Diary provides insights into life on a research vessel in the 1920s
The German Atlantic Expedition suffered a catastrophe in 1926: The scientific leader of this expedition, Professor Alfred Merz, died after a short illness in Buenos Aires. Under his command, researchers on board the METEOR have been investigating and measuring the Atlantic between South America and Africa since 16 April 1925. Out of necessity, the captain of the METEOR, Fritz Spiess, took over the leadership of the expedition. His diary, in which he documented this time, is preserved in the German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History. Now the diary, which comprises more than 800 pages, has been transcribed thanks to the support association of the German Maritime Museum.
The death of the expedition leader was shocking for the participants, both humanly and professionally: Alfred Merz had not only initiated the expedition, but had also planned it for years. Nevertheless, frigate captain Fritz Spiess continued the expedition successfully. When the METEOR returned to Wilhelmshaven in June 1927 after 777 days on the Atlantic Ocean, the research vessel brought back remarkable results. Among other things, these enabled much more precise mapping of the Atlantic floor. The evaluation of the results kept researchers busy until the 1960s.
The captain’s diary has a special place in the collection of the German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History: „It is one of our highlights in the field of research shipping,“ says Dr. Martin Weiss, historian and research associate at the museum. According to Weiss, such a clear and nuanced insight into life on board a research vessel of the early 20th century is very rare internationally. „You can almost feel the rough seas when Spiess‘ handwriting becomes illegible,“ he says.
However, the shaky handwriting may also have been due to cheerful meetings on board: „In the evening, we celebrate the record basic sample in the laboratory with a thoroughly chemical mulled wine. Cosy, space is in the smallest hut,“ Spiess notes. But the dramatic sides of the expedition are also described. It is hard to imagine the strain that the seriously ill expedition leader Merz suffered when the ship could not move fast enough to take him to a port and to receive hospital treatment in time because of strong winds.
Spiess‘ German-national attitude and how much he enjoys and emphasizes the participation of the Navy in the research expedition also becomes clear time and again. Spiess vividly describes life on board and on voyages. For example, he reports how the oceanographer and later university lecturer Georg Wüst played entire Beethoven sonatas and complains about South American jazz music.
From a research point of view, however, the diary is particularly interesting because Spiess‘ later publications on the expedition were apparently based to a large extent on these notes. Almost all historical evaluations of the expedition refer to Spiess‘ publications. Further sources on the expedition came to light in 2017 during the museum’s scientific monitoring of the theatre project „METEOR“ of the theatre group „Das letzte Kleinod“.
One challenge for the research was the poor legibility of Spiess‘ handwriting. Weiss therefore initiated the time-consuming transcription of the four-volume diary, which comprises more than 800 pages. With the help of the museum’s support association, he was able to win over the historian and polar researcher Dr. Reinhard Krause for this task.
Martin Weiss is now particularly pleased that the transcription not only makes the diary more accessible for research, but also makes it easier to present in the museum’s future exhibition on research shipping. Although Spiess wrote in a way that was difficult to read, he drew all the better – for example, caricatures of dignitaries of various ports of call. For this reason, too, according to Weiss, it is worth taking a look at the diary.
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The German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History in Bremerhaven has set itself the task of exploring the relationship between man and sea and making it possible to experience it in exhibitions. It is one of eight Leibniz research museums in Germany. With about 100 employees and trainees and around 8000 square metres of covered exhibition space, it is one of the largest maritime museums in Europe. The German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History is currently in a state of flux and combines a building renovation and the construction of a research depot with a comprehensive new concept for all exhibition and research areas. Research projects at the German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History are supported by renowned national and international funding programmes. As an attractive workplace for young and professionally experienced talents in maritime research, the German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History maintains a variety of cooperations with universities, colleges and non-university research institutions.
Dr. Martin Weiss, historian and research assistant at the German Maritime Museum / Leibniz Institute for Maritime History firstname.lastname@example.org