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Tom Holland on Plato's Atlantis

Where the popular historian screwed it up and where not

Thorwald C. Franke
© 29 March 2023

Tom Holland is not a historian by profession, but he studied history and has written popular non-fiction books about history with such an accuracy and art, that he deserves to be called a historian. Above all, Tom Holland is an intellectual, who provided us with several quite intelligent perspectives on our history, so that he has a say in how we define ourselves today in the face of history, and this is much said. Tom Holland did not only translate the ancient historian Herodotus, but also published about Persia and Rome, and last but not least wrote a very remarkable book about the historical-critical reading of the sources on early Islam. This all is of great interest to us, because it impressively demonstrates Tom Holland's familiarity with historical criticism and antiquity. Tom Holland is, so to speak, predestined for a deeper understanding of Plato's Atlantis story.

Now, Tom Holland has expressed his opinion on Plato's Atlantis, in two episodes of the podcast series "The Rest Is History". In these podcasts, Tom Holland is accompanied by the popular historian and media presenter Dominic Sandbrook. Both go also on tour in live shows together.

General impression

What does the great Tom Holland think about Plato's Atlantis? To our great disappointment, Tom Holland seems to have forgotten everything he ever heard about the historical-critical reading of ancient texts when it comes to Plato's Atlantis. For him, Atlantis is a pure invention by Plato (Ep01 33:17), a political allegory on forms of government, alluding to Athens' victories over the Persians, and also to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, and also to the Sicilian Expedition of Athens against Syracuse, and last but not least, it also alludes to a symbolic struggle of a good Athens with a bad Athens. Since Tom Holland calls the story a "parody" of history (Ep01 35:44), and since Tom Holland believes that Plato's audience clearly understood that it is a fictional story (Ep01 41:50), it becomes clear that for Tom Holland the Atlantis story was a piece of fiction, transparent as such to the ancient readers.

One reason for this very one-sided judgement may be that these two podcasts were meant as a discussion and criticism of Graham Hancock's views on Atlantis. Now, Graham Hancock's views are definitely pseudohistory. But to bring this point home, it was not necessary to shed the baby out with the bath water. To the contrary: In order to debunk Graham Hancock's literalist reading of Plato's Atlantis, it would have been very helpful to demonstrate a historical-critical reading of the Atlantis story. But Tom Holland utterly fails in doing this and applies a literalist reading himself.

This podcast is full of laughter about Plato and about readers of Plato who dare not to realize that the Atlantis story "obviously" is an invention. It is really disappointing. Applying the same method, Tom Holland could laugh about early Islamic history and declare prophet Muhammad "obviously" non-existent, since there are so many contradictions and unbelievable elements in the textual sources, since there is a lack of archaeological evidence, and since the story comes "out of nowhere". I am quite certain, that Tom Holland would never do this! But he does it with Plato and Atlantis.

Screwed up: No historical-critical reading of the 9,000 years

Tom Holland takes the age of Atlantis of 9,000 years for granted without further ado and does not reflect its meaning in the historical context. Since he considers the Atlantis story an invention, he says that "this is when Plato was setting the story of Atlantis" (Ep01 26:03). He does not consider the possiblity that Plato did not "set" this date. Tom Holland's argument that handing down a story over millenia is "as improbable as the idea that Plato is actually transcribing an actual story" (Ep02 41:26) shows that he considers the Atlantis story an invention because of this improbability. For Tom Holland, the number of 9,000 years is one of the arguments why the Atlantis story cannot be true. Because the handing down of a historical tradition like the Atlantis story is not plausible over many millenia, especially without the art of writing.

But hasn't Tom Holland translated Herodotus? He has. Herodotus says that Egypt is 11,340+ years old. And Tom Holland briefly touches Plato's dialogue The Laws. Here, Plato talks of an age of Egypt of at least 10,000 years. These numbers are wrong of course. But this is what Herodotus and Plato and all the ancient Greeks believed. And therefore, the age of Atlantis has to be interpreted on this background of this collective error. When Egypt was founded not 11,340+ years before Solon's and Plato's time, but in truth around 3,000 BC, then the 9,000 years of Atlantis, which point to a time after 11,340+ years before, logically point to a time after 3,000 BC. And this is even true if Plato invented the Atlantis story. Some scholars have realized this. Tom Holland should realize it, too.

And what is the consequence of this realization? That the argument falls apart, that the 9,000 years speak against the reality of Plato's Atlantis. Because an Egyptian historical tradition from somewhen after 3,000 BC is much more plausible, since the art of writing had already been invented in this time. Sidenote: The 8,000 years mentioned in Plato's Atlantis story do not refer to Egypt, they refer to the city of Sais.

Screwed up: Denying any traces of the story's origin

According to Tom Holland, the Atlantis story appears out of nowhere, while real historical traditions can be traced back to earlier sources and traditions: "But with Atlantis, we know exactly who is the first person to discuss it. And it is the Greek philosopher Plato" (Ep01 05:12). Even stronger: "No one even kind of alludes to a story that might be kind of mistaken for Atlantis before Plato." (Ep01 06:57)

But what about the source Plato himself explicitly mentions, the Egyptians? Is it impossible that the Egyptians conveyed such a story to the Greeks, all the more since we know that the 9,000 years point to a time when Egypt already existed? No, it is not impossible, not at all. Tom Holland himself refers to Plato, that "Egypt uniquely has been proof against all these various natural disasters that have overwhelmed humanity because they have the Nile." (Ep01 26:03) And since Tom Holland has translated Herodotus, he knows that such ideas indeed existed in Egypt and about Egypt. This is what Plato really believed, and therefore it is only natural that Plato had the idea that Egyptian sources grant access to information about times which are prehistory for the Greeks. Not quite an unreasonable idea.

It is also wrong that there are no traces of any historical tradition prior to Plato, on which the story could draw. Completely unmentioned by Tom Holland are e.g. the Hyksos, or the Sea Peoples at the time of the Late Bronze Age collapse about whom we know from ... Egyptian sources. And also information about the Minoan civilization could have come to Plato via the Egyptians. It is therefore senseless when Tom Holland rejects the Minoan hypothesis by saying "there's no evidence for it in any Greek myth or any Greek story beforehand" (Ep01 35:15). Tom Holland claims that "we have no evidence at all for anything that links the destruction of Thera ... to the time of Plato, which is kind of thousand years and more after it", and asks: "But how is that story passed?" (Ep02 35:10) Again, the Egyptians as a possibility remain unmentioned. But Tom Holland at least admits that many features of the Minoan civilization are "all very Atlantis" (Ep02 32:16), thus contradicting his own claim that there would be no traces of historical traditions on which the Atlantis story could draw.

Also Tom Holland's criticism that the Minoan civilization does not look exactly like Plato's description of Atlantis does not breathe the spirit of historical criticism. Tom Holland even says that "neither Crete nor Santorini remotely resemble Plato's description of it" (Ep02 35:33), or he does not like that "Crete or Thera ... is not in the Atlantic. So that's a major problem" (Ep02 34:18). Granted, these are arguments, but not major problems. Who knows what the ancient Egyptians meant when they were talking of an island of Atlas in a sea at some sea straits? The phrase "Pillars of Hercules" was certainly not contained in the Egyptian original text, that much is certain.

Desmond Lee had better answers than Tom Holland when he wrote in his "Appendix on Atlantis" in 1971: "But Solon might have heard a story of a powerful island people overwhelmed by some natural disaster; and perhaps of its involvement at one point in an unsuccessful war". Desmond Lee even saw striking similarities to a place on Crete: "It is tempting, as one stands on the site of Phaestos, looking over the plain of Messara, to suppose that this is the low hill on which the citadel of Atlantis was built, that Phaestos was Atlantis and the plain of Messara (with suitable irrigation works) the 'most beautiful of all plains' described by Plato." But Tom Holland is picky and complains that there are "no canals, no kind of, you know, walls going around it. I mean, it's terrace style. No elephants." etc. etc. (Ep02 36:01) When considering Tom Hollands very strong claim that there are not the least traces of any historical tradition on which the story could draw, this claim is unconvincing.

Therefore, the Minoan hypothesis is not just "posh pseudoarchaeology" as Tom Holland wants it to denigrate (Ep02 00:36:16), though at the same time the Minoan hypothesis is not the ultimate revelation on the subject but has its problems and flaws. At least we can say that the Minoan hypothesis is still very useful to develop an understanding of what is realistic concerning the Atlantis question, and what is obvious nonsense.

Screwed up: Typical errors of the invention hypothesis

As most adherents of the invention hypothesis, Tom Holland skips a very important turn in the plot at the beginning of the Timaeus, i.e., that Socrates first plans to invent a story to fulfil his demand to see the ideal state in action, and only after this proposal Critias comes along and says that he has something better: a real story (Ep01 23:09). This turn in the plot from an invented story to a real story is often skipped because it goes against the preferred reading of a recognizable invention and requires significantly more explanations to save the idea of an invention. The invention hypothesis is not without difficulties and Occam's razor does not only threaten existence hypotheses. Nothing demonstrates this better than the notorious omission of this turn in the plot by many adherents of the invention hypothesis. They know why they are not talking about it.

Then, Socrates' judgement that a real story is better than an invented story, is ridiculed by Tom Holland and depicted as transparent irony (Ep01 29:32). Dominic Sandbrook takes part in the ridiculing: "Well, I mean, Socrates said it was true. Graham Hancock said it is true. Who am I to disagree?" (Ep01 33:12) It does not occur to Tom Holland, that Socrates' judgement is just plausible: Of course, a real story is better than an invented one, if you want to demonstrate something. It is only strange when Tom Holland says ten minutes later, "Socrates is absolutely right that there is no point in talking about an ideal city if you can't show that it would actually function within an actual narrative" (Ep01 41:50). Why "narrative"? Who can be convinced by an invented narrative? There is a reason why Socrates accepted Critias' proposal for a real story. Because a real story is better than an invented one.

Strange enough, Tom Holland himself says much later near the end of the second episode that "Graham Hancock is kind of being true to the story there", when it comes to the catastrophes wiping out civilizations (Ep02 45:16), and that Plato's audience "would have found it much easier to recognise Graham Hancock's 'Ancient Apocalypse', as being true to the story." (Ep02 46:56). How so? According to Tom Holland, Plato's Atlantis story allegedly is a transparent parody, while Graham Hancock intends to tell a real story. Somehow, Tom Holland considers Plato's story a real story, here. A Freudian slip? But maybe only a misunderstanding in the spoken word.

As many adherents of the invention hypothesis, Tom Holland prefers to see in the dialogue participant Critias the tyrant Critias, and this without further ado (Ep01 14:06; 15:34; 23:09). There is no discussion of the chronological difficulties this provokes, no discussion about the elder Critias, no discussion about Critias the dialogue participant being accepted as a full-fledged philosopher, a title Plato would never have granted to Critias the tyrant. While scholars more and more tend to accept the identity of the elder Critias, though sometimes reluctantly, Tom Holland sticks to the tyrant.

As always in invention hypotheses, the chain of handing down the Atlantis story via oral tradition is ridiculed as "telephone" (Ep01 25:31). At the same time it is completely overlooked that there is also talk of a written tradition in Plato's text, beginning with the Egyptians and ending with Critias the dialogue participant. The chain of oral tradition is a literary device to introduce a real story into a fictional dialogue. The real thing is the written tradition.

And of course, the Atlantis story is depicted as "completely fantastical, and yet at the same time, completely true" (Ep01 23:09), as "mad and true" (Ep01 24:28), and as "utterly fabulous and completely true" (Ep01 24:40). Here, we encounter more than one misunderstanding on behalf of Tom Holland. First, the Atlantis story is neither fantastical, nor mad, nor fabulous. There is no magic in it, no wonders, no monsters. Also the elephants are just real world creatures. There are only gods as founding fathers, but this is what every real city in the ancient world has. And secondly, Tom Holland has overlooked that Critias explicitly supplements the historical tradition to have the full ideal state, which in turn means, that the historical tradition did not contain the full ideal state. And only this is called true, not the supplemented version. There is no claim at all that there would be a historical tradition which exactly matches with Plato's ideal state.

Atlantis allegedly invaded Europe and Asia, according to Tom Holland (Ep01 28:14). But what is "Asia", here? Does it comprise Africa? To be precise, the Atlantis story is not clear about this. There is a clear self-contradiction in the Atlantis story: Sometimes, Africa counts as part of Asia, sometimes not. How so in a completely invented story? And Tom Holland left completely unmentioned another self-contradiction in the Atlantis story: On the one hand side, Atlantis is said to have owned all the land up to Italy and Libya before it started its conquest. On the other hand side, Atlantis is said to have started its conquest to seize all the lands within the straits in one blow. Both cannot be true. What to make of it in an invented story? And what could be made of this when applying historical criticism?

Concerning the elephants, the idea that elephants allude to Persia (Ep01 36:40) is not really a good idea since the presence of Indian elephants in the Persian empire in Greek literature is not strong. It is not like with Hannibal's elephants. Much more convincing is what the expert for ancient geography, Ernst Hugo Berger, once had proposed not least with a certain passage of Aristotle in mind: That the fact that there are elephants in the far west and in the far east, but not in between, could have led the ancients to believe that there once was a land bridge (with elephants) from West Africa to East India, i.e., exactly where Atlantis allegedly was located. (See Franke 2010/2012)

Finally, about the mud in front of Gibraltar, allegedly left behind by the sinking island. Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook realize that there is no such mud in the real world (Ep01 29:23). And have not more to say about it. So for them, it is just another sign of fiction. But they did not notice that also Aristotle spoke of this mud as a reality. Though the mud was not real, the Greeks believed in its existence. It is not an invention. It is an error. And this is a big difference with big consequences for the credibility of Plato's Atlantis story.

Screwed up: Reception history

Tom Holland believes of Plato's Atlantis story, that "very few people initially seemed to have actually believed that it was true. People absolutely seem to have understood what he was doing with this." (Ep01 41:50). Aristotle was silent about Atlantis, says Tom Holland, what is taken as a sign that also Aristotle considered it fiction (Ep01 43:36). Allegedly, "right the way through into the Roman period, people who you think might be interested in it don't mention it", says Tom Holland (Ep01 44:17), and "only towards the end of the classical period, so deep into late antiquity, do you get someone who's wholeheartedly a fan of the whole story of Atlantis. And this is a philosopher who is a student of Plato, absolutely devoted to him, called Proclus, who is writing in the fifth century AD. And he is all over the idea that Atlantis is true." (Ep01 45:21).

Now, we have to slightly correct this picture. There was e.g. Theophrastus, disciple and successor to Aristotle, who mentioned Plato's Atlantis explicitly as a real place. Or there was Crantor, a respected member of Plato's Academy, author of the first commentary on Plato's Timaeus, who confirmed the reality of Plato's Atlantis story. Crantor even claimed to have found confirmation of the story on Egyptian stelai. And then there were the heavy-weights Strabo and Posidonius, both answering the question whether the Atlantis story is real with a clear and explicit inclination towards a "Yes". While we know several names of Atlantis supporters right from the beginning, the first Atlantis sceptic known by name appears only 500 years after Plato. It was Numenius of Apameia.

Also Aristotle cannot be lumped into the number of sceptics. That he does not mention Plato's Atlantis story is rather a sign that he believed in the reality of Atlantis, because otherwise he would have contradicted the story, as he does with other stories and aspects of Plato's dialogues he does not like. Aristotle shared the same or similar beliefs as Plato about repeated catastrophes and many other aspects of the Atlantis story. And he believed in the mud in front of Gibraltar, as we have already seen, about which he briefly talks in a work on the nature of the natural world and its reasons and causations. But for the mud, no reason and no cause is given in this work. The only reason for this mud in all of Greek literature is Plato's Atlantis, and if Aristotle does not give a different reason, he just accepts the reason everybody knows. (More on this in Franke 2010/2012)

Pliny the Elder is ridiculed for mentioning Atlantis, and it is said that he added doubts about its existence (Ep01 44:17). While we cannot agree on the ridiculing, we can also not agree on the latter. Pliny the Elder voiced doubts on the size of Atlantis, not on its existence.

Proclus was a much acclaimed Neoplatonist and not alone in his belief in the reality of Atlantis. He could look back on a long tradition of Atlantis support over the centuries, beginning in Plato's time. And when Tom Holland says that Proclus is right that the war of primeval Athens and Atlantis is a good pattern for the Persian Wars, but that the reason for this is that this pattern was modelled by Plato after the Persian Wars, Tom Holland is wrong (Ep01 45:54). Because the pattern is that a great empire fails against a much smaller and underestimated enemy, is ubiquitous in history until today, so that there is absolutely no need that this pattern had been modelled after the Persian Wars. To the contrary, it arises the question whether it is allowed to see the Persian Wars as the only and direct instantiation of the pattern, and it arises also the question, why Plato did not talk directly about the Persian Wars, but only alluded to them, if he meant them.

Tom Holland is completely wrong that Plato's Atlantis story was not discussed in the Middle Ages (Ep01 45:54; 47:11). Since a publication in 2016, a series of renowned scholars from the Middle Ages is known who wrote about Plato's Atlantis (Franke 2016/2021). As in antiquity, the opinions during the Middle Ages were divided, with a clear inclination in favour of the reality of the story.

Christopher Columbus is one of Tom Holland's examples for somebody who should have talked about Plato's Atlantis but did not. Columbus talked a lot about unknown island in the West, e.g. about Brazil or Antilia. But never about Atlantis. Also he is considered to have thought about Atlantis as an invention, therefore. (Ep01 47:14; Ep02 03:49; 04:38) But wrong. The reason why Columbus never mentioned Atlantis is simply, that it is considered a sunken island. And Columbus was not interested in sunken islands. He searched for still existing islands which could help him bridge the way to East India. Furthermore, Columbus made use of the geographical works of Cardinal Pierre d'Ailly. Of Pierre d'Ailly we know exactly that he believed that Atlantis was a real place, since he wrote about it.

Concerning Francis Bacon, Tom Holland has missed an important point (Ep02 10:28). Because Francis Bacon does not only talk about the New Atlantis, the island of the scientists in the Pacific Ocean, but also about the Old Atlantis, i.e., Plato's original Atlantis. For Bacon, Atlantis was in central and southern America. It is very important to notice that.

Another of Tom Holland's claims is that beginning with the discovery of America, the location of Atlantis started to move around all over the world (Ep02 11:40). This is not true. It was only that the area "west of Gibraltar", out "in the Atlantic Ocean" had widened in the age of discoveries. Atlantis was still somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean. Atlantis hypotheses placing Atlantis completely elsewhere came into being only later. Please note, that Francis Bacon's island in the Pacific is not Atlantis. And the many locations mentioned by Thomas Henri Martin (Ep02 23:45) are from 1841, this is much later in the 19th century.

Also Olof Rudbeck is badly represented by Tom Holland. For Tom Holland, Olof Rudbeck was a nationalistic crackpot whose "research" is ridiculed (Ep02 11:40). But no, Olof Rudbeck was rather a genius who discovered the lymphatic system, established the first anatomic theatre at the university of Uppsala, and also founded the botanical garden which was the basis for Linné's later definition of a taxonomy in biology. But also while searching for Atlantis, Rudbeck made valuable inventions. He was the first one to establish the idea that the deeper you dig into the earth, the deeper you dig into the past. And Rudbeck's linguistic considerations were not as ridiculous as Tom Holland thinks, but were the first serious steps towards the discovery of the Indo-European language family. And no, Olof Rudbeck was no nationalist "avant la lettre", he just was patriotic. Nothing wrong with that. Rudbeck can be considered the first one who tried a historical-critical reading of Plato's Atlantis story, besides the literalist meaning. Therefore, it is just not fair when Tom Holland says, "You want it to be Sweden. And then essentially you just look for anything that might support that." (Ep02 14:22) Even Goethe consulted Rudbeck's work on Atlantis.

It is nice that Tom Holland realized that Ignatius Donnelly was not a terrible racist, but quite progressive, anti-slavery and pro Reconstruction (Ep02 15:10; 22:34). Nevertheless, Tom Holland still depicts Donnelly's attitude on races too dark (Ep02 21:40). Donnelly was certainly racist compared to our time, but for his own time, he was rather anti-racist. It is therefore just wrong to say that Donnelly was leading the way to National Socialism. Quite the contrary.

And no, Donnelly did not say that the Atlanteans were Irish (Ep02 21:00). This is just not fair and contradicts what is said at other places in this podcast. Furthermore, it is not true that Donnelly "hyped up the Atlanteans as having super advanced technology" (Ep02 25:42). This is what Donnelly really wrote about technology in Atlantis: "They knew the use of the magnet and of gunpowder. In short, they were in the enjoyment of a civilization nearly as high as our own, lacking only the printing-press, and those inventions in which steam, electricity, and magnetism are used." (p. 478). So, it is a "super advanced technology" without electricity, without the steam engine, and without the printing-press. This is medieval technology. Nothing else.

And it is also wrong that Donnelly produced a work about Atlantis which is practically second after Plato. Donnelly was not the first one to write such a book. There were many who had written similar books before Donnelly. The difference is that Donnelly managed to popularize the topic. This was his real achievement. And there is another difference. While Donnelly's predecessors in earlier times could speculate into the blue without being disproved, Donnelly lived exactly at the threshold of time when it became finally clear that the Atlantis story could not be literally true. This led scholars to abandon the topic completely (instead of trying a historical-critical reading), and so they left the topic to the pseudoscientists. Yes. They really did! Donnelly's success is clearly related to the change of mind in science. Science itself has always and will always produce its own pseudoscience whenever it sheds the baby out with the bathwater.

Screwed up: Atlantis and "the Nazis"

Tom Holland starts the topic of Atlantis and "the Nazis" with the island of Thule and the Munich Thule society (Ep02 25:03). But no, different to what Holland claims, the island of Thule was not considered Atlantis by German right-wing authors. While Atlantis was considered a sunken island, Thule was considered to be still existing, like e.g. Iceland. Atlantis is just not Thule and was not confused with it. – Furthermore, the Thule society had less to do with Hitler's National Socialism than many think. Hitler and all the other leading National Socialists were not members of the Thule society. Alfred Rosenberg spoke there as an invited guest. There is only one deeper connection: When the Thule society dissolved, Hitler took over the society's journal "Münchener Beobachter" and formed his party journal "Völkischer Beobachter" out of it. But nothing more.

It is also wrong that German right-wing authors drew on Ignatius Donnelly for his alleged ideas of an Aryan Atlantis. They might have drawn on Madame Blavatsky who in turn drew (and altered) Donnelly's ideas. But Donnelly's work itself was not usable for Aryan fanatics. As Tom Holland says himself, Donnelly's Atlantis was "a kind of melting pot for American, European, African peoples" (Ep02 38:19). – Also wrong is the idea that German right-wing authors drew on Edgar Cayce (Ep02 25:42). Such a connection is not reported in all the literature. Where does this come from? Maybe it happened that some German right-wing author read also Edgar Cayce. Why not. But there is not the least hint of any major influence of Edgar Cayce on German right-wing authors on Atlantis. – As Tom Holland says himself, for the German right-wing authors, the ideas of Donnelly and Cayce were simply not racist enough, since these right-wing authors wanted Atlantis to be the place of origin of the Aryan race and of no other race (Ep02 30:35). Tom Holland has not thought this through consequently.

Finally, Tom Holland is wrong that "the Nazis" located Atlantis in the North Sea: "So all this kind of stuff about crystals, superpowers, all this kind of thing fuses in Germany before and after the First World War with ideas that Atlantis might actually have been in the North Sea" (Ep02 25:42; 29:13). No, not true. Only Heinrich Pudor thought so, concerning the North Sea island of Heligoland in 1936. But he was alone with this idea, and the National Socialists denied him, like some other pseudoscientists, the right to publish. Considering the World Ice Theory, popular among certain National Socialists, the place of origin of the Aryans had to be much farther in the north. So, where does this idea of Atlantis in the North Sea come from? One thing is true: Himmler had an archaeological interest in Heligoland and the North Sea, yes. But he did not connect it to Atlantis. Most probably, those superficial authors, who think that Himmler identified Atlantis and Heligoland, think of Jürgen Spanuth, who became quite popular in the 1950s with his idea that Atlantis was Heligoland.

It is generally wrong that Tom Holland always talks of "the Nazis". Because there was no official National Socialist belief in Atlantis. To the contrary. As Tom Holland says himself, Adolf Hitler did not believe in Atlantis (Ep02 29:13). Atlantis was neither taught in schools, nor in the Hitler Youth, nor Himmler's SS training centers. At German universities, German scholars continued to teach the students that Atlantis was an invention by Plato. Also NS careerist professors did so. Hitler even mocked Atlantis believers publicly in a speech, once in 1936. Contrary to what Tom Holland says (Ep02 29:13), it is not known whether Rudolf Hess believed in Atlantis. He was an adherent to Rudolf Steiner's anthroposophy, so he might have believed in Steiner's version of Atlantis. But we have not a single word of Hess about it. Also Alfred Rosenberg was certainly not "very into it", as Tom Holland claims (Ep02 29:13). Rosenberg dropped a few sentences that the place of origin of the Aryans might have been Atlantis, but quickly added that this is neither certain nor important for National Socialism, and then continued to unfold the National Socialist doctrine (as he saw it) without any further hint to Atlantis. Rosenberg mentioned Atlantis only to please the Himmler-Wirth connection, and only very reluctantly. Rosenberg clearly did not believe in Atlantis himself.

The only National Socialist of major importance who was clearly "into it" was Heinrich Himmler. Himmler with his cronies Wirth and Kiss. But Himmler kept this belief private. He did not teach his SS men to believe in it. And the research expeditions of his "Ahnenerbe" institute did not have Atlantis as official research topic. Only when such an expedition was accompanied by a friend of Himmler who believed in Atlantis, we might call it an unofficial Atlantis expedition. But e.g. the Tibet expedition was no such expedition, since the leader of the expedition managed to reject Edmund Kiss as a participant. It was still a racist expedition, which is bad enough.

What also existed were several right-wing authors who unfolded the Atlantis theme according to some right-wing ideology, some more some less Nazi-like. But they were no official NS authors. To the contrary, they were rather disliked by the NS party since they offered interpretations of National Socialism which were not under the control of the party.

It is completely wrong to accept the idea that the belief in Atlantis "led" to racism and National Socialism. Tom Holland refers to this belief of certain modern academics (Ep02 31:16): "you can be interested in Atlantis and then suddenly become a white supremacist". Tom Holland knows that this is wrong, but he does not unfold this thought completely. Rather, Tom Holland gives some credit to the "contamination" claim, by saying "And I think that's because the uses, that the Nazis put the story to, hang so heavily that it's tainted the whole enterprise." (Ep02 38:19). Well, "the Nazis" as such put the story to no use at all. And even where a National Socialist used it, he did not become a National Socialist through Atlantis, but misused Atlantis for evil purposes.

Last but not least, Tom Holland has completely forgotten to ask the question whether any socialists or communists believed in Atlantis. Because the answer is a clear "Yes". Some of them are quite famous. What do we learn from this? That the Atlantis story "led" to the horrors of communism and is "tainted" by Archipel Gulag? Nonsense of course! Neither communism nor National Socialism were based on Atlantis. Single communist or NS Atlantis believers do not change this.

Minor mistakes

It is very unfortunate that Tom Holland supports the pseudoscientific claim that the myth of Phaethon as part of the Atlantis story expresses that "a comet had hit the earth" (Ep01 26:03; Ep02 45:16). This is wrong. The story is rather about the sun, coming closer to the earth causing fires, or deviating further away from the earth causing floods. Because it is about the course of the sun chariot. Therefore it is about the sun. And the myth is accepted only as far as this, as is explicitly said. The part with the sun chariot falling down to earth is excluded.

It is wrong that the Atlantic ocean "comes to be called the Atlantic after Atlantis" (Ep02 11:40). As we can read in Herodotus, the Atlantic Ocean got its name before Plato, and is therefore named after the titan Atlas, not after Atlantis. Plato exchanges the titan Atlas with the king Atlas, but initially the Atlantic sea got its name after the titan of mythology, not after the king of Atlantis.

It is unfortunate that Plato's idea of philosopher kings is ridiculed (Ep01 20:00). This does not live up to the depth of thought of Plato which is still full of deep truths even if we know today that such an ideal state is not possible. Plato himself realized this, as can be seen in The Laws. It is also wrong to impute to Plato a certain preference for aristocratic elitism, "a deep, deep vein of snobbery that runs through Greek philosophy", e.g. by an alleged inclination toward Sparta (Ep01 41:08). But Plato's interest in Sparta was rather for the balance of powers realized in Sparta's constitution. For as Tom Holland correctly says at other places, Plato "despises the democracy, as he has also despised the aristocratic regime of his uncle" (Ep01 17:04).

Also strange is to characterize Plato's dialogue The Laws just as "a list of laws about how a state should be governed" (Ep01 21:05). It is much more than that. Above all, important for the topic of Atlantis, the dialogue The Laws confirms that many aspects of the Atlantis story were considered real by Plato. Among them the cyclical catastrophism or the age of Egypt of at least 10,000 years.

It is wrong that "Poseidon had wanted to have Athens, but loses that competition. So he gets Atlantis." (Ep01 31:13) Because Plato explicitly says that such struggles between gods are not the reality. It is explicitly said in the Atlantis story, that the earth was distributed among the gods without such struggles. – Likewise wrong is that Poseidon "founds a line of kings by raping a girl" (Ep01 31:13). We do not know whether he raped her.

Also exaggerated is the claim that Arthur Evans "basically created Cnossus and claimed it was authentic", said by Dominic Sandbrook and confirmed by Tom Holland (Ep02 32:11). This is true for Arthur Evans' interpretations and reconstructions, but it is not true for Cnossus itself. Cnossus is real.

Where Tom Holland is right

There are several issues in which Tom Holland deviates from the usual claims put forward by the adherents of the invention hypothesis, and thus he comes closer to a more correct perspective! But often Tom Holland was not courageous enough to push through to the full realization that the usual claims are wrong. Some examples:

Generally very well observed is also the transformation of the Atlantis perception after and through the discovery of America: The attempts to explain America led to the hypotheses of survivors from Atlantis, of bringers of civilization, and of Atlantis as a positive "lost" utopia. (Ep01 49:24; Ep02 04:38; 06:02; 09:31) But not true is, as demonstrated above, that Atlantis started to move around all over the world. This happened later.

Correct is also the observation that king Atlas of Atlantis is not the titan Atlas from Greek mythology (Ep01 06:02). These two are different persons.

Tom Holland's criticism of Graham Hancock's hypotheses is also very well done. Tom Holland does not fall for ideological criticism in the first place, but argues on the factual level, which is very convincing and free from any wrong zeal. It is also good that Graham Hancock's repeated attacks against established academics are criticized: "Graham Hancock is very, very abusive about them. So he is very into the idea that basically it is 'Big Archaeology'. The 'Big Archaeology' has discovered the truth, but is concealing it from, you know, from everybody." (Ep02 40:43)

But it is very unfortunate, that Tom Holland has not criticized Graham Hancock for his literalist reading of Plato's Atlantis story. By reading the Atlantis story in a literalist way himself, instead of in a historical-critical way, in order to understand it as an invention, Tom Holland has given away the most important and most educated argument.

Tom Holland is not fully buying the story that an occupation with Atlantis is leading to racism (though he did not work out this realization with consequence). Therefore, Tom Holland shows much fairness towards Graham Hancock: "I don't know, maybe he is secretly a white supremacist, but based on those documentaries, the whole thing is about environmentalism. You know, he is essentially saying that, as far as I could tell, that unless we stop using electricity, we're going to get wiped out by a comet." (Ep02 37:30) And: "He is hostile to European colonialism. He ... refers to 19th century land grabs. So as far as I can tell, he's not a white supremacist." (Ep02 37:51) Dominic Sandbrook adds: "And Graham Hancock is ... all over the world. He is going to Indonesia or wherever and saying there are traces of superior civilisations here. So it's not at all Eurocentric." (Ep02 39:14) And again Tom Holland: "I mean, to be fair to Edgar Cayce and to Donnelly and to people who Hancock is clearly ... deriving this stuff from, ... it is slightly more complicated than saying that the Atlanteans were white people." (Ep02 38:19) And Graham Hancock is saying "that the European civilisation derives as much from the Atlanteans as does American civilisation." (Ep02 39:24)

Tom Holland has observed well that the pseudoscientist Graham Hancock is at heart a leftist and not a rightist. It is no coincidence that the old master of modern pseudoscience, Erich von Däniken, made his breakthrough as a writer precisely in 1968. The spirit of anti-authoritarianism was directed against the authority of science, too.

Likable criticism of academics

We all need academia and academics, there is no alternative to produce science. On the other hand, the existence of academia and academics alone is no guarantee that good science is really produced. Therefore, criticism is allowed and needed. And Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook are putting forward such criticism, and you only can agree with them.

General criticism is voiced by Dominic Sandbrook when ironically saying, "But as we know from social media, academics are always the best judges of politics." (Ep01 21:01). And Tom Holland says, "Imagine the most virtuous people you can find on Twitter running your life" (Ep01 23:02), and Dominic Sandbrook sarcastically adds: "Who wouldn't want that?" (Ep01 23:08)

Since he is not completely buying the story that Atlantis leads to racism, Tom Holland proposes a different reason for the anti-Atlantis zeal of certain academics: "And I think that one of the reasons why they like to cast Graham Hancock as a kind of gateway drug to white supremacy is that it gives them a kind of Indiana Jones vibe. ... To say they're taking on Nazis." (Ep02 39:24) Dominic Sandbrook adds sarcastically, "Right, they are fighting the good fight against the forces of evil." (Ep02 39:58), and Tom Holland concludes maliciously: "Yes. So rather than excavating pots, they're fighting fascism." (Ep02 40:01) The passage is accompanied by a lot of laughter.

Another reason for the anti-Atlantis zeal is seen in the disappointment of academics: "You know, to have spent decades mastering the chronology of the late Ice Age, and having a kind of incredibly detailed knowledge of all these various excavation sites ... and then this guy pops up, has a ten part series on Netflix, a million-selling book ..." (Ep02 40:30)

Tom Holland's outlook

According to Tom Holland, the Atlantis story fits very well to the current atmosphere of climate apocalypse: "Yes, it kind of maps quite well onto the environmental anxieties about the fact that we basically, we have just become too successful as a species, that we are being destroyed by our own technology." (Ep02 49:29) Unfortunately, he has not considered more direct examples, e.g. Ukraine vs. Russian Empire, or Taliban vs. USA, or the European Union strangulating itself by its socialist hubris and its Byzantinistic bureaucracy, while smaller countries like Switzerland or Norway (or the United Kingdom after Brexit?!) do much better. The Atlantis theme is an eternal theme.

Concerning the reality of Atlantis, Tom Holland agrees to the following words of Dominic Sandbrook: "So I mean, do you think the Atlantis thing ... has it become such a joke now? No offence to Graham Hancock, but has it become such a joke that it is basically, it doesn't have any legs and it ... was a 19th and 20th century obsession, a bit like the Yeti or something, or Shangri-La?" (Ep02 47:50)

Well, no. The Atlantis question was not only a 19th and 20th century "obsession". It is a topic which has accompanied us for 2,500 years now. And it has more "legs" than Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook could imagine in their two podcast sessions, as demonstrated above. Therefore, we expect the Atlantis question to walk happily on strong legs towards a solution, soon.


Ep01: Podcast "The Rest Is History" No. 314: Atlantis: The Legend. 20 March 2023.
Available e.g. on Youtube

Ep02: Podcast "The Rest Is History" No. 315: Atlantis: Legacy of the Lost Empire. 23 March 2023.
Available e.g. on Youtube

Tom Holland, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. Random House, New York 2012.

Tom Holland, Herodotus: The Histories. Translation. Random House, New York 2013.

Desmond Lee, Plato – Timaeus and Critias, Translated with an introduction and an Appendix on Atlantis by Desmond Lee, The Penguin Classics series, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1971; reprinted with revisions 1977; pp. 146-167.

Thorwald C. Franke, Aristotle and Atlantis – What did the philosopher really think about Plato's island empire?, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2012. First German edition was 2010.
External Web Link

Thorwald C. Franke, Kritische Geschichte der Meinungen und Hypothesen zu Platons Atlantis – von der Antike über das Mittelalter bis zur Moderne, 2nd enhanced edition in two volumes, published by Books on Demand, Norderstedt 2021. First edition was 2016 in one volume. No English translation available yet.
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