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The Mysterious Earth Report: Germany’s Unique Expedition to Tibet in the 1930s

In the late 1930s, with the assistance of the British government, Germany dispatched a team of five SS scientists to Tibet, marking the country’s first visit to Lhasa. Over six months, this expedition gathered an astonishing volume of scientific data and established the first direct contact between Germany and the Tibetan local government. This event stands out as one of the most notable in Germany’s engagement with Tibet, significantly influencing the development of German Tibetology and the relationship between Germany and Tibet.

The Significance and Controversy

Due to its heavy Nazi associations, the expedition garnered considerable attention. While several introductory articles have been published domestically, they often suffer from oversimplification, significant historical inaccuracies, or even fabrications. Therefore, it’s essential to clarify some key issues and provide a deeper analysis. Moreover, exploring the historical context of this expedition, the processes involved, and its demonstration of the pre-World War II German-British relations and their impact is of great value.

The Need for Accurate Representation

This pivotal moment in the history of German exploration in Tibet requires a nuanced understanding, free from the distortions of overly simplistic or sensationalized accounts. As such, shedding light on the true nature and implications of this expedition is crucial for an accurate representation of historical events.

The SS Expedition to Tibet: Background and Objectives

The British Influence and Germany’s Position on Tibet

In the early 20th century, due to long-term colonial operations in the Himalayas, Britain emerged as the primary nation influencing Tibet, leading expeditions and research in the region. Historically, Germany had no intentions of seeking benefits in Tibet but was keen on preventing Tibet from becoming an exclusive sphere of British interest. On June 5, 1914, German Ambassador to the UK, Karl Max von Lichnowsky, clarified at the Simla Conference that Germany consistently recognized Tibet, like other peripheral regions of China, as part of China. Thus, Germany insisted on maintaining the unrestricted most-favored-nation treatment granted by China through the treaty on September 2, 1861, applicable to Tibet as in the past.

Germany also adopted a similar stance regarding Mongolia in its communications with the Russian government in November of the previous year. Germany aimed to preserve Chinese territorial integrity and oppose the secession of Tibet and Mongolia from China, clearly targeting British and Russian influence. Facing the threat of China’s partition, Germany, without geographical advantages, stood to lose. hence, maintaining the integrity of the Chinese Empire was a long-term strategic policy of the German government.

In the realm of scientific research, Germany was not willing to fall behind and joined the race to Central Asia and Tibet, achieving significant findings. Its research in Turpan and Tibetan studies quickly developed, becoming a major competitor to Britain, Russia, and other countries.


Nazi Germany’s Peak Activities in Tibet

During the Nazi era, Germany’s activities in the Tibetan region reached their zenith, but the “Dream of Lhasa” remained unfulfilled amidst fierce competition among European nations, becoming a crucial issue for the Third Reich’s honor. Heinrich Himmler, who sought to build the SS into an elite Nazi force, believed that realizing the long-held German “Dream of Lhasa” would undoubtedly enhance the organization’s reputation.

In 1935, Himmler established the Ahnenerbe (Die Forschungsgemeinschaft Deutsches Ahnenerbe e. V.), an SS-affiliated society that became a significant Nazi scientific association. The society gathered scholars to study Germanic history, historical relics, and mystical subjects such as the legend of Atlantis, the origins of the Aryan race, and the ice age theory. Its aim was to validate the spiritual and belief systems of the new Germanic through natural and social science research, lending legitimacy to its worldview. Among these scholars were Tibetan researchers, including the young botanist Ernst Schäfer and anthropologist Bruno Beger.

This exploration into the reasons behind the SS-led expedition to Tibet reveals the complex interplay of political ambitions, scientific exploration, and the quest for cultural legitimacy that characterized Nazi Germany’s foreign policy and scientific endeavors.


The Pioneering Tibet Expeditions of Ernst Schäfer

Ernst Schäfer, a young scientist with a keen interest in Tibet, embarked on exploratory trips to the Sino-Tibetan border in 1932 and from 1934 to 1936 alongside American Brook Dolan. Despite these ventures, deep penetration into the Tibetan hinterlands remained elusive. Heinrich Himmler, impressed by Schäfer’s work on Tibet, recruited him into the SS in 1934. Schäfer believed that the age of geographical discoveries had shifted focus from global exploration to unveiling the mysteries within continents, aiming to eliminate the “blank spots” on maps.

Among these unexplored regions, Tibet represented one of the last “blank spots” to the Western world. Himmler, showing immense interest, supported Schäfer’s proposal for a comprehensive survey of Tibet’s core areas, becoming the expedition’s “patron.”

Objectives of the Expedition

The direct goal of the expedition was to conduct a holistic scientific study of Tibet, enhancing Germany’s academic prestige. Another vital aim was to undertake anthropological research on Tibetans and seek traces of the primordial Aryan race in the Himalayas. Himmler and his anthropological advisors subscribed to the esoteric theory that Tibet served as a refuge for the Aryan race from Atlantis, harboring the ancient secrets of the Aryan lineage. Himmler insisted the expedition be conducted under the auspices of the Ahnenerbe, guided by the institute’s favored ice age theory.

The mission, defined in October 1937, focused on studying contemporary anthropological relationships in Tibet through measurements, feature studies, photography, and modeling, especially gathering materials related to the origin, significance, and development of the Aryan race in the region.

Schäfer’s Vision vs. Himmler’s Expectations

However, Schäfer did not intend to organize the expedition based on Himmler’s ice age theory or delve into mysticism and Nazi racial theories. He planned a comprehensive survey centered on his botanical and zoological expertise. The person truly aligning with Himmler’s vision, attempting to find Aryan elements among Tibetans, was anthropologist Bruno Beger. Beger lamented that Schäfer’s plans lacked significant focus on Tibetan racial studies.

This account of Ernst Schäfer’s expeditions illuminates the complex interplay between scientific exploration and the ideological motives of the Nazi regime, highlighting a moment in history where the pursuit of knowledge intersected with the darker ambitions of racial theory.


Ernst Schäfer’s expedition Visions

In January 1938, the Ahnenerbe, under the leadership of Wolfram Sievers, decided not to fund Ernst Schäfer’s expedition to Tibet, as they believed its objectives strayed too far from Heinrich Himmler’s vision and offered little to his cultural research ideals. Consequently, Schäfer raised the expedition funds himself, securing contributions from the German Economic Advertising Council, the German Scientific Emergency Aid Association, and the Nazi Party’s central publishing house, alongside partial funding from American Brook Dolan.

Himmler eventually consented to the expedition proceeding without Ahnenerbe organization and leadership, with the stipulation that all team members join the SS. He also instructed that the expedition’s letterhead read “The German Ernst Schäfer Tibet Expedition,” supported by Himmler and in association with the Ahnenerbe, which later caused issues in India due to its overt Nazi affiliation, leading Schäfer to revert to using non-affiliated stationery.

Furthermore, the expedition had underlying political motives, as Nazi Germany saw Tibet as a geopolitical vacuum and sought to establish direct ties and gather intelligence for future incursions into British and Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia. This was a primary concern for the British government when providing assistance to the German expedition to Tibet.

Germany’s Historic Expedition to Tibet

The Team and Their Journey

In 1938, a five-member German expedition team ventured into Tibet, marking a significant chapter in exploratory history. Led by Ernst Schäfer and Bruno Beger, the team also included geophysicist Karl Wienert, entomologist and photographer Ernst Krause, and geographer Edmund Geer as the technical lead. Arriving in India in May, the British initially directed them to survey in Sikkim. Seizing the opportunity, they ventured into Gangba Zong in present-day Tingri County, Tibet, where they were hosted by the Taring family from the Sikkim royal lineage. Through generous gifts of much-needed items, they earned an invitation to visit Dobzha, navigating the political sensitivities with the British and limiting their visit to just Schäfer and Krause for three days.

A Land of Secrecy and Spirituality

Tibet, often seen as a “political vacuum” by Nazi Germany, represented an untouched land of immense spiritual and cultural significance. The expedition aimed to establish direct ties with Tibet, preparing for strategic inroads into traditional British and Russian spheres of influence in Central Asia. This political undercurrent, coupled with the team’s genuine scientific curiosity, set the stage for a unique exploration endeavor.

In an extraordinary turn of events, the team received an official invitation from the Tibetan government, allowing them a 14-day stay in Lhasa to build friendships, visit sacred sites, and understand religious architecture—under the condition of no harm to Tibetan residents or wildlife. This invitation, celebrated by Schäfer as a historic milestone, highlighted the unprecedented access granted to them, underscoring the delicacy and importance of their mission amid growing tensions between Germany and Britain.


The Expedition’s Legacy

Schäfer’s expedition, driven by a mix of political motives and a quest for scientific discovery, remains a noteworthy episode in the annals of Tibetan exploration. It reflects the complex interplay between geopolitical ambitions and the pursuit of knowledge, offering a glimpse into a period where the unknown regions of the world captivated the imagination of explorers and political strategists alike.

The German Expedition’s Journey and Impact in Tibet

Arrival and Initial Interactions of German in Lhasa

In December 1938, the German expedition team, consisting of five members including Ernst Schäfer and Bruno Beger, embarked on a significant journey into Tibet from Gangtok through the Chumbi Valley, eventually reaching Yadong and moving north to Gyantse. They explored the historical site of the 1904 battle where Tibetan forces resisted the British invasion at Gyantse Fortress. Locals described the battle as a desperate struggle, akin to a child fighting a fully armed soldier, doomed from the start.

By January 19, 1939, the team made its way into Lhasa, greeted with grand welcome ceremonies by the Kashag government, who presented lavish gifts to the Germans. In Lhasa, the team connected with almost every noble and high-ranking official, including visits to the Nationalist Government’s office in Tibet. Gifts, such as a German pistol to the Regent Reting Rinpoche, facilitated multiple audiences for the team, who noted the exclusive access granted to them compared to others seeking an audience with the Regent.

The Political Undercurrents, Cultural and Scientific Endeavors

Building direct contacts in Lhasa was a crucial aspect of the Germans’ two-month stay, involving visits, banquets, and subtle political propaganda with the Tibetan elite. Schäfer seized opportunities to introduce German achievements, leaders, and political stances to influential Tibetans like Tsarong Dzasa, regarded as Tibet’s prime political figure, likened to “Bismarck of Tibet.”

The team immersed themselves in Tibetan culture, participating in the Tibetan New Year celebrations and documenting religious rituals, societal gatherings, and daily life in Lhasa through extensive photography. Beger, with his rudimentary medical knowledge, became sought after by noble families for medical advice, promising to send more German medicines to Tibet. He conducted detailed anthropological studies on Lhasa’s elite, including blood type testing and creating plaster cast models of their faces.

Efforts to Foster German-Tibetan Relations

The team’s attempts to influence Tibetan society included promoting the idea of sending Tibetan youths to Germany for education, particularly in medicine, and encouraging Tibetan nobility and scholars to visit Germany. Despite these efforts, the lack of support from the Kashag government and the disappointment of not agreeing to send a learned Tibetan Geshe to introduce Buddhism in Germany marked limitations to their ambitions.

The German expedition to Tibet in 1938 stands out as a blend of exploration, cultural exchange, and political maneuvering, leaving a lasting imprint on the historical narrative of German-Tibetan relations.


The German Expedition’s Diplomatic Efforts and Discoveries in Tibet

A Letter to Hitler from Tibet

Although the German expedition’s plan to have Regent Reting Rinpoche visit Germany did not materialize, they successfully persuaded him to write a letter to Adolf Hitler. In the letter, Reting expressed well-wishes for Hitler’s health and the progress of his significant endeavors. He acknowledged the assistance provided to the first Germans allowed to visit Tibet, Dr. Ernst Schäfer and his companions, and expressed a willingness to enhance the friendly relations between their countries. This gesture included gifts of a red tea cup with a silver lid, a tea strainer, and a local dog, symbolizing a small token of friendship.

Bruno Beger speculated that the Tibetan invitation to the Germans was a diplomatic maneuver to maintain their “independence” through foreign alliances. Tibet’s outreach to the rising German Empire could have been motivated by the potential support for Tibet’s “independent status.” The letter from Reting and the warm reception of the Germans highlighted the Tibetan elite’s awareness of European political dynamics and their openness to forging new external relationships.


Schäfer’s Report to Himmler

Schäfer, excitedly reporting to Heinrich Himmler, boasted about the German Empire’s influence reaching the most secluded parts of Asia. He highlighted the Tibetan government’s openness to Germany, in contrast to its closed doors to other Western nations. This encounter underscored the expedition’s ambitions beyond mere scientific exploration, aiming to extend the Third Reich’s influence into the heart of Asia.

Unique Access to Yarlung Valley

The German SS expedition team’s access to the cradle of Tibetan civilization in the Yarlung Valley was unprecedented among Western expeditions. They explored Zanda, Samye Monastery, and early Tibetan civilization ruins throughout the valley. To gain entry, Schäfer claimed that the Nazi symbol, the swastika, originated from the Yarlung Valley and was transmitted to Germany five thousand years ago.

This claim and their activities displeased the British representative in Lhasa, Hugh Richardson, as even the British had not been allowed to explore the valley. After spending a week in Shigatse and sensing the tightening political climate, the team returned to Gangtok in July 1939, just before the outbreak of World War II, marking a significant chapter in the history of Western expeditions to Tibet.

Groundbreaking Scientific Achievements of the German Expedition to Tibet

The German expedition to Tibet, led by Ernst Schäfer, made monumental contributions to scientific research during their explorations of Lhasa, Shigatse, Gyantse, and other areas. Their meticulous photographic surveying and detailed investigations into geomagnetism, temperature, atmospheric pressure, cloud cover, humidity, wind direction, lakes, passageways, rocks, and minerals stand as a testament to their comprehensive approach.

A Treasure Trove of Tibetan Nature and Wildlife

The expedition’s collection was nothing short of astonishing, amassing seeds from 2,000 wild plants and all varieties of Tibetan grains, fruits, and vegetables. They compiled specimens of 5,000-6,000 flowering plants, 3,500 bird specimens, 2,000 bird eggs, 400 mammal specimens, and 100 sets of livestock skeletons. The team also documented a significant number of reptiles, amphibians, and over a thousand types of butterflies. In terms of visual records, they produced 20,000 black and white photographs, 2,000 color photographs, and extensive video footage totaling 40,000 inches in black and white and 4,000 inches in color, marking the largest Western visual documentation activity of Tibet to date.

Acknowledgement of Genuine Scientific Work

Even Basil Gould, the British official responsible for Tibetan affairs in Sikkim, had to acknowledge the Germans’ commitment to “genuine scientific work.” This recognition highlights the expedition’s significant impact and the valuable data they gathered, which provided insights into Tibet’s diverse ecosystems and species.

Anthropological Insights into Tibetan Peoples

A critical aspect of the expedition was its anthropological research. Bruno Beger collected 2,000 items related to the daily lives of Tibetan nomads, along with human skeletons and skulls, bringing them back to Europe for further study. He conducted anthropometric measurements on over 400 Tibetans, creating more than 1,000 facial models. Beger’s research concluded that Tibetans exhibited features intermediate between Mongolian and European peoples, with Mongolian characteristics predominating. He noted that Tibetan nobility showed the closest genetic ties to Europeans, with these similarities diminishing towards eastern and northeastern Tibet.

The German SS expedition’s extensive collection and groundbreaking research from 1913 to 1939 significantly enhanced Western understanding of Tibetan culture, environment, and biological diversity, showcasing the expedition’s unparalleled contribution to global scientific knowledge.

The German SS Tibet Expedition: A Reflection of Complex German-British Relations Pre-WWII

Navigating Diplomatic Tensions

The German SS expedition to Tibet in the late 1930s unfolded against the backdrop of escalating tensions between Germany and Britain, yet it also illustrated the nuanced political relations of the time. Despite the growing hostilities, the British government’s appeasement policy towards Germany led to a somewhat conciliatory stance on many issues. Initially, Ernst Schäfer’s plan to enter Tibet from Sichuan was thwarted by the outbreak of the Chinese resistance against Japan, making India the only viable entry point to Tibet.

British Resistance and Support

The British Foreign Office initially denied Schäfer’s request to enter Tibet through Assam, citing instability in the region. This refusal was influenced by reports of the expedition’s ties to Heinrich Himmler and its composition entirely of SS members, intended to operate under SS principles. The German consulate in Calcutta inferred that the expedition’s rejection was primarily due to its portrayal as an SS endeavor, with the British viewing the SS as a militaristic and espionage organization, suspicious of the scientific mission’s political motives.

Reason for Himmler’s Intervention

Mr Himmler’s letter to his British friend, Sir Barry Domvile, emphasized his surprise and disappointment at the British authorities’ treatment of the German scientists, dismissing the notion of them being spies. Himmler’s plea highlighted the discord between the nations and called for reciprocal respect for German and British citizens within their respective countries. Domvile’s forwarding of this letter to Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain prompted a reassessment by the British government and a swift intelligence review by MI5. This led to the political viability of allowing the Germans to enter Tibet through Sikkim being acknowledged.

Diplomatic Maneuvering

The British Foreign Office, mindful of the negative impression created by hindering the Germans’ journey to Lhasa, advised Basil Gould to minimize political friction. Gould’s subsequent proposal to the Tibetan local government to allow the German visit and his inquiries to the Foreign Office about directing the expedition under Tibetan governance or exerting influence through the British mission in Lhasa—if necessary—reflected a strategic diplomatic effort to balance relations.

Legacy of the 1904 British Invasion

The endorsement of Schäfer’s expedition by Francis Younghusband, the commander of the 1904 British invasion of Tibet, to the Viceroy of India suggested a covert approach to entering Tibet, likening it to a snake slithering across the border. This recommendation, along with Gould’s diplomatic efforts, facilitated the German expedition’s entry into Tibet, highlighting the intricate interplay of diplomacy, espionage, and scientific exploration on the eve of World War II.

British Surveillance and Distrust During the German SS Tibet Expedition

Despite the British decision to support the German SS expedition to Tibet, there remained a vigilant and distrustful attitude towards the Germans, with their movements closely monitored. Basil Gould, the main coordinator for Ernst Schäfer’s expedition, exhibited a facade of warmth while harboring deep disdain for the Germans. Certain officials, specifically tasked with Tibetan affairs, were openly against the German presence, including Hugh Richardson.

Directive from the Viceroy to Richardson

The Viceroy of India, in a telegram specifically addressed to Richardson, expressed understanding of his stance but emphasized that developments had escalated beyond their control. He reluctantly instructed Richardson to proceed as planned, noting Heinrich Himmler’s direct engagement with the Foreign Office and his specific request for the continuation of the German expedition’s activities.

Richardson’s Reluctance and Surveillance Efforts

Richardson, reluctantly complying with the order, maintained a tense relationship with the Germans in Lhasa. He discreetly monitored their every move, including using the opportunity of the Germans utilizing the British-Indian postal system to surveil all mail headed to Germany and embedding spies among the locals employed by the Germans. Richardson perceived the Germans as finding “natural allies” among the Chinese, who allowed them to use the wireless equipment of the Chinese mission in Tibet.

The Underlying Opposition

Richardson’s opposition stemmed from concerns that the German expedition could pave the way for German involvement in Tibet. He was acutely aware of his primary political mission to maintain British influence in Tibet and to preserve its status as a buffer zone protecting India. Any intervention by non-British powers, especially a key competitor like Germany, was seen as a direct threat to these strategic objectives. In reports to Gould, Richardson accused Schäfer and his team of tarnishing Britain’s reputation, alleging they portrayed Germany as the world’s most powerful nation to the Tibetans, highlighting the British’s worst fears.

The Impact of the German SS Expedition on European Reputation in Tibet

British officials believed the behavior of the German expedition members in Tibet had tarnished the reputation of Europeans, carefully cultivated by the British. Historically, British representatives in Tibet presented themselves with impeccable dress and demeanor, embodying the prestige of the British Empire. In contrast, the Germans were perceived not only as unkempt, resembling beggars, but also as rude to local hires, engaging in animal slaughter near temples, and thus damaging the “good image” of Europeans painstakingly established by the British.

Diverging Perspectives on the Expedition’s Success

While the Germans viewed the expedition as a tremendous success, British assessments were overwhelmingly negative. Basil Gould’s report criticized the Germans for being unpopular in Tibet, noting their high payment yet frequent mistreatment of local hires. Additionally, the Germans were accused of purchasing local goods at below-market rates, tolerating drug use and violence among their Sherpa servants, and eliciting numerous complaints regarding their anthropological measurements. Despite their legitimate scientific pursuits, the Germans also collected military and political intelligence, framing the expedition as a political spectacle promoting Germany and Nazi ideology.

Enduring Criticism and Legacy

Hugh Richardson, who later became an authority on Tibetan studies, consistently denigrated the expedition in his writings. Contemporary Western narratives largely echo the assessments of British officials at the Indian border, reflecting Britain’s dominant role in controlling and disseminating information about Tibet at the time. This portrayal underscores the complex interplay of exploration, political ambitions, and international rivalry in the historical engagement with Tibet.

Conclusion: Beyond the Expedition

The German expedition to Tibet, beyond gathering an impressive array of data, specimens, and artifacts, also collected extensive intelligence and gained a deep understanding of Tibet’s internal conditions and political situation. This led to the belief that formal contacts had been established with Tibet and that there was potential for cooperation with Germany. As a result, Tibet quickly came under the Nazi leadership’s radar after the outbreak of World War II.

In September 1939, following a suggestion from the German Ambassador to Turkey, Franz von Papen, that “to defeat Britain, India must be attacked,” Ernst Schäfer proposed a “Tibet Plan” to Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Heinrich Himmler. The plan involved sending an SS armed expedition through the Soviet Union into Tibet, bringing military supplies to the Tibetans to incite them against British strongholds in Tibet and along the Indo-Tibetan border, causing unrest in northern India. Schäfer envisioned this operation in the “spirit of Lawrence of Arabia,” suggesting a small, elite team of German officers equipped with significant funds.

Schäfer outlined two potential routes:

Through Almaty to Hami into Tibet or along the Silk Road through Kashgar and Hotan to Lhasa. Negotiations about the plan’s specifics with the Soviet Union were conducted by Ribbentrop’s representative, Peter Kleist. In December 1940, the Soviet Union agreed to allow the Germans through their territory into Tibet. However, the plan dissolved six months later with the outbreak of the Soviet-German war. The direct contacts established by the SS expedition between Germany and the Tibetan local government were exploited as a tool for Nazi foreign policy, positioning Tibet as a pawn and stepping stone in plans to attack British India.

The Nazi regime’s attempts to extend its influence into Tibet ceased with Germany’s defeat, but rumors and myths about the SS expedition’s activities in Tibet have persisted. Modern narratives often overemphasize the expedition’s mysticism, with many believing in deep, mysterious connections between the Nazis and Tibet: from Nazi searches for mystical energies and the Earth’s axis in Tibet to Hitler’s supposed Tibetan “prophet” advisor and rituals performed by Tibetan lamas to change the weather for the invasion of the Soviet Union. These claims lack evidence; Hitler himself showed no interest in Tibet. The expedition was a decision by Himmler, with Hitler unaware.


Relations of German and Tibet

Three years after returning to Germany, Schäfer presented the letter from the Regent of Tibet to Hitler, who neither replied nor took any further action. Since the 1960s, Western literature and films have been fascinated by the theme of a mysterious connection between the Nazis and Tibet. Influenced by this, some literary works and even academic articles in China have also portrayed the Nazi expedition to Tibet as shrouded in mystery. This exaggeration and fabrication distort both history and Tibet’s image, intensifying the mystique surrounding Tibet.

The mysticism attributed to the Nazi expedition to Tibet has been exaggerated mainly due to a lack of serious historical research and evaluation. Post-war, including Germany, Western countries have sometimes arbitrarily distorted and fantasized about Hitler and Nazi history. Any mysterious or unbelievable event could be linked to Hitler or the Nazis and eagerly verified as if self-evident. This mystical perception naturally connects so-called Nazi mysticism with various mystical images of Tibet.

Comprehensive study of Tibet by German

In 1942, as German forces advanced into the Caucasus, Himmler ordered a comprehensive study of Central Asia and Tibet, leading to the establishment of the Sven Hedin Institute, named after the Swedish explorer and led by Schäfer, under the University of Munich. Initially, the institute’s primary task was to sort and study the materials Schäfer brought back from his expedition to Tibet. It later also received some estates from Wilhelm Filchner, a German Tibet explorer, and Wilhelm Rickmer-Rickmers, a Central Asian explorer.

The institute was directly under the leadership of the SS and Himmler. Schäfer explained in a speech that the institute was not only responsible to the university, the state, and the empire but was also under the guidance of the SS and Himmler. The SS’s ideology and research philosophy were aligned, both bearing a pioneering mission and embodying the material, spiritual, and soulful gifts of Germanic heritage.

In a letter to Hans Heinrich Lammers, head of the Reich Chancellery, Schäfer detailed the institute’s purpose and philosophy: “Our task is to advance true, comprehensive, and holistic scientific research… Alexander von Humboldt proposed this idea a century ago, but it has yet to be developed.” Schäfer aimed for an integrated study between natural and human sciences, establishing 13 divisions for research in geomagnetism, geophysics, geography, botany, limnology, anthropology, ethnology, and theology. Despite Schäfer’s ambitious plans, such a research agenda was impossible to realize during the war.

Exhibition about Tibet at Salzburg and German

In 1943, Ernst Schäfer, Bruno Beger, and their team created an immersive exhibition at the Haus der Natur (House of Nature) museum in Salzburg, Austria. The exhibition featured lifelike dioramas of Tibet’s Potala Palace, sky burial sites, Tibetan nomads and aristocrats, the Red Valley, and vultures, among others. Even those who had never visited Tibet could feel as if they were truly there. The renowned explorer Sven Hedin attended the opening, and Heinrich Himmler himself praised the display. These dioramas, which remain on exhibit, are considered treasures of the museum.

Today, the museum acknowledges that these displays were the result of the SS Tibet expedition sponsored by Himmler between 1938 and 1939. Despite this controversial background, the Tibetan exhibition is valued for its unique anthropological record of old Tibet and is thus still showcased. The museum clarifies its disassociation from those involved in Nazi crimes. The exhibition also includes information on Tibet, featuring maps, the Chinese “occupation,” and the Dalai Lama’s nonviolent struggle. The House of Nature has become one of Europe’s most popular museums, serving as an educational foundation for Europeans interested in Tibetan culture. These three-dimensional displays may well be the most renowned legacy of the SS Tibet expedition in contemporary Europe.

Henrich Harrer “seven years in Tibet”

Many confuse this SS expedition with the adventures of the famous Austrian explorer Heinrich Harrer. Harrer, who joined the SS and the Nazi Party in 1938, participated in a 1939 German Himalaya Foundation expedition to Nanga Parbat and was captured by the British in India after World War II broke out. He escaped custody in May 1944, fled to Tibet, and entered Lhasa in January 1946, where he gained the favor of the 14th Dalai Lama, his family, and other Tibetan elites, returning to Europe in 1952. Harrer’s memoir, “Seven Years in Tibet,” is widely known.

Due to his Nazi affiliation and the significant impact of his works in Germany, Harrer is also considered a “German” Tibet explorer, despite his fame as a friend of the 14th Dalai Lama and a renowned “Tibetan hand.”

While Heinrich Harrer’s escape to Tibet later had no direct links to Himmler or Hitler, it’s crucial to note that the widespread “Tibet Movement” in modern Germany and the West closely relates to the encouragement and depiction by early Westerners who visited Tibet, including those associated with the Nazi era expeditions like Harrer and Beger. Interestingly, in the 1980s, the 14th Dalai Lama personally visited Ernst Schäfer in Bad Bevensen, Lower Saxony. Beger also had multiple meetings with the Dalai Lama and maintained a good relationship with the Dalai Lama’s brother, Thubten Jigme Norbu.

Cautious from British toward German Tibet relation

Historically, the British were extremely cautious about Germans in Tibet, with Hugh Richardson in Lhasa once facing off against Schäfer and Beger, and even trying more than once to have Harrer and his team expelled, leaving them in constant fear. However, by the 1950s, these British and German individuals set aside their differences, advocating for “Tibet” as “historical witnesses” to the “Tibetan cause”. In 1994, the 14th Dalai Lama invited notable figures including Harrer, Beger, and Richardson to London, asking them to testify before global media about Tibet’s “once independent status”.

These individuals have authored numerous articles asserting Tibet’s “independent status”, such as Richardson’s “Tibet and Its History” and Beger’s “Tibet’s Independent Status in 1938-1939”. Harrer’s works, in particular, have been instrumental in asserting “Tibetan independence” and the “happy life” of old Tibet. His influence was so significant that the German Green Party based its Tibet policy in the mid-1980s on his writings, providing “historical evidence” and “moral force” to the Western “Tibet Movement”.

Memory of German Tibet Relation

In December 1939, Sven Hedin recounted a conversation with Himmler about Schäfer’s Tibet expedition. Himmler expressed a desire to delay publishing its findings, including books, photos, and films, fearing they would be overshadowed by the war’s interest. The publication of some expedition outcomes was minimal post-war, disproportionate to the extensive data gathered. Hindered by war and the public’s focus on it, Himmler had hoped to unveil the expedition’s findings post-victory to create a significant impact. However, this plan, along with the Third Reich and Himmler himself, met an untimely end.

The German Federal Archives (Berlin) has released files related to the expedition, including manuscripts, diaries, letters, and media reports, along with approximately 17,000 photos. These documents offer valuable insights into Tibet’s geography, climate, daily life, economy, political and religious relationships, social systems, Sino-Tibetan relations, and political situation of the late 1930s. Despite their potential to enrich modern Tibetan studies, these materials have yet to receive the attention they deserve, both domestically and internationally.

About the author

The Tibetan Travel website's creator, hailing from Lhasa, is a cultural enthusiast. They promote responsible tourism, connecting the world to Tibet's beauty and heritage. Awards recognize their contribution.

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