Thursday 29 September 2022

How the Amazon became popular in the Third Reich

In the 1930s, a zoologist used funds from the Nazi regime to travel through the Brazilian Amazon. The expedition inspired a movie, a book and left behind a massive cross with a swastika in the jungle.

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“Mr. Schulz-Kampfhenkel is a brilliant example of the modern generation. He is in his twenties, speaks various languages, has a biography marked by triumphs and has already made a name for himself in the European science community.”

In the 1930s, a zoologist used funds from the Nazi regime to travel through the Brazilian Amazon. The expedition inspired a movie, a book and left behind a massive cross with a swastika in the jungle.

This is how the Rio de Janeiro newspaper Gazeta de Noticias described Otto Schulz-Kampfhenkel on August 9, 1935. The young, German zoologist and geographer was about to embark on his expedition through the Brazilian Amazon.

The German government financed the trip along with German-Brazilian newspapers that published exclusives about Schulz-Kampfhenkel’s experiences. He was part of the Nazis’ paramilitary organization: The SS.

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In his article “On the eve of the sensational expedition to Jari Valley,” Schulz-Kampfhenkel highlighted his supposed scientific achievements and the fact that he was traveling by plane to study the region. It was the world’s first-ever research trip of this kind, he claimed.

German media celebrated the trip through the Jari Valley in northern Brazil with just as much fervor.

Schulz-Kampfhenkel (r) next to the aviator Gerd Kahle as they left Berlin for the expedition

An expedition to unite Germany and Brazil

From September 1935 to March 1937, Schulz-Kampfhenkel traveled with the aviator Gerd Kahle, the engineer Gerhard Krause and the German-Brazilian Joseph Greiner. Twenty-one local assistants not only showed the foreigners the route, but they also established contact with indigenous communities and collected information about the region’s fauna, geography and ethnography.

The expedition spread cultural propaganda, according to André Felipe Cândido da Silva, a historian with the scientific research foundation Oswaldo Cruz. That is because it happened at a time when Germans, Americans and the French were fighting to influence the Brazilian government and intellectuals.

“The trip continued to bring together Brazil and Germany on a diplomatic, commercial, military and also scientific level,” said Silva.

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“But it didn’t prevent conflicts in 1938 from causing diplomatic ruptures and tensions. These happened in part because of (Brazilian President Getulio) Vargas’ nationalization politics which stopped German from being taught in schools and prohibited the Nazi Party in the country.”

Thousands of samples and one swastika

As he followed the Jari River to Brazil’s border with French Guyana, Schulz-Kampfhenkel collected about 1,500 animal specimens, of which 500 alone were from mammals. He found 1,200 ethnographic objects from the Aparai, Wayana and Wajãpi indigenous communities, took more than 2,500 photographs and filmed more than 2,700 meters of 16mm film.

He gave the majority of this material to Berlin’s Ethnographic Museum and its Museum of Natural History.

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In turn, the Amazon inherited a massive wooden cross with a swastika, which was placed on Greiner’s burial site at the shores of the Jari River. The German-Brazilian died of malaria in the early stages of the journey, on January 2, 1936.

The expedition also made Schulz-Kampfhenkel famous. He launched the 1938 movie Rätsel der Urwaldhölle (Mystery of the Jungle Hell), published a popular book by the same name and organized an exhibition.

Appropriating a plan for invasion 

Some believe the expedition had the secret mission of designing a plan to invade and occupy the Guyanas through northern Brazil — but historians discard this theory.

According to Holger Stoecker of Humboldt University in Berlin, Schulz-Kampfhenkel became a Nazi regime specialist to Brazil after his Amazon trip.

That is why in 1940, SS leader Heinrich Himmler asked him to give his opinion on a plan to annex the Guyanas presented by author and adventurer Heinrich Peskoller.

Taken by surprise, Schulz-Kampfhenkel appropriated Peskoller’s idea, saying he had thought of a similar scheme during his trip. He would present it to his superior “soon.”

“It was typical for Schulz-Kampfhenkel to appropriate others’ ideas to promote himself,” said Stoecker, highlighting that the plan was created way after the Amazon trip.

There is no empirical evidence proving that the expedition served to put together an invasion plan, according to Stoecker.

Lots of marketing, little science

Germans organized many other expeditions to Brazil during the Third Reich. Researchers of diverse backgrounds visited various regions around the country, from the southern state of Paraná to the northern state of Amazônia.

Among these travelers were Hans Krieg, who was the director of Munich’s Zoology Museum, the researchers of the Institute of Tropical Diseases in Hamburg Gustav Giemsa and Ernst Nauck as well as the ornithologists Adolf Schneider and Helmut Sick.

“The German expeditions were the most numerous after the American ones,” said Silva, citing numbers by the Council of Fiscalization of Artistic and Scientific Expeditions.

But Schulz-Kampfhenkel’s expedition was by far the most popular. That is because of the publicity it received by the press as well as the movie and book that were published after the trip.

Indigenous people stand in front of the cross at the burial site of Joseph Greiner

“This work emphasized the exoticism, the adventure, the pioneering spirit and the conquest of the ‘last white spot on Earth,'” said Silva. “That is how he described the trip in diverse narratives in an attempt to portray the region as completely unexplored, isolated from contact with Western society.”

“Schulz-Kampfhenkel was an active marketer of his expeditions. He always valued commercializing his trips in the media,” said Stoecker.

Scientifically speaking, the expedition added abundant material to a collection, but it did not contribute to any new discoveries. Schulz-Kampfhenkel did not even analyze the samples he brought back to Germany or write any scientific articles about the trip.

“Schulz-Kampfhenkel did not have any real scientific interest,” said Stoecker. “He was not motivated to make discoveries, but apparently these expeditions helped him promote his career and network in political circles, in scientific institutions, in museums.”

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