal fat was by catching whales. The only problem was, Germany didn’t have a direct line to the source.

Whale oil had for years been used as fuel for lighting lamps but with the invention of Kerosene a large whale oil surplus was created and prices dropped to rock bottom. Two companies, one Dutch and one British purchased almost all of the surplus in order to monopolise the manufacturing of margarine. This left Hitler and Goering with a problem on their hands.

While margarine was clearly a big concern for Hitler, whale oil was also fairly vital to the actual war effort itself. Liquid whale blubber was widely used as machine lubricant as well as being crucial to the manufacture of nitroglycerine, the main component needed for explosives. It was so vital in fact, that Britain declared whale oil a national defense commodity in the year that world war two broke out.

So where did all of this whale oil come from? Most of them were the products of norwegian whaling expeditons, who were at this time the world leaders in whale hunting. They had ships up and down the unclaimed antarctic coastline of what is today called Queen Maud Land. Norway believed they had claimed this land and the corresponding waters but while this claim had not been officially recognised by other countries, it was not widely known about.

Whale Carcass Before Processing

Two years into Hitler's 4 year plan for self sufficiency, Goering had begun to feel the heat as he didn’t have much to show for his efforts. It was at this point that the German councillor of state pitched him an incredibly ambitious idea. The German Foreign Office had found out that the land Norway was claiming was in fact unclaimed territory in between an existing Norwegian zone and a British zone on the other side. The plan would be to steal Norways claim to this coastline and it’s surrounding waters and thereby claim access to the incredible whale oil resources for themselves. Goering was sold and in May of 1938, planning began for their antarctic expedition.

Germany immediately began ramping up their production of whaling ships in anticipation of this new plan to build an antarctic base of operations in the southern ocean. It seems awfully far from home for it to be a viable option for them, but commercial whaling had been decimated in the north atlantic as well as the north pacific. German whaling ships were already having to travel far from home to gather these resources, so the idea of establishing their own base seemed like a great idea.

They put together a rather mismatched crew of soldiers, scientists and whale hunters all led by a decorated World War 1 naval commander Alfred Ritscher. After the war he had fallen in love with and married a prominent Jewish artist. Being that Captain Ritscher was a staunch supporter of the Nazi party and upon seeing the tide of popular opinion turning against the Jews, he decided to divorce his wife in 1934 before it could impact his military career. The ship he was given to command on this expedition was not a regular whaling vessel but rather an old freighter built by Lufthansa airlines. This was a ship from which they could catapult 10 ton seaplanes off the deck. It took them 3 months to turn the vessel into an icebreaker ship and on December 17, 1938 the captain and his crew of 82 scientists, officers and soldiers set sail from Hamburg. His crew had been selected more for their collective polar experience rather than any sort of military prowess. The idea for this first trip was mainly a reconnaissance mission to do surveillance on the land, planning for further expeditions and most importantly to lay claim to the territory they were already calling New Schwabenland.

The Vessel And One Of The Research Planes

The ship sailed for just over a month down along the coast of Africa and eventually reached the antarctic coastline. As soon as they arrived they loaded two planes into the catapults and shot them out over the icy terrain around them. The mountains in that region had never been explored or even surveyed before which made the data they were recorded incredibly valuable for research purposes. But it was not purely for research that the planes were sent out over the land, in fact they were also there to drop hundreds of 4 and half foot metal spikes with swastikas etched into them. These spikes were meant to be plunged deep into the antarctic ice and serve as physical proof of their claim on the land, but this didn’t quite go to plan.

One of the planes ventured a bit too far out on their mapping expedition and on their return journey found that they were running low on fuel. The crew, upon realising this, scrambled to lessen the weight aboard the plane and so threw out anything heavy that they could get their hands on. It just so happened that they were carrying a number of boxes carrying these swastika claim darts meant to be dispersed all across the land. It didn’t take them long before deciding to dump all of the boxes in one go and unfortunately for them, these swastika darts were never recovered.

Not that it would have actually mattered, because just a few weeks later Norway would make their claim over Queen Maud Land official by royal proclamation, thereby scuppering any chances the Germans had of creating a viable supply line.

The Germans refused to accept this and announced their own claim on the land, but it was summarily dismissed by almost every country on earth and so, defeated, the vessel left in early February to make the month long trip back to Europe. The trip had not been a total failure however as they had conducted some critical military research into how aeroplanes performed in extremely low temperatures, information they would later come to use when advancing into the Soviet Union. On the way back to Europe the scientists conducted some scans of the seafloor along the Atlantic Ocean. They detected a line of volcanic activity running North to South along the middle of the seafloor, what we now know as the mid-atlantic ridge.

For years after the war conspiracy theories spread about the real reason the German vessel was sent to Antarctica. Some people claim that the point of the mission was in fact to locate hidden entrances to a network of caves and tunnels that led down into the centre of the planet. This was all part of a theory called the Hollow Earth, and it was supposedly one of the places that Hitler and some other senior Nazi officials could have escaped to after the war.

Returning to Germany empty handed didn’t look good and soon Goering was on the hunt for yet another way to create this sought after staple.

He came across a scientist in the Rhur area of Germany who had begun developing alternative methods of making margarine. But there was only one problem. One giant problem for a Nazi such as Hermann Goering. The scientist was Jewish. The man’s name was Arthur Imhausen which sounded German enough and so Goering, in the interest of margarine production, prononounced him only Half-Jewish. Even so, in Nazi Germany this would still have been enough to have sent him to a concentration camp but luckily for him, he was allowed to build and run an alternative margarine factory.

Arthur Imhausen had discovered a method by which he could synthesize soap from coal, and had begun working on a way to use this method to synthesize the fat from coal to produce margarine as well. The Nazi party, desperate as they were for margarine, gave him plenty of money and help and before long he had begun producing a kind of margarine that could be stored outside of refrigeration and even then would never go rotten. This was like a miracle, and when Goering informed Hitler of this discovery he was thrilled. They called Imhausen in for a meeting and despite his Jewish heritage he was told that as payment he and his family would be treated as honorary Aryans and would be afforded all the same privileges.

Arthur Imhausen would go on to be awarded two of Germany’s highest military medals for his work and would end up surviving the war. The Imhausen company that he started was also allowed to continue operating in Germany after the war ended despite their work aiding the Nazi military machine. He died not long after the war ended in 1951 but his company still lives on today.

Despite how or where the margarine was made, during the war it was not on the list of rationed food items, mainly because it was too difficult to police peoples consumption of it. So, Germans were free to consume as much as they could get their hands on, and although they didn’t quite fulfill their plans of establishing a margarine factory in Antarctica, it would soon prove to be quite the least of their worries.


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