Dalai Lama’s Friend: Hitler’s Champion

Tibet Goes Hollywood" said the Newsweek cover, while the British newspaper The Independent wrote of a "love affair" between Beverly Hills and the high plateau. There are seven major films on Tibet in the pipeline this year, including a biography of the Dalai Lama, Kundun, and an adaptation of the well-known book Seven Years in Tibet. It is in the role of Heinrich Harrer, the main protagonist and author of Seven Years in Tibet, that Brad Pitt stares solemnly out of the Newsweek cover. "The film is a tremendous honour for me," says Mr Harrer proudly, speaking to us in front of his mountain home, high above the village of Hüttenberg in the Austrian province of Carinthia. "Fifty million people have read my book, but Brad Pitt will draw a movie-going audience in the billions, including many people who have never even heard of Tibet."

In a sense, it seems only right that Mr Harrer´s character should personify Tibet´s entry into the wide-reaching world of films. For it was his book that introduced Tibet to entire generations around the world since it was first published in 1953.

Mr Harrer´s story is certainly the stuff of film. On his way back from a climbing expedition to Nanga Parbat 1939, due to the outbreak of World War II, he was interned in a British prison in India because he was German. Along with another internee, he made a dramatic escape to Tibet and wandered about the then forbidden plateau for more than a year before he reached Lhasa on 15 January 1946. There he served the 11-year-old Dalai Lama as a teacher of English, mathematics, geography and photography, while introducing many innovations into the city that amazed the Tibetans. He got along well with the Tibetans and lived in the city until 1951 when the Chinese invasion of Tibet forced him to flee in a hurry.

After the Tibetan revolt in 1959 and subsequent exile of the Dalai Lama, Mr Harrer has stood firmly by his Tibetan friends. His has been one of the loudest Western voices against the Chinese occupation. In 1987, he expressed outrage when German Chancellor Helmut Kohl visited the Chinese rulers in Lhasa, the first Western head of government to do so. Now, he says he is happy that there is going to be a film version of Seven Years in Tibet for "that will be a big blow to Chinese propaganda".

Mr Harrer´s friendship with the Dalai Lama has remained strong over the years. TV productions that tell the story of Mr Harrer and the Dalai Lama, both as a young man and as the present worldly statesman, have been broadcast all over the Western world. Every time, he comes to Austria or Central Europe, the Tibetan leader spends time with Mr Harrer. He was there during the opening of a museum of Tibetan history and culture in Mr Harrer´s hometown, and they are often seen together conducting press conferences in the West. And now, as chance would have it, both are subjects of major Hollywood productions.

There is every possibility that these films will ride the wave of what human rights advocates have proclaimed to be the "Tibet Year in Film". Should that happen, it is very likely that Seven Years in Tibet will ride the crest of that wave, for Mr Harrer, as its main subject, idealises the perfect union of the Western discoverer with that of the politically correct human rights activist.

This champion of human rights,however, has a past that he does not care to talk about.

SS-Oberscharführer Harrer

To find out about Heinrich Harrer´s hidden past one has to visit the Berlin office of the German Federal Archives, which houses the original holding of the "Document Centre" that the Americans set up in 1945 using captured Nazi files. Among them are documents from the Rasse- und Siedlungshauptamt or RuSHA (Main Office of Racial and Settlement Affairs) which contain information on members of the dreaded elite corps known as the Schutzstafel (Protective Echelon) or "SS" for short. Somewhere in this maze of records is a pink file folder hand-labeled with black ink in the upper right corner: "Harrer, Heinrich, born July 6, 1912". Below that: "SS Unit 38, Sippennummer (family number) 73896".

The Harrer file contains 80 pages. One item that catches the eye within the first few pages is a telegram dated 19 December 1939, sent from SS Section 35 in Graz, Austria, where Mr Harrer was an athletic instructor at the time. The telegram ( below) is addressed to the "Head of the RuSHA" and reads: "Permission to marry is requested for SS-Oberscharführer Heinrich Harrer, Sippennummer 73896. Harrer is the first man to climb the Eiger North Face and intends, at the express request of the Reichsführer-SS, to marry already on December 24, 1938."

"Reichsführer-SS" meant none other than Heinrich Himmler, the dreaded head of SS, who demanded that his SS men and their brides-to-be submit detailed family trees tracing their ancestry back to AD 1800. Only those who could prove their perfect Aryan heritage were permitted to marry.

The RuSHA records show that the Austrian Harrer and his Hamburg-born-wife-to-be Lotte Wegener complied in almost exemplary fashion. Bride Lotte had belonged to the Nazi youth organisation BDM (Bund Deutscher Mädchen or "German Girls´ League") since 1936. Groom Heinrich joined the SS on 1 April 1938, and had been a member of Hitler´s second terrorist organisation, the SA (Sturmabteilung or "Storm Troops") since October 1933, at which time the organisation was still operating illegally in Austria. In a handwritten curriculum vitae, the young Heinrich Harrer confirmed that he had joined the SA and the SS. He enclosed a photograph that showed him with a Nazi insignia on his lapel.

When confronted with the documents, Mr Harrer first denied everything. "I never wrote a request or anything of the kind," he said. "I was just assigned to the SS as an athletic instructor." Mr Harrer even denied he was a member of the SS. Until, that is, he was shown the completed RuSHA questionnaire with his handwritten CV and asked, "Is this your handwriting?"

"Yes," said Mr Harrer upon seeing that under the SA membership the entry on the form reads "since October 1933" and under SS membership "since April 1938". After a moment of silence, he said: "I just wanted to boast a little there."

Boasting! At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials, the SS was classified as a "criminal organisation". Of course, as he was in India and Tibet from 1939 to 1951, Mr Harrer probably cannot be held responsible for SS atrocities during the war. "But these documents do indeed cast a cloud of suspicion on someone who denies having ever been a member," says Berlin-based historian and SS expert Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm, who examined Mr Harrer´s SS records on behalf of Stern magazine.

Hero of the Reich

Heinrich Harrer was no ordinary SS man. On 24 July 1938, at the age of 26, he and three fellow climbers succeeded in the first-ever climb of the Eiger North Face, considered the hardest mountaineering challenge in the Alps. This triumph was celebrated throughout the Reich. The quartet of climbers was quickly lionised by the Nazi propaganda machine. A blond mountain lad from the "Ostmark", as Austria was known in the administrative jargon of the Nazis, Mr Harrer became the darling of the Nazis.

Right after the Eiger triumph, Adolf Hitler congratulated the climbers personally before a crowd of 30,000 cheering spectators in Braslau. "My, my, you certainly have achieved a lot!" said the Führer. Himmler was also there. Recounts Mr Harrer today, Himmler came up to him and said, "I know of an expedition going to Tibet if you would like to go along."

The Nazis´ dream couple of young Mr Harrer and his first wife, Lotte, were in a hurry to get married "because I," so wrote Mr Harrer to the Berlin RuSHA on 5 November 1938, "am a member of the team of the German Nunga-Parbat Expedition and will be leaving for a six-month stay in the Himalaya". Permission received, they were married on 24 December 1938, the day on which the Nazis celebrated the Germanic Yule festival instead of Christmas Eve.

SS-Oberscharführer (the rank corresponds to that of a sergeant) Harrer left for India in May 1939, where he and his climbing party were later imprisoned. It was only in 1944 that he and his late companion Peter Aufschneiter (who had joined NSDAP, the Nazi party, in 1933) managed to escape prison and make their way to Tibet.

Until we confronted him in Carinthia, Mr Harrer had never acknowledged his erstwhile link to Nazi organisations. He has written dozens of books since returning from Tibet, but not a word about the Nazis. Now and then, voices have been raised regarding his Nazi past, but there had never been documentary proof. Someone once discovered a book entitled On the North Face of the Eiger, published by the Central Publishing House of the NSDAP, in which Mr Harrer wrote: "That is an invaluable reward for us, to see the Führer and be permitted to speak to him. We climbed right up to the North Face of the Eiger and over the summit until at last we reached our Führer."

Today, Mr Harrer claims that he was interviewed after his Eiger triumph, and that a ghostwriter did the writing.

Denazified Nazi
When the hero of Tibet returned home in 1952, coming to terms with the past in a serious way was not on the agenda. "My husband was entnazifiziert (denazified) back then," Carina Harrer, the climber´s third wife, explains today, "and then he went on with his life."

Mr Harrer certainly did go on with his life. In the 1950s, he toured the Andes and traversed the Amazon. He was the first man to climb three Alaskan peaks. Later, he travelled to Borneo, Greenland, Congo, and, time and again, Tibet. His books are written with much love and understanding for foreign people. There are no traces of nationalism, nor any remnant of Nazi ideology. Mr Harrer has always maintained that concepts such as "primitive" should be avoided at all costs when dealing with indigenous tribes. Whether this had anything to do with his long stay in Tibet can only be a matter of conjecture.

Heinrich Harrer, son of a postman risen to become a superstar, was feted on his 80th birthday at New York´s Waldorf Astoria hotel. Illustrious friends from the Explorers Club, the ranks of which included names like Thor Heyerdahl, Neil Armstrong, Edmund Hillary and Reinhold Messner, were on hand to raise the toast: "We honour the greatest of us all."

Whatever he might have been in his youth, it would be difficult to call Heinrich Harrer a Nazi diehard. The confrontation with his SS past seems to have given the grand old man a fright at best. As he escorted us to the door with a happy spring in his step, he said cordially, "We knew that this great film was also going to bring us some trouble." Journalists G. Lehner and T. Muller are based in Salzburg, Austria, and Hamburg, Germany, respectively. Aversion of this article first appeared in the German magazine Stern. One of Mr Harrer´s first reactions after the Stern article appeared was that is could be the work of the Chinese agents sent to destroy his life´s work.
Nazis in Tibet
The "chic Tibet" to which Hollywood pays homage today, the Nazis had already laid claim to back in the late 1930s. Heinrich Harrer was not the first "Reichdeutsche" (Reich German) in Lhasa, but rather it was SS Untersturmführer (2nd Lieutenant) Ernst Schäfer of Hamburg. The expert on Eastern Asia, who has since died, used to work in the SS Genealogical Research Centre set up by Heinrich Himmler.

In 1938, Mr Schäfer left for Tibet with 30 men and a large cache of weapons, arriving in Lhasa in early 1939. The journey was called "SS Expedition Schäfer". In 1964, a companion of Mr Schäfer´s admitted to historian Michael K. Kater that the SS storm troops were on a mission to persuade the Tibetan army, by giving them gifts, to wean it away from British influence.

The Germans had more than that one agenda in Tibet, however. Himmler considered the Tibetans to be "racial relatives of the Aryans" and many high-level Nazis saw a Shangrila in Tibet. They wanted to study Tibetan agriculture and lifestyle. The plan was that, with all the Slavic people in Siberia and Russia eliminated, it was Tibetans who would teach Germans how to survive in the harsh environment.

Mr Schäfer took away a lot of material from Tibet which can still be seen in the Haus der Natur in Salzburg. Some years ago when the Dalai Lama opened the Salzburg Festival of Classical Music, Mr Harrer took him to see the Tibetan exhibits there. What His Holiness might not have known was that the Haus der Natur was founded by Eduard Paul Tratz, a biologist, who was also a member of the SS.

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