The Long View: Himmler's Crusade

Expedition members with hosts in  Gangtok ,  Sikkim  are (from left to right) unknown, unknown Tibetan,  Bruno Beger ,  Ernst Schäfer ,  Sir Basil Gould , Krause, unknown Tibetan, Karl Wienert, Edmund Geer, unknown, unknown  By Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-KA-11-008 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Expedition members with hosts in Gangtok, Sikkim are (from left to right) unknown, unknown Tibetan, Bruno Beger, Ernst Schäfer, Sir Basil Gould, Krause, unknown Tibetan, Karl Wienert, Edmund Geer, unknown, unknown

By Bundesarchiv, Bild 135-KA-11-008 / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0 de,

Himmler’s Crusade:
The Nazi Expedition to Find the Origins of the Aryan Race
By Christopher Hale
John Wiley & Sons, 2003
422 Pages, US$27.95 
ISBN 0-471-26292-7

Remarkable stories clustered around the Schäfer Expedition to Tibet of 1938-1939. The project was only one of several German expeditions to that part of the world at about the same time (the one that included Heinrich Harrer is perhaps the best known because of his memoir, Seven Years in Tibet), but the Schäfer Expedition had the backing of SS-Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler and of the Ahnenerbe, the research bureau reputed to be interested in the occult. Besides, it reached the then rarely visited holy city of Lhasa, and the Germans were known to have found favor with the ruling Regent.

The British feared that the Germans were attempting to organize a Himalayan Front against India in preparation for the coming war. Tibetan peasants said that the fearsome leader of the German team drank blood. Later, more imaginative rumors had it that the true purpose of the expedition was to open contacts with the diabolical forces resident in Agarthi, a hidden city of theosophical legend.

Christopher Hale is a noted producer of travel and anthropology documentaries. In this book he never shies away from reporting a lurid story or an intriguing rumor, but he manages to make the Schäfer Expedition and its participants no more fantastic than they really were. Thus, though Himmler seems to have been keen on uncovering the theosophical mysteries of Tibet, the members of the expedition were doing more or less serious science. The Germans and the Tibetans do seem to have been making tentative diplomatic overtures, though perhaps to cross purposes. And yes, the expedition’s leader did drink the blood of animals he killed: it was a hunter’s thing.

That leader was Ernst Schäfer (1910-1992), an ambitious zoologist who specialized in ornithology and big-game hunting. The book is chiefly concerned with him and with Bruno Beger (1911-2004), the team’s anthropologist. They figure most prominently among the five scientists on the expedition. They also had disturbing careers as experts in the biological sciences for the SS during the war.

Schäfer had been in Tibet before, on two specimen-gathering trips led by the wealthy American naturalist Brooke Dolan. Dolan had learned Theodore Roosevelt’s trick of getting scientific institutions (in Dolan’s case, the Philadelphia Academy of Natural History) to fund his hunting expeditions, with the happy side effect of making the hunters moderately famous. Dolan and Schäfer journeyed to eastern Tibet, a debatable land of chronic skirmishing among the Chinese Nationalist government, various war lords, the ineffectual Tibetan army, and, just in time for the second expedition, the Red Army on the Long March. On neither trip did they come anywhere near Lhasa (Dolan did reach Lhasa in 1945, as a member of the OSS), but Schäfer’s books and articles about his adventures made him something of an authority in Germany about Tibet, as well as a minor public figure. Those qualifications and his membership in the SS were more than enough to bring him to the favorable attention of Heinrich Himmler.

Schäfer had been planning his own, more thoroughly scientific expedition to Tibet as soon as he returned home in 1935 from the second and rather acrimonious Dolan expedition. He needed sponsors, and Himmler offered to help him financially and bureaucratically. Part of the cost to Schäfer was that his enterprise would be associated with the Ahnenerbe (usually translated “Ancestral Inheritance Bureau”). That SS agency really did have someone looking for information about the Holy Grail at the time; a close connection with it could ruin an academic career, even in Nazi Germany. Schäfer succeeded in refusing to include an Ahnenerbe expert who had written a novel entitled Springtime in Atlantis, and in fact the financial help that the Ahnenerbe could give was so small that its patronage was not conspicuous. Nonetheless, after his return, Schäfer would manage an independent Asia-studies institute that was technically within the Ahnenerbe.

Hale gives us a history of the role of Tibet in the European imagination. Helena Blavatsky did not originate that country’s reputation for mystery and antiquity, but she did canonize Tibet’s place in the occult canon, particularly the connection with Atlantis and the Aryan race. The story takes several forms. A widespread version, with which Himmler would have been familiar, has it that the early Aryan race was instructed in Tibet by survivors of Atlantean civilization and may have originated in Tibet. A somewhat more prosaic theory embraced by the anthropologist Hans Günther had it that the Aryan race had actually originated in Europe and had spread to Asia in the past and then retreated. Günther was interested in Tibet because he believed that the Tibetan aristocracy might be a remnant of one of the high-water marks of Aryan expansion. That was one of the questions that Günther’s protégé, Bruno Beger, was included in the Schäfer Expedition to explore.

Physical anthropology is not one of the Black Arts. If you believe current television dramas, forensic anthropology is the principal tool of the criminal justice system. Be that as it may, the sort of racial classification that Beger did was old-fashioned even at the time. Hale suggests that it could be dangerous and painful for the subjects of the research; when practiced on colonial peoples, it was not necessarily consensual. Beger, however, promoted trust by also operating a clinic in the regions through which the expedition traveled, though he had no qualifications as a medical doctor. The Germans made themselves fairly popular with the locals. The problem was the English.

Tibet’s complicated history is the story of a nation once as aggressive as the Mongols that had transformed itself into one of history’s notable theocracies. The religion came from the south, but the politics came from the east: theocratic Tibet had evolved under a Chinese protectorate. The Tibetans were traditionally keen to keep that relationship formal (rather like Korea’s traditional relationship with China, perhaps), but Chinese governments made it intimate and coercive when they could. Though the English had occupied Lhasa in 1904 under the suspicion that the Tibetans were colluding with the Russians to subvert the Raj in India, the Tibetans were nonetheless on good terms with the British Empire: the Chinese had occupied Lhasa in 1910, and the 13th Dalai Lama had gone briefly into exile under British protection. From the Tibetan point of view, however, the English were not helpful enough in counterbalancing China, either in terms of diplomatic support or military assistance. The Tibetan army, such as it was, was in serious need of modern armament, which the English would neither give nor allow others to provide. The English were not pleased at the prospect of a delegation appearing at Lhasa from a country with a reputation as an arms manufacturer and whose Japanese ally was already at war with China.

In Hale’s telling, Schäfer outmaneuvered the British at every point. First he went to London and held polite conversations with the India Office. The British offered every facility to assist Schäfer’s progress through India and Sikkim. They also noted that they had no authority to grant access to Tibet, and that the Tibetan government (called the “Kashag”: a committee of ministers) would, alas, almost certainly refuse a visa. Certainly that was what the British agent at Lhasa would advise the Kashag to do, as Schäfer no doubt knew. Nonetheless, he took the offer of a limited trip to Sikkim. In this he acted partly on the advice of Francis Younghusband, the leader of the British expedition of 1904. Younghusband approached Schäfer on his own initiative and told him the best course would be to go as far as he was allowed and then keep going.

That was pretty much what Schäfer did, though without ever quite defying either the Raj or the Kashag. Essentially, once at the border between Sikkim and Tibet, he wheedled a local invitation to cross it. Then he used local contacts to get permission for a two-week stay at Lhasa. Eventually, he was allowed to stay for several months. As Hale points out, that was an odd choice for a naturalist to make if his primary objective was to collect exotic animals.

The diplomatic aspect of the expedition is a murk punctuated by tantalizing hints. The 13th Dalai Lama had died in 1933, and the 14th had been proclaimed in 1937. That child, however, putatively the reincarnation of his predecessor, lived in the border region with China, and the Kashag had not yet managed to negotiate his passage to Lhasa. Schäfer dealt with the Regent, Reting Rimpoche. The Regent granted Schäfer long interviews at short notice, a most unusual practice, during one of which he asked point blank whether Germany would be interested in selling arms to Tibet. He wrote a friendly letter to “his Majesty führer Adolph” Hitler, expressing an interest in improving relations between Germany and Tibet (indeed he wrote two letters, after Schäfer suggested the first was insufficiently effusive). On the other hand, the Nechung Oracle had issued this public prophecy: “Protect the teachings, make sacrifices, be friendly to strangers, but reject their gifts, because they won’t help the living. A dragon rules their world…” Schafer, for his part, was able to send mail back to Germany. This included an anti-British article that appeared in the Frankfurter Zeitung while he was still in Tibet, resulting in an awkward interview with the British political officer from Sikkim. While in India, he is also known to have consulted with the future Axis collaborator, Subhas Chandra Bose.

As war in Europe drew visibly closer, the British became generous with offers of extended permission to explore the Himalayan region: if Schäfer were still in the Raj when hostilities began, he could be interred, as did happen to other German explorers. The Schäfer Expedition got out with a few weeks to spare, however, sailing from India to the Middle East and to Iraq, where German military planes waited to take them home.

During the war, Schäfer developed and Himmler approved a plan to travel to Tibet and organize an anti-British legion. Similar plans were in the works for Afghanistan, and in neither case did they get beyond the discussion stage. Schäfer’s proposal does not appear to have been coordinated with the Kashag, even tentatively. In any case, Schäfer seems to have been the apple of Himmler’s eye, despite Schäfer’s frequent insubordination, or maybe because of it. (He may have been the only person in the Third Reich ever to be sent to the Finnish Front as a punishment.) He spent most of the war working on SS academic projects, notably the Asia-studies institute, which was named after the Swedish explorer, Sven Hedin. He wrote about his latest expedition, and he produced a notable anthropological film, Secret Tibet. In Hale’s estimation, the chief Nazi element in the film is its anti-clericalism. The Tibetans had once been a warrior race with an extensive Asian empire, the film explains, but they had been enervated by a foreign religious philosophy and a tyranny of monks: let Germany beware.

Schäfer also did some consulting. In his capacity as a documentarian, Schäfer was asked to organize the documentation of highly secret SS experiments on the effects of the rapid decompression of aircraft pilots. The subjects would be prisoners of various sorts. Schäfer asked to see the project. Though in the experiment he was shown the subject was only made groggy, Schäfer correctly surmised that the subjects would often be killed in these tests. He seems to have been genuinely horrified. He did not flatly turn down the request to cooperate, but he demanded exotic equipment and made other excuses for delay. Eventually, the matter was dropped (though the experiments continued). Hale suggests, perhaps correctly, that Schäfer was asked to document the experiments not so much because of his qualifications as because his involvement would make him complicit with the SS.

Bruno Beger served for much of the war as a combat officer. Unlike Schäfer, he did not evade participation in an appalling Ahnenerbe project, though it is still not clear how much he knew about it when he first agreed. The SS wanted racial classifications of its prisoners, so Beger was sent to Auschwitz to select interesting subjects (he was particularly on the lookout for Central Asians among the Soviet POWs). He made the familiar measurements of the living subjects. Soon after the measurements were taken, these people were gassed and pickled. The idea was to reduce them to skeletons for a large collection that could be systematically compared with the measurements taken from living bodies. As things turned out, the Ahnenerbe technicians at Strasbourg to whom the bodies were sent never got around to turning them into skeletons, and the attempt to dispose of them as the Allies approached was half-hearted. Beger’s part was overlooked in the immediate aftermath of the war, though this atrocity figured in several war-crimes trials. Then Beger’s name was mentioned at Adolf Eichmann’s trial. Beger himself was tried in 1971, and convicted. Because of extenuating circumstances, and the ambiguity of his role, he was sentenced to time already served.

The members of the Schäfer Expedition adapted well enough to the post-war world. Two went on to conventional academic careers. Schäfer himself was interred and interrogated (the book provides some of the transcripts). When he was released, he decided that his talents might be better employed managing a wildlife preserve in Venezuela. Hale interviewed several elderly Sikkimese who had worked on the Schäfer Expedition. On the whole, they remembered the Germans fondly.

The image of Tibet in the 1930s that we receive from Himmler’s Crusade is confused, which no doubt reflects both the documentary sources and the reality. We do get some good travel writing. On the whole, though, Tibet sounds singularly uninviting. Again and again we hear of “dung,” “muck,” “filth,” and “dung” again. How exactly could Hale have known that the streets of Lhasa were “wet with excrement” during the New Year’s festival? And if Lhasa was so impossibly distant and remote, how was it that the Schäfer Expedition was in fairly regular mail contact with Germany? Not that mail was Schäfer’s only means of communication: the Chinese legation let him use their radio. (Other technical support was supplied by the influential Tibetan contractor who ran the local hydroelectric station.) Hale discusses Tibetan religion as it relates to his story, but apparently with no great interest in the subject itself. Still, there is something to be said for any history that does not treat Tibet as Shangri-La, and a great deal to be said for this one. Anyone with an interest in modern Tibetan history or in the Occult Reich will find this book valuable.

Copyright © 2006 by John J. Reilly

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