In the Library

Taking the Long View: Arctic Relations and the Historical Imperative

Petermann’s polar projection map of ocean currents in the Arctic and a crosspolar land bridge, 1865 (Source: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 1865) © J. Woitkowitz
Petermann’s polar projection map of ocean currents in the Arctic and a crosspolar land bridge, 1865 (Source: Petermanns Geographische Mitteilungen, 1865) © J. Woitkowitz

By John Woitkowitz.

Speaking during the 2nd Arctic Science Ministerial in Berlin in October 2018, Georg Schütte, State Secretary for Education and Research made the case for Germany’s Arctic bona fides: “For a century and a half, we have conducted research at the North Pole. Over this period, we have gained a significant reputation. It is in this sense that Germany is an honest broker of the interests of all participants involved” in the region. Promoting Germany’s signature project in the Arctic for 2019, the multinational drift expedition MOSAiC, Schütte added that polar science continued to inspire a sense of “adventure,” [1] a notion echoed by a cinematic trailer for the expedition “far away from civilization.”

A dominant trope of conversations about the circumpolar regions is the notion of dispruption and change. The focus on the Arctic as a region under duress from natural transformations can be observed, for example, in the pages of newsmedia, the agendas of political and scientific gatherings, and the public imagination, more broadly. It does not come as a surprise then that beyond the confines of historically-minded scholars and knowledge-holders, current changes and developments in the circumpolar world are rarely contextualized within the longue dureé of polar history. Instead, a historical amnesia privileges a presentist conception driven by an accelerated awareness of the environmental changes in the polar regions. In turn, this portends to obfuscate what the nineteenth-century historian Jacob Burckhardt identified as “the recurrent, the constant, and the typical,” [2] in other words the continuities and legacies that continue to exert their grasp on the mental maps of actors in the regions today. The emergence of competing temporalities is a result of this phenomenon, disconnecting millenia of indigenous history and centuries of European and American activities from present conversations about the state and the future of the Arctic regions and its peoples.

Photograph of the Alfred-Wegener-Institute’s Polarstar, the lead vessel of the 2019 MOSAiC expedition © Hannes Grobe (Alfred Wegener Institute)

Schütte’s invocation of German polar history is a useful case to illustrate the entangled nature of knowledge production in and of the circumpolar regions. Early modern attempts to bestow the North Pole with meaning have been intertwined with questions over divine authority, power, and social status, the historical geographer Michael Bravo has recently shown. In 1524, long before the emergence of a German nation state, the Saxon Peter Apian, for example, popularized polar projection maps sought after by royal and commercial elites looking to grasp a relationship between celestial movement and terrestrial events. [3] Rulership and power were closely connected to polar knowledge and the means used to produce such knowledge.

During the nineteenth century, August Petermann stimulated debates about the nature of the Arctic. The enterprising geographer behind the First German Polar Expedition in 1868—Schütte’s vanishing point—theorized about the existence of an open polar sea and the extension of a land bridge across the Arctic Ocean, connecting Greenland and Wrangel Island. Aspiring to a Humboldtian universalism, Petermann brought scientific theories on topics such as ocean currents, ice distribution, meteorology or magnetism in conversation with spatial representations of the polar sea. His geographical work and advocacy, however, failed to win support from the newly unified German Kaiserreich in 1871 for a sustained program of polar exploration. Indicative of the transnational nature of polar science and exploration at the time, Petermann’s theories received a warmer welcome in Austria-Hungary, Sweden, Russia, Britain, the Netherlands and the United States, inspiring scientific agendas and polar expeditions. Schütte’s history of Germany’s polar engagement was off to a rocky start.

Illustration of the vessel Grönland of the First German Polar Expedition, 1868 © E. Hochdanz

Petermann’s role as a geographical authority, however, was not benign. For all of his contributions to the development of polar research, he remained a participant in the broader imperial project of the nineteenth century. Hinting at the prospect of an exploitable navigable Arctic Ocean and a land of plenty across the pole, Petermann teasingly asked: “Is there nothing beyond 80° within the Arctic region but an ice desert without animals and plants, an empty leaf of god’s creation?” [4] A first biographical treatment of Petermann in 1903 unabashedly celebrated the cartographer as a pioneer of German colonialism and a key contributor to the imperialism of other European nations. [5] Petermann’s instruction as part of the 1868 expedition to abduct an Inuit family for scientific study in Germany and the display of Inuit at Hagenbeck’s human exhibitions in Hamburg and Berlin during the 1870s highlight the colonial dimension of Germany’s polar past, a colonialism without colonies that complicates Schütte’s notion of an “honest broker.” [6]

The histories of Arctic relations and their postcolonial legacies in contemporary conversations surrounding the circumpolar regions have been the subject of knowledge-holders and scholars from a variety of backgrounds and fields. More work drawing on these entangled histories of Arctic interactions is required to understand the practices of collecting, representing, and mobilizing knowledges of the regions over time and across scientific networks and knowledge communities. This work is essential to understanding the legacies of exploration, science, and colonialism in the Arctic and the ways they continue to structure knowledges of the regions and its peoples today. As this work continues, a sense of humility and a willingness to listen can only benefit a growing appreciation of the Arctic as a historical and a cultural space. As a discussion about the need for serious engagement with indigenous knowledges and the diversity of the circumpolar regions at the German Environmental Agency acknowledged during the 2nd Arctic Science Ministerial: “We do not, or not yet, seem to grasp the big picture.” [7]

Dr. John Woitkowitz is a Postdoctoral Research Associate in the ERC-funded project Arctic Cultures: Sites of Collection in the Formation of the European and American Northlands led by Dr. Richard C. Powell at the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge. For more information, visit and follow the project on Twitter @ArcticCult.

[1] RBB Inforadio, “Forschung in der Arktis,” 25.10.2018,, last accessed 5.11.2018.

[2] Jacob Burckhardt, Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen. München: C.H. Beck, 2018, 12.

[3] Michael Bravo, North Pole, London: Reaktion Books, 2019, 41-56.

[4] Hugo August Weller, “August Petermann als praktisch-organisatorisch tätiger Geograph. Bruchstück zu August Petermann und seiner Schule,” Dissertation, University of Leipzig, 1903, 44.

[5] Ibid., 11.

[6] Andreas Eckart and Albert Wirtz, “Wir nicht, die anderen auch,” in: Sebastian Conrad and Shalini Randeria (eds.), Jenseits des Eurozentrismus. Postkoloniale Perspektiven in den Geschichts- und Kulturwissenschaften. Frankfurt a. M: Campus Verlag, 2013, 506-25.

[7] R. Andreas Kraemer, “Responibility for the Arctic from afar,” The Arctic Insitute, 27.11.2018,, last accessed on 17.01.2019.