Of all the exotic images that the West has ever projected onto Tibet, that of the Nazi expedition, and its search for the pure remnants of the Aryan race, remains the most bizarre. In April 1938 the SS undertook its biggest and most ambitious expedition to Tibet, led by Ernst Schäfer, a veteran explorer, and the anthropologist Bruno Beger. On the nineteenth of January 1939, the five members of the Waffen-SS, Heinrich Himmler's feared Nazi shock troops, passed through the ancient, arched gateway that led into the sacred city of Lhasa. Like many Europeans, they carried with them idealized and unrealistic views of Tibet, projecting, as Orville Schell remarks in his book Virtual Tibet, "a fabulous skein of fantasy around this distant, unknown land." The projections of the Nazi expedition, however, did not include the now familiar search for Shangri-La, the hidden land in which a uniquely perfect and peaceful social system held a blueprint to counter the transgressions that plague the rest of humankind. Rather, the perfection sought by the Nazis was an idea of racial perfection that would justify their views on world history and German supremacy.
What brings about this odd juxtaposition of Tibetan lamas and SS officers on the eve of World War II is a strange story of secret societies, occultism, racial pseudo-science, and political intrigue. They were, in fact, on a diplomatic and quasi-scientific mission to establish relations between Nazi Germany and Tibet and to search for lost remnants of an imagined Aryan race hidden somewhere on the Tibetan plateau. As such, they were a far-flung expression of Hitler's most paranoid and bizarre theories on ethnicity and domination. And while the Tibetans were completely unaware of Hitler's racist agenda, the 1939 mission to Tibet remains a cautionary tale about how foreign ideas, symbols, and terminology can be horribly misused.
Some Nazi militarists imagined Tibet as a potential base for attacking British India, and hoped that this mission would lead to some form of alliance with the Tibetans. In that they were partly successful. The mission was received by the Reting Regent (who had led Tibet since the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama in 1933), and it did succeed in persuading the Regent to correspond with Adolf Hitler. But the Germans were also interested in Tibet for another reason. Nazi leaders such as Heinrich Himmler believed that Tibet might harbor the last of the original Aryan tribes, the legendary forefathers of the German race, whose leaders possessed supernatural powers that the Nazis could use to conquer the world.
This was the age of European expansion, and numerous theories provided ideological justification for imperialism and colonialism. A German In Germany the idea of an Aryan or "master" race found resonance with the route rabid nationalism, the idea of the of the German superman distilled from the expedition philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche, photo and Wagner's operatic celebrations courtesy of Nordic sagas and Teutonic mythology. Long before the 1939 mission to Tibet, the Nazis had borrowed Asian symbols and language and used them for their own ends. A number of prominent articles of Nazi rhetoric and symbolism originated in the language and religions of Asia. The term "Aryan", for example, comes from the Sanskrit word arya, meaning noble. In the Vedas, the most ancient Hindu scriptures, the term describes a race of light-skinned people from Central Asia who conquered and subjugated the darker-skinned (or Dravidian) peoples of the Indian subcontinent. Linguistic evidence does support the multidirectional migration of a central Asian people, now referred to as Indo-Europeans, into much of India and Europe at some point between 2000 and 1500 B.C.E., although it is unclear whether these Indo-Europeans were identical with the Aryans of the Vedas.
So much for responsible scholarship
In the hands of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European jingoists and occultists such as Josef Arthur de Gobineau, these ideas about Indo-Europeans and light-skinned Aryans were transformed into a twisted myth of Nordic and later exclusively German racial superiority. The German identification with the Indo-Europeans and Aryans of the second millennium B.C.E. gave historical precedence to Germany's imperial "place in the sun" and the idea that ethnic Germans were racially entitled to conquest and mastery. It also aided in fomenting anti-Semitism and xenophobia, as Jews, Gypsies, and other minorities did not share in the Aryan German's perceived heritage as members of a dominant race. Ideas about an Aryan or master race began to appear in the popular media in the late nineteenth century. In the 1890s, E. B. Lytton, a Rosicrucian, wrote a best-selling novel around the idea of a cosmic energy (particularly strong in the female sex), which he called "Vril." Later he wrote of a Vril society, consisting of a race of super-beings that would emerge from their underground hiding-places to rule the world. His fantasies coincided with a great interest in the occult, particularly among the upper classes, with numerous secret societies founded to propagate these ideas. They ranged from those devoted to the Holy Grail to those who followed the sex and drugs mysticism of Alastair Crowley, and many seem to have had a vague affinity for Buddhist and Hindu beliefs. General Haushofer, a follower of Gurdjieff and later one of Hitler's main patrons, founded one such society. Its aim was to explore the origins of the Aryan race, and Haushofer named it the Vril Society, after Lytton's fictional creation. Its members practiced meditation to awaken the powers of Vril, the feminine cosmic energy. The Vril Society claimed to have links to Tibetan masters, apparently drawing on the ideas of Madame Blavatsky, the Theosophist who claimed to be in telepathic contact with spiritual masters in Tibet. In Germany, this blend of ancient myths and nineteenth-century scientific theories began to evolve into a belief that the Germans were the purest manifestation of the inherently superior Aryan race, whose destiny was to rule the world. These ideas were given scientific weight by ill-founded theories of eugenics and racist ethnography. Around 1919, the Vril Society gave way to the Thule Society (Thule Gesellschaft), which was founded in Munich by Baron Rudolf von Sebottendorf, a follower of Blavatsky.
The Thule Society drew on the traditions of various orders such as the Jesuits, the Knights Templar, the Order of the Golden Dawn, and the Sufis. It promoted the myth of Thule, a legendary island in the frozen northlands that had been the home of a master race, the original Aryans. As in the legend of Atlantis (with which it is sometimes identified), the inhabitants of Thule were forced to flee from some catastrophe that destroyed their world. But the survivors had retained their magical powers and were hidden from the world, perhaps in secret tunnels in Tibet, where they might be contacted and subsequently bestow their powers on their Aryan descendants.
Such ideas might have remained harmless, but the Thule Society added a strong right-wing, anti-Semitic political ideology to the Vril Society mythology. They formed an active opposition to the local Socialist government in Munich and engaged in street battles and political assassinations. As their symbol, along with the dagger and the oak leaves, they adopted the Swastika, which had been used by earlier German neo-pagan groups. The appeal of the Swastika symbol to the Thule Society seems to have been largely in its dramatic strength rather than its cultural or mystical significance. They believed it was an original Aryan symbol, although it was actually used by numerous unconnected cultures throughout history. Beyond the adoption of the Swastika, it is difficult to judge the extent to which either Tibet or Buddhism played a part in Thule Society ideology Vril Society founder General Haushofer, who remained active in the Thule Society, had been a German military attaché in Japan. There he may have acquired some knowledge of Zen Buddhism, which was then the dominant faith among the Japanese military. Other Thule Society members, however, could only have read early German studies of Buddhism, and those studies tended to construct the idea of a pure, original Buddhism that had been lost, and a degenerate Buddhism that survived, much polluted by primitive local beliefs. It seems that Buddhism was little more than a poorly understood and exotic element in the Society's loose collection of beliefs, and had little real influence on the Thule ideology. But Tibet occupied a much stronger position in their mythology, being imagined as the likely home of the survivors of the mythic Thule race.
The importance of the Thule Society can be seen from the fact that its members included Nazi leaders Rudolf Hess (Hitler's deputy), Heinrich Himmler, and almost certainly Hitler himself. But while Hitler was at least nominally a Catholic, Himmler enthusiastically embraced the aims and beliefs of the Thule Society. He adopted a range of neo-pagan ideas and believed himself to be a reincarnation of a tenth-century Germanic king. Himmler seems to have been strongly attracted to the possibility that Tibet might prove to be the refuge of the original Aryans and their superhuman powers. By the time Hitler wrote Mein Kampf in the 1920s, the myth of the Aryan race was fully developed. In Chapter XI, "Race and People," he expressed concern over what he perceived as the mixing of pure Aryan blood with that of inferior peoples. In his view, the pure Aryan Germanic races had been corrupted by prolonged contact with Jewish people. He lamented that northern Europe had been "Judaized" and that the German's originally pure blood had been tainted by prolonged contact with Jewish people, who, he claimed, lie "in wait for hours on end, satanically glaring at and spying on the unsuspicious girl whom he plans to seduce, adulterating her blood and removing her from the bosom of her people."
For Hitler, the only solution to this mingling of Aryan and Jewish blood was for the tainted Germans to find the wellsprings of Aryan blood. It may happen that in the course of history such a people will come into contact a second time, and even oftener, with the original founders of their culture and may not even remember that distant association. A new cultural wave flows in and lasts until the blood of its standard-bearers becomes once again adulterated by intermixture with the originally conquered race. In the search for "contact a second time" with the Aryans, Tibet-long isolated, mysterious, and remote-seemed a likely candidate.
Quest of the Nazis
Berlin, 1936. National pride is in the air, the preparations for the Olympics are under way and a young naturalist, Ernst Schäfer, is congratulating himself on his luck. He has just had a successful meeting with his new mentor, Heinrich Himmler. Such patronage will bring opportunities for an ambitious young scientist. Soon, with Himmler's blessing, he will lead an expedition to Tibet on a quest to investigate the origins of the Aryan race.
Schäfer is 26. He has just married Hertha Volz, a tall, beautiful blonde. He has already been on two American-led expeditions to China, where he demonstrated a brooding character and a fondness for shooting any creature that moved. He enjoys minor celebrity status as the author of Mountains, Buddhas and Bears. But he wants more: more fame, more power, more prestige. In 1930s Germany, the only way to get ahead is to get in with the Reichsführer.
'Schäfer was seduced by Himmler's power, like many well-educated German intellectuals,' says Christopher Hale, whose new book, Himmler's Crusade, chronicles the roots and results of the German Tibet expedition. Schäfer emerges as a slightly comical figure - 'a combination of Ernest Hemingway and Reginald Perrin' - on a ridiculous mission. Yet the expedition to Tibet was just one of hundreds of strange enterprises overseen by Himmler in an attempt to bolster Nazi ideology with phoney history and science.
During his research, Hale uncovered hundreds of photographs that had been locked away in an archive in Koblenz, Germany, for decades. 'I realised this was as close as I could come to being present,' he says. 'There was the first glimpse of the Himalayas... the trail of men and animals winding their way up to the Natu La pass... I could almost sense what those SS men were thinking - it was not a comfortable experience.'
If it weren't so sinister, it would have been silly. Himmler thought he was the reincarnation of a 10th-century German king, Heinrich I, or Henry the Fowler. He appointed as his personal adviser a madman, Karl Maria Willigut, who claimed to be the last in a long line of German sages. He dabbled in prehistoric Venus figures, telepathy, homeopathy, 'Germanic astronomy', hypnotism, Hindu castes and runes. He belonged to occultist sects.
At Wewelsburg Castle, which Himmler had renovated (using slave labour) to resemble the mythical Camelot (round table and all), he trained his SS officers in pagan ceremonies and meditation. Dieter Wisleceny, an SS captain, said: 'The usual view of Himmler is that he was an ice-cold, cynical politician. This view is almost entirely wrong... Himmler was a mystic.'
Tibet might seem like an odd place to search for Germanic roots, but it was not an arbitrary choice. Many odd ideas were taken seriously in Europe long before Nazism took hold
In 1786 an Englishman, Sir William Jones, had studied the similarities between Latin, Greek and Sanskrit, and concluded that Sanskrit was the oldest of the three languages.
In the next century, a German linguist, Friedrich Schlegel, claimed that Sanskrit had first been spoken by an elite race of light-skinned warriors in northern India, as mentioned in the ancient Hindu scriptures. Schlegel called them Aryans (arya is Sanskrit for 'noble'). They may not have existed, but it was an appealing idea.
Then there was the 19th-century religious fraud 'Madame' Helena Blavatsky, founder of the Theosophical Movement, who claimed to be in direct spiritual contact with the 'Great White Brotherhood' in Tibet. She convinced thousands that humans had evolved through various stages, each of which had succumbed to floods. An elite priesthood had escaped from the lost continent of Atlantis and fled to the Himalayas, and their successors were the Aryans. Others, too, proposed these Aryans, or Nordics, were descended from godlike men and had once lived in the icy north. These were the people Himmler was interested in. Perhaps there were still traces of them?
In 1935, Himmler had founded the Ahnenerbe, or Ancestral Heritage Organisation, to study the supposed roots of the Aryan nation, which by sleight of hand the Nazis had appropriated as their own. 'A Volk [people] that has this belief in rebirth and that honours its ancestors, and in so doing honours itself, always has children, and this Volk has eternal life,' Himmler told his SS men. 'A people live happily in the present and the future. so long as they are conscious of their past and the greatness of their ancestors,' ran the Ahnenerbe's motto. There were 46 departments, headed by top zoologists, botanists, archaeologists, meteorologists, historians and anthropologists. It even had its own publishing house, producing books and journals.
'Culturally and intellectually the Ahnenerbe was very significant,' says the author Nicholas Goodrick-Clarke. 'Himmler wanted to forge a coherent ideological instrument to explain why the Aryan was the master race, and establishing a complete prehistory and geography was a way to do that.' If there were no physical signs of such a race ever having existed, it was because nobody had looked hard enough. Small but determined teams were dispatched to the ends of the Earth to seek evidence for superior Germanic ancestry.
Many Germans - even fellow Nazis - thought some of Himmler's ideas slightly embarrassing. But he wanted to make the Ahnenerbe a credible research institute. For this he needed to enlist ambitious scientists, such as Schäfer, to add prestige to the enterprise. It's unlikely that Schäfer shared all Himmler's beliefs, but he was one of hundreds of men who allowed themselves to be sucked into the ReichsfŸhrer's poisonous empire for personal gain. He was eager to be the first German to reach Lhasa, the Forbidden City. 'Schäfer knew that the Ahnenerbe was a bunch of cranks. Yet he knew he needed the support of Himmler, the second most powerful man in Germany,' says Hale.
But he had no reservations about Himmler's politics. He was a proud German nationalist. In a 1937 interview for the SS magazine, he enthused: 'The same essential ideas motivate me as an SS man and as an explorer and scientist. The ideas of the SS and the ideas of research are identical... science only grows on a racial basis.' The other team members were SS officers too: Ernst Krause, a botanist and entomologist, who would double as the official cameraman; Karl Wienert, a geophysicist; Edmund Geer, the expedition's manager; and Bruno Beger, an anthropologist.
The team reached Lhasa in January 1939 on a two-week tourist permit and stayed for eight months, despite strong British opposition. Tibet was on the edge of British India. Our man in Lhasa hated fascism and had vowed to keep the German party out of the Forbidden City. Schäfer had failed to get the expedition rubber-stamped by the India Office, despite support from some well-bred British fascists, but an explorer had advised him: 'Sneak over the border. Then find a way round the regulations.' During the Germans' time in Lhasa, the British maintained a polite front while keeping a close eye on their activities.
Schäfer cultivated friendships with important Tibetans, including the powerful regent. He assumed the perfect Tibetan character - calm, tolerant, smiling - while secretly abhorring their customs. He recognised Tibet's potential political use to the Reich. After all, they shared the Swastika, the ancient symbol of good fortune.
Beger's dubious research involved making a precise series of measurements of people's heads and facial features with callipers. The aim was to compare and contrast bodily types - Hale calls it 'the mathematics of racial difference'. Beger carried eye-colour charts and swatches of hair to help him categorize people into neat racial types. He also took face masks of Tibetans, a process that required raw gypsum, water and disinfectant. The first volunteer had fearful convulsions as the plaster set, but Beger pressed on undeterred. He was forced to pose as a medicine man to win the favour of the Tibetan aristocracy, dispensing drugs and tending to monks with sexually transmitted diseases in return for his research. He gathered a huge amount of pointless information. During eight months in Lhasa, he recorded the measurements of 376 people and took casts of the heads, faces, hands and ears of 17 more, as well as fingerprints and hand prints from another 350.
Schäfer made a comprehensive survey of Tibetan flora and fauna and indulged his lifelong passion for hunting. This was a man who boasted of having shot rats in the family cellar at the age of three. In China he had proudly slain an eagle and a giant panda. Like Göring and Himmler, he saw nature as something to be mastered. A Tibetan guide observed he often drank his quarry's blood.
He was a difficult character, plagued by remorse over the death of his wife. They had taken a boat out onto a lake in Germany so that he could shoot game. He leapt up to fire at some ducks, but stumbled and accidentally shot Hertha in the head. She died an hour later, and Schäfer's guilt and grief heightened an already volatile nature. 'Schäfer's chief trouble is that he is unbalanced mentally,' a British official commented.
The Germans collected anything they could: thousands of artefacts, a huge number of plants and animals, including live specimens. Wienert took four sets of geomagnetic data. Krause studied Tibetan wasps. Schäfer observed Tibetan rituals, including sky burials (he even bought some human skulls). And they took stills and film footage of local culture, including the spectacular New Year celebrations when tens of thousands of pilgrims descended upon Lhasa.
Their time was limited. In March 1939, Hitler occupied Czechoslovakia, and war was becoming inevitable. The German expedition was suspected of espionage. A Punch cartoon showed the SS 'secret agents' standing next to a yak with a Swastika burnt into its hide. In August, shortly before war was declared, the team hastily left for Europe. Himmler greeted his homecoming heroes personally and declared the expedition a triumph for the SS.
While they had been away, the Ahnenerbe had been propagating Himmler's evil philosophies in a process far subtler than Göbbels's propaganda. Himmler had been clever recruiting scientists: it conferred a respectability on his ideas. 'Myths are never harmless,' says Hale. 'In Himmler's world they were the building blocks of genocide.' The theory that there is one master race under constant threat of extinction fed into the idea that 'outsiders' (for which read 'Jews') were a threat; mass murder could be justified as self-defence. 'Who would have thought in the 1920s that a crank like Himmler would ever have the political power to do something about such absurd and ridiculous ideas? Yet he did achieve that power and the results were catastrophic.'
Beger, Krause and Wienert were absorbed into the German military machine. Schäfer became an administrator in the Ahnenerbe. Now the Tibet expedition's sinister undertones would come to the fore. The 120,000ft of moving film they had taken was edited down into a documentary, Geheimnis Tibet (Secret Tibet), to fit Himmler's agenda. A unique record of Tibetan life and customs, it presents the expedition team as heroes, bravely crossing torrential rivers on rope bridges to reach their goal. The Tibetans welcome them with smiles, and one woman seems to find it all very jolly when Beger measures her with his callipers. In the unedited version, they came to blows.
The overriding theme is that Tibet, once a proud warrior nation, has been dominated and weakened by a religion from outside. 'It was presented as a clear warning from history,' says Hale. 'The inference was that if Germans allowed Jews and their religion to contaminate their country, they faced catastrophe.'
Himmler's protégés were slowly drawn further into his murderous empire. Schäfer was treated to a glimpse of the Reichsführer's master plan in action when he joined him on a visit to Poland. Here he learnt all about Himmler's scheme to liquidate the Polish intelligentsia. He breakfasted with some of Himmler's most savage SS henchmen. 'Schäfer wasn't interested in being an agent of genocide, but he would have been stupid or blind if he hadn't seen what was happening,' says Hale. Schäfer would later claim he had been trapped 'in a spider's web'.
On returning from Tibet, he had been given his own institute, which he named after an anti-semitic Swedish explorer. The Sven Hedin Institute for Inner Asian Research opened in January 1943. By now, the Ahnenerbe was a vast organisation. One of its departments was carrying out horrific experiments on Jews, other Germans, Russians and Poles. In 1942, Schäfer and Krause had photographed some of Dr Rascher's gruesome medical experiments in the labour camp at Dachau.
Beger became the Ahnenerbe's race expert. He realised that the Reich's 'resettlement camps' in the east created an opportunity for scientific experiment. On a spring evening in 1943, he arrived at Auschwitz station, had a hearty meal and the next day selected over 100 prisoners to measure. He stayed for eight days, then the prisoners were gassed and their corpses delivered to the anatomy department at Strasbourg university. There are clues to suggest that some of their skulls ended up in Schäfer's institute.
Schäfer spent the last part of the war investigating Himmler's latest obsession: the origins of a mythical red horse with a white mane. But he was no fool. When the allies' victory was declared, he surrendered, playing down his links to the regime. He tried to convince his captors that he had maintained a purely scientific vision, untainted by politics or ideology. He was let off with a fine, and in 1949 moved to Venezuela to create a new wildlife park.
Beger kept a low profile for more than a decade. Wienert, Krause and Geer quietly slipped back into academic life. Himmler himself had committed suicide by swallowing a cyanide pill while in British custody in May 1945. It wasn't until Beger's wartime anthropology came to light during Adolf Eichmann's trial in 1961 that he was implicated in the murder of 115 people. Beger faced trial in 1971. Schäfer testified in his defence. Beger admitted that he had measured the heads of prisoners at Auschwitz, but claimed he knew nothing of their subsequent fate. He was found guilty of being an 'accomplice to murder' and given a three-year suspended sentence.In the 1970s, Schäfer applied to set up a conservation project in northern India, but was denied a visa. In the last known photograph taken before his death in 1992, he looks distrustful, slightly wounded. His friends said he had never quite come to terms with the past. Bruno Beger, now 92, lives in a small town near Frankfurt. He appears to have suffered no such qualms. His Tibetan face masks are proudly displayed on a shelf above his front door.
The Nazis and the search for Atlantis
James Beresford takes a look at the pseudo-archaeological theories that led Heinrich Himmler to dispatch SS scientists around the globe prior to the outbreak of World War II.
In December 1938 a small expedition struggled slowly northwards along the steep and treacherous mountain paths that led them ever higher into the bitingly cold winds howling down from the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas. The party consisted of five young German scientists and more than a dozen Indian porters.
They had already suffered considerable hardships in the summer while travelling through the northern Indian state of Sikkim when heavy monsoon rains had caused flooding and landslides, while large tropical leeches had made travel a misery, and diseases such as black plague and anthrax were rife among the local communities through which they journeyed. The party had, however, had chance to recuperate in Sikkim and, despite the difficulties in journeying through Himalayan mountain passes in winter, their mood was good and they travelled with a purpose, knowing that at the head of the Natu La Pass they would finally enter Tibet, the remote and little-known country that was their destination.
Better yet, the expedition had come this far without damage to the scientific instruments, film-making equipment, diplomatic gifts and weapons that were packed on the backs of almost 50 mules. Even the expedition’s flag bearing the Nazi swastika was still flying proudly in the icy air. The twin lightening flashes of the SS were also visible on the pith helmet of the expedition leader, clearly marking him and the rest of the Germans as members of the Schutzstaffel.
The leader of the small expedition was Ernst Schäfer. Only 28 years of age, short but powerfully built, Schäfer was already famous as an explorer who had twice travelled to remote and dangerous parts of China and Tibet. In addition to being a respected scientist who had studied zoology and geology at Gottingen University, Schäfer was an expert hunter, taking pride in being only the second European to shoot a giant panda, and, only a few weeks earlier, had become the first Westerner to track and kill a shapi – highly elusive antelope-like creatures worshipped by some Himalayan tribes as gods. However, the joys of the hunt had been tempered when, only a year earlier, he had shot and killed his wife in a hunting accident.
A British political officer who encountered the German expedition while it was in Sikkim described Schäfer as ‘interesting, forceful, volatile, scholarly, vain to the point of childishness, disregardful of social convention or the feelings of others, and first and foremost always a Nazi and a politician’. It was Schäfer who had handpicked the four other SS scientists who made up the party and who, like himself, were all members of the Ahnenerbe, the Nazi ‘Ancestral Heritage Organisation’.
Founded by leading Nazi Heinrich Himmler in the summer of 1935 as Studiengesellschaft für Geisteurgeschichte, Deutsches Ahnenerbe (‘Study Society for Spiritual History and German Ancestral Heritage’), the organisation was primarily intended to provide scientific credibility for Nazi racial theories and to strengthen German nationalism through investigation of the country’s history and mythology. To achieve these ends, the principal weapons in the armoury of the Ahnenerbe were to be archaeology and anthropology, and at the heart of its studies was the investigation of the origins and spread of the Ayran race.
Tibet might not seem the most likely location to search for the origins of the Aryan people, the epitome of whom – according to Nazi racial theorists at least – were the tall, blond-haired, blue-eyed Nordic peoples of northern Europe. For scientists of the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, however, the inaccessible highland plateau of Tibet seemed to offer tantalising possibilities for understanding human evolution and cultural development. Before the unearthing of the hominid fossils that today point to Africa as the home of human evolution, Tibet was seen as the most likely region to fill this role. The great German philosopher Immanuel Kant (1724–1804) looked towards Tibet as the birthplace of both creation and civilisation, labelling this first, mighty race of people ‘Aryan’ – a name derived from the Sanskrit arya meaning ‘noble’.
The theory of an Aryan ‘Master Race’ was given additional impetus in the late 19th century by Helena Blavatsky, a Russian clairvoyant who, following a trip to India, published The Secret Doctrine in 1888. The two-volume work combined legend and folklore with Darwinian theories of natural selection, producing a pseudo-scientific version of human evolution that claimed humanity was derived from seven root races, one of which had first appeared on a long lost island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This was, of course, the legendary island of Atlantis, first described by the philosopher Plato (c. 427–347 BC) in his dialogues Timaeus and Critias.
In these works Plato has the great Athenian politician Solon visiting Egypt, where priests inform him that 9000 years earlier, the militarily powerful and technologically advanced Atlanteans had dwelt on a large island beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. According to the tale set down by Plato, the Atlanteans succeeded in conquering all the lands of the western Mediterranean and were only stopped from subjugating the entire known world by a military alliance led by the Athenians. It was during this war that Atlantis met its famous fate when, according to the records Plato claimed were held by the Egyptian priesthood, ‘there occurred portentous earthquakes and floods, and one grievous day and night befell them, when the whole body of your warriors was swallowed up by the earth, and the island of Atlantis in like manner was swallowed up by the sea and vanished’ (Timaeus 25c).
Blavatsky took Plato at face value and wove into the Greek narrative threads of folklore and legend drawn from other regions of the world, creating a post-catastrophe migration myth for survivors from Atlantis, who took refuge in the natural fastness of the Himalayas and established a new kingdom called Shangri-La. According to Blavatsky, from this fabled hidden land the Atlanteans had passed on their ancient knowledge and wisdom to the emerging Aryan race.
This Atlantean-Aryan migration myth gained a wide following in Germany during the early 20th century. The German archaeologist and popular author, Edmund Kiss, for example, published Die Letzte Königin von Atlantis (The Last Queen of Atlantis) in 1931, claiming that survivors from Atlantis had migrated around the world, establishing many of the great civilisations, a theory first put forward by Ignatius Donnelly in his best-selling book of 1882, Atlantis: The Antediluvian World. This pseudo-science also came with a darker side when men like Alfred Rosenberg, a prominent Nazi Party ideologist and founder of the organisation ‘Amt Rosenberg’ proposed that the Aryans, most prominently the Germanic people, were survivors from Atlantis whose attempts to spread culture around the world had constantly being thwarted by the Jewish people.
Heinrich Himmler was also a member of The German Theosophical Society, an organisation inspired by the theories of Helena Blavatsky, which frequently published papers relating to the origins of the Aryan race. During interrogation after the war, Ernst Schäfer would claim that Himmler had expressed the belief that the Aryan race had emerged from a Tibetan Eden, created by divine beings and entombed in Himalayan ice until released by lightning bolts cast by the gods. The SS-Reichsführer’s interest in mysticism and the occult, and the conjectures linking Atlantis and the Aryans, or Tibet and Shangri-La, help explain why he despatched Schäfer’s expedition to the Himalayas in 1938.
There is no evidence that Ernst Schäfer shared the racial theories of his SS leader or the other leading Nazis. The young explorer and his team were, however, intent on bringing fame and glory to themselves and the Fatherland by reaching the remote land of Tibet, which they finally entered at the turn of the year. Only a couple of weeks later, on 19 January 1939, the expedition arrived at the Tibetan capital of Lhasa. Although the traditional seat of the Dalai Lama, the spiritual and political leader of the Tibetan people, the last holder of the office had died in 1933 and the three-year-old child identified as his reincarnation (and who still holds the title of 14th Dalai Lama), had only been located in 1937 and had yet to be brought to the city for his enthronement.
Tibet was therefore ruled by a council of ministers and a regent, Reting Rimpoche, with whom Schäfer quickly began to cultivate friendly relations, helped by the liberal distribution of diplomatic gifts such as portable gramophones and radio sets, brought into Tibet by the Germans on their mule train. Schäfer also made great use of the Swastika, a traditional Buddhist symbol of good fortune, which had also been adopted by the Nazis because of its perceived origins with the ancient Aryan people.
While the principal scholarly interest for Schäfer was zoology, research that dovetailed well with his great passion for hunting, racial theories and Aryan migration myths were of prominent importance to the expedition’s 26 year-old anthropologist, Bruno Beger. Beger’s interest in tracing human migrations through careful analysis of human physiology had been kindled while studying under the Nazi academic Prof Hans Gunther. Instead of envisioning the Aryans as originating in the Himalayan region, Günther argued the Aryans were a northern European people who had migrated eastwards, eventually entering India from the north. It was in Tibet that Günther and Beger therefore assumed they had the best chance of discovering physical characteristics that betrayed Nordic traits in the population.
Throughout the expedition’s travels Beger made detailed records of the local populations, taking fingerprints and carefully checking hair and eye colour against special charts. He also used callipers to compare facial characteristics such as the size and shape of noses, ears, chins and eyey, even using plaster to produce facial casts. The results gleaned from careful study of nearly 400 Tibetans led Beger to conclude that migratory Aryans coming from northern Europe had indeed profoundly shaped the history and human anatomy in this part of Asia. The proof, as he saw it, lay in the supposed Nordic characteristics of Tibetan nobles – ‘tall stature paired with long head’, ‘narrow face’, ‘receding cheekbones’ ‘strongly protruding, straight or slightly bent noses’, ‘smooth hair’, and a ‘sense of themselves as dominant’ (quoted in Heather Pringle’s The Master Plan: Himmler’s Scholars and the Holocaust, 2006, p. 175).
During the two months of their stay in and around Lhasa, the Germans also collected specimens of Tibetan fauna and flora, while they carried out research into Tibetan traditions, and it was noted with interest that, according the rigid Tibetan social system, the first caste was believed to be descended from gods. The expedition also took 20,000 black and white photographs, and a further 2000 colour pictures. Schäfer also seems to have carried out spying activities to gauge the feelings of the Tibetan government and population towards the British and accessing the viability of using various Himalayan passes as military routes.
By the middle of March 1939, the expedition had to look towards leaving Tibet, aware that back in Europe the likelihood of war was rapidly increasing. If hostilities were to break out, then the German team would find their route back home through British India closed to them; even were they to remain in Tibet, they would probably be handed over for interment in a British prisoner of war camp. Heading back through Sikkim and south through India, Schäfer and his team finally reached Calcutta by late July from where they flew out of the country. On the return of the expedition to Germany, the team members were greeted at Munich airport by Himmler, while newspapers quickly proclaimed their mission to have been a huge success. The German press did, however, stop short of claiming the scientists had discovered the origins of the Aryan race, let alone any trace of the mythical Atlanteans.
Less than a month after the expedition returned home, Germany launched its invasion of Poland, precipitating World War II. Throughout hostilities the Ahnenerbe continued its work, with scientists sent to Poland, Ukraine, Italy and the Crimea in an effort to acquire artefacts thought to be of Aryan manufacture.
Schäfer remained in the SS throughout the war, continuing as a favourite of the SS-Reichsführer, although the explorer appears to have been a rebellious spirit and a letter written by Himmler berates Schäfer for ‘the unruly will that lies within you’. At the end of the war Schäfer was arrested by the Allies but was exonerated of any war crimes at a de-nazification tribunal. In 1949 he moved to Venezuela to run a wildlife preserve, eventually becoming Curator at Hanover Museum. Schäfer died in 1992 at the age of 82.
During the war, the ‘scientific’ analysis of racial characteristics was much in demand by the SS and the death squads (Einsatzgruppe) tasked with the extermination of the Jews and ethnic groups regarded as undesirable by the Nazis.
As a physical anthropologist, Bruno Beger had academic training that was utilised during the Holocaust, and he was to become the only member of the expedition to Tibet who undoubtedly played a role in Nazi sanctioned mass murder. In early June 1943, Beger spent eight days at Auschwitz where he carried out measurements on 115 inmates specially chosen for their ‘Asian’ physical characteristics. Soon after Beger left, the prisoners were transferred to Natzweiler concentration camp where they were gassed and their bodies sent to the anatomy department at the Reich University of Strasbourg, where Dr August Hirt was establishing a collection of skulls. Following the end of the war, Beger was initially cleared of any wrongdoing, however, at a second trial in 1970 he was sentenced to three years in prison, although this was changed to a suspended sentence on appeal.
The dangers inherent in the Ahnenerbe and the 1938-39 trip to the Himalayas has been emphasised by Joseph Cummins: ‘Although Beger was the only one of the German expedition to Tibet who was directly connected with Nazi war crimes, all of its members were, in a sense, guilty of supporting, with their “science”, an ideology that led to the mass murder of so many millions. And therein lies the cautionary tale. For by bringing a veneer of respectability and an air of scientific authority to otherwise unsubstantiated theories, scientists can help turn outlandish notions into destructive reality’ (History’s Great Untold Stories, 2006, p. 333).
The racial theories promoted by Hitler, Himmler and other Nazis were quickly discredited after the war following the realisation that such ideas had led directly to the Holocaust. Nevertheless, some of the archaeological conjectures of the Ahnenerbe have carried through to the present. For example, the theories of Edmund Kiss, who speculated that the Bolivian city of Tiwanaku was built by Atlanteans in the deep past, were adapted by Graham Hancock in his 1995 best-selling work of pseudo-archaeology, Fingerprints of the Gods, which has sold more then three million copies in 27 languages. However, perhaps the most enduring legacy of the Ahnenerbe and expeditions such as that to Tibet has been in the realm of popular fiction. It was the Ahnenerbe that provided the basis for the Nazi antagonists in Raiders of the Lost Ark, and in the Hellboy comics and films. The 2009 video game, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, also featured an Ahnenerbe expedition to Tibet led by a Karl (rather than Ernst) Schäfer. Stories of thousands of human skulls found in Mittersill Castle in the Salzach Valley, Austria, which had housed Ahnenerbe officers during the war, inspired Ian Fleming when writing of an Alpine lair for Ernst Stavro Blofeld, archenemy of James Bond.
Main gate into Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp, Poland. An estimated 1.1 million Jewish people and others classed as ‘undesirables’ by the Nazis were murdered at the camp between 1940–45. The Tibetan expedition’s racial expert, Bruno Beger, conducted racial tests at Auschwitz in June 1943