Last night’s episode of Expedition Unknown focused on the Amber Room, a lost treasure of Baroque art most closely associated today with Tsarist Russia. The room, clad entirely in amber, gold, and precious gems, was created in Prussia from Frederick I in the 1700s and later given by Frederick William I to the Russian Tsar Peter the Great as a token of the alliance between their two countries. The chamber was modified down to 1755, and in its final form stood in the Catherine Palace near St. Petersburg until the Nazis looted it during World War II. Host Josh Gates traveled to Russia and to Germany in search of the expensive and missing room, which vanished during the war years.
Normally I wouldn’t review an episode that doesn’t have much to do with ancient history, but since it touches on Nazis, it’s an interesting counterpoint to the History and H2 channels’ approach to covering Nazis on their archaeology-themed shows. Lest you forget, last year In Search of Aliens endorsed neo-Nazi propaganda, while it and its parent program, Ancient Aliens, both depicted the Nazis as Promethean figures with secret access to forbidden knowledge.
The first and most salient point is that Gates did not find the Amber Room, nor did he even come close. He did, however, take viewers on an interesting and scenic trip through the Catherine Palace (to view a reconstruction of the Amber Room), the St. Petersburg train station, the disconnected bit of Russia that was once Prussian Königsberg, and the city of Berlin. He climbed down into some old Nazi bunkers, and he used some heavy equipment in the hope of digging up the Amber Room. Unlike, say, Scott Wolter using similar heavy equipment, Gates acknowledged that it was all for show and that if he really thought he was digging up the Amber Room, he’d be more likely to crush it with the heavy equipment than to save it.
That said, there were some notable omissions from the show, much like there were last week, in terms of background and history. The Nazi interest in the Amber Room is ascribed merely to their rapacious greed, and so far as I heard (though I admit that, being sleepy, I didn’t catch everything) Gates didn’t explain that the Amber Room was created by Prussians in Prussia for the King of Prussia, the largest German state. The Nazis wanted the room “back” because they imagined it part of the heritage of Germany. Nor did I hear Gates explain that the reconstruction of the Amber Room that began in 1979 and was completed in 2003 occurred because of financial contributions from Germany, which somewhat undercuts the simpler narrative put forward by the show’s Russian contacts, who, being Russian, necessarily emphasize the Russian elements of the story. This extends, too, to the show’s coverage of Königsberg Castle, the Nazi stronghold that was the last known location of the Amber Room.
The show heavily implies that the Allies (i.e., the U.S.) destroyed the castle during bombing runs in World War II, leaving nothing but flat patch of scorched earth. This is only half true. Allied bombing by the British in 1944 left the castle a ruin, but its walls were still standing. However, decades later Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev worried that the ruins would remind residents of this piece of Germany that had been annexed to Russia of “Prussian militarism”—or, in other words, their Prussian-German heritage—and he ordered the castle razed to the ground. This occurred only in 1968, at the same time as the Prague Spring, when the Soviets panicked over the nationalism of their subject peoples. The castle’s end came not through British bombs but Soviet explosives, paving the way for the gaping hole that fills the site today. Once again, it is German money that is helping to finance archaeological work at the site, and the former castle museum’s vaults were uncovered after 2001, with thousands of objects recovered.
What we hear on the show, though, is the version of the story the Russians would like us to hear, about how Russian artisans, Russian archaeologists, and the Russian government are correcting a wrong inflicted by the Nazis, the British, and the Americans. It is a decidedly less complex version of events.
On the plus side, Expedition Unknown has no trouble identifying the Nazis as villains. There is no attempt to ask the audience to view them with awe, no effort to rehabilitate the Nazis as possessors of some esoteric wisdom. They looted and pillaged and died. It’s a refreshing change of pace from Ancient Aliens, which treats Hitler the way Shelley argued Milton treats Satan—secretly the hero as possessor of occult secrets forbidden by higher powers, another Prometheus.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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