On a wild island in the Arctic Ocean, a team of researchers is uncovering something bizarre. Littering the barren landscape are strange artifacts: a rusty metal plaque here, a scrap of document there. How did these fragments of a past time get here, and what is the truth behind the strange rumors about Alexandra Land?
In 2016 researchers from the Russian Arctic National Park were exploring a large, uninhabited island in Franz Josef Land, part of Russia’s Arkhangelsk Oblast region. Known as Alexandra Land, the island marks the farthest westerly point of the archipelago.
According to senior researcher Evgeny Ermolov, written records had hinted at the presence of an abandoned military base on the island. However, most people dismissed the stories as nothing more than wartime legends – in part due to the sinister and mysterious nature of the tales.
But as they were roaming about the isolated island, Ermolov and his team discovered something incredible. The remains of old bunkers were visible, along with no less than 500 fascinating relics dating back to the Second World War.
The researchers found old petrol canisters, discarded batteries and rusty bullets scattered across the rocky landscape. They even found a cache of documents, still partially legible thanks to their preservation by the freezing temperatures.
For Ermolov, it was proof that a secret Nazi base had been operational on the island during the war. But what was the story behind it and how had it met with such a mysterious fate?
Historically, Franz Josef Land has been a disputed territory, with both Russia and Norway laying claim to the archipelago since the 19th century. Despite opposition from the Kingdom of Norway, the Soviets began constructing a permanent base on the islands in 1929.
Alexandra Land, however, remained free from human influence, populated instead by seals and wandering polar bears. Then, on June 22, 1941, Hitler invaded Russia – and everything changed.
The following year, the Germans constructed a base on the island, located around 620 miles from the North Pole. Subsequently codenamed Schatzgraber, its official purpose was to gather information about the weather.
Of course, studying meteorology was an important task for officers needing to plan military maneuvers during the Second World War. But many have suspected that the station in the cold reaches of the Arctic actually filled a far more intriguing purpose.
In English, the base’s name means “Treasure Hunter.” Consequently, some people believe that the operation’s real purpose was linked to the Nazi party’s long-rumored fascination with ancient artifacts and the occult.
Indeed, in 1935, SS Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler had established a branch of the Nazi party known as the Ahnenerbe. Although its official remit was to research the Aryan race’s origins, the institute grew to incorporate many of Himmler’s more outlandish beliefs.
Himmler was determined to prove that the world had once been ruled by a mythical, Nordic super race, from whom modern Germans were descended. Hoping to find evidence to support this claim, he subsequently oversaw expeditions to locations as far-flung as Syria and Tibet.
The Ahnenerbe was also thought to have been involved in several hunts for legendary artifacts of note. There were rumors of a 1936 expedition to recover the Ark of the Covenant, the wooden box said to contain the Ten Commandments.
Himmler also had his eyes set on another biblical relic: the Holy Grail. Indeed, from the 1930s to 1944, he oversaw numerous expeditions to the Languedoc region of France, where he believed the ancient chalice – which some believed to have magical powers – was hidden.
Historically, then, certain members of the Nazi party could certainly have described themselves as treasure hunters. Himmler even spent some time working with the writer and grail enthusiast Otto Rahn, whom many people believe inspired the character of Indiana Jones.
However, there is currently no evidence linking the base at Alexandra Land to the activities of Himmler and the Ahnenerbe. But although the story behind the evocative name remains a mystery, the truth about the fate of the base is perhaps just as bizarre.
In 1944, a group of men stationed at Schatzgraber fell gravely ill. They had eaten polar bear meat that contained roundworm, and as a result they had contracted trichinosis. A German U-boat had to evacuate the team from the island, leaving the base unmanned.
So Schatzgraber sat empty for the next 72 years, its legacy slowly fading into legend. Now, experts are rediscovering some of its secrets. And although no ancient treasures have yet been recovered from the base, the artifacts that have been found are more than satisfactory for Ermolov and his team.
“Before it was only known from written sources,” Ermolov said in a statement, “but now we also have real proof. Now we can enter this data in the scientific revolution, and expand and clarify the idea of the German army operations in the Arctic region during the Second World War.”