In 1938, Heinrich Himmler, a leading member of Germany’s Nazi party and a key architect of the Holocaust, sent a five-member team to Tibet to search for the origins of the supposed Aryan race. Author Vaibhav Purandare recounts the fascinating story of this expedition, which passed through India.
A little more than a year before World War II, a group of Germans landed covertly along India’s eastern borders.
They were on a mission to find the “source of the Aryan race’s origin.”
Adolf Hitler believed that “Aryan” Nordic people had entered India from the north around 1,500 years ago, and that the Aryans had committed the “crime” of mixing with the local “un-Aryan” people, thereby losing the characteristics that had made them racially superior to all other people on the planet.
Hitler frequently expressed deep hatred for the Indian people and their struggle for freedom, expressing his feelings in speeches, writings, and debates.
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Nonetheless, Himmler, one of Hitler’s top lieutenants and the head of the SS, thought the Indian subcontinent was worth investigating further.
This is where Tibet comes into play.
Those who believed in the myth of a white Nordic superior race believed in the legend of Atlantis, the fabled lost city where people of “the purest blood” once lived. This mythical island, said to be located somewhere between England and Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean, allegedly sank after being struck by a divine thunderbolt.
All of the Aryans who had survived were said to have relocated to more secure areas. The Himalayan region was thought to be one such refuge, with Tibet in particular being known as “the roof of the world.”
Himmler established the Ahnenerbe – or Bureau of Ancestral Heritage – within the SS in 1935 to investigate where people from Atlantis had gone after the bolt from the blue and the deluge, and where traces of the great race still remained and could be discovered.
In 1938, he sent a team of five Germans to Tibet on this “search operation”.
Two members of the team stood out from the crowd. Ernst Schafer, a gifted 28-year-old zoologist who had previously visited the India-China-Tibet border, was one of them. Schafer joined the SS shortly after Hitler’s victory in 1933, long before Himmler became his patron for the Tibet expedition.
Schafer was an avid hunter who collected trophies in his Berlin home. On one hunting trip, while attempting to shoot a duck from a boat he and his wife were in, he slipped while taking aim and accidentally shot his wife in the head, killing her.
Bruno Beger, a young anthropologist who had joined the SS in 1935, was the second key figure. Beger stated that he would take measurements of Tibetan skulls and facial details and create face masks, “especially to collect material about the proportions, origins, significance, and development of the Nordic race in this region.”
The ship carrying the five Germans arrived in Colombo, Sri Lanka, in early May 1938. They then took another to Madras (now Chennai) and a third to Calcutta (now Kolkata).
The British authorities in India were suspicious of the travelling Germans and suspected them of being spies. They were initially hesitant to let them pass through India, and the then-British-run Times of India even ran an accusatory headline: “A Gestapo Agent in India.”
The British political officer in Gangtok, in the north-eastern Indian state of Sikkim at the time, which was an independent mountain kingdom, was also hesitant to grant the men entry into Tibet through Sikkim.
But, in the end, the Nazi team’s determination triumphed. The five Germans had entered Tibet by the end of the year, with swastika flags tied to their mules and luggage.
The swastika, also known as “yungdrung” in Tibet, was a common sign. Schafer and the team would have seen plenty of it during their time in India, where it had long been regarded as a symbol of good fortune by Hindus. The symbol can still be seen outside homes, inside temples, on street corners, and on the backs of tempos and trucks today.
Meanwhile, in Tibet, things were changing.
The 13th Dalai Lama died in 1933, and the new Dalai Lama was only three years old, so the Buddhist Tibetan kingdom was ruled by a regent. The Germans were treated extremely well by both the regent and ordinary Tibetans, and Beger, who made face masks, even served as a sort of stand-in doctor for locals for a time.
What the Tibetan Buddhists didn’t realise was that, in the Nazis’ perverse imagination, Buddhism, like Hinduism, was a religion that had weakened the Aryans who had come to Tibet, resulting in a loss of spirit and strength.
The German expedition was abruptly cut short in August 1939 by the inevitability of war, just as it appeared that Schafer and the others could spend more time exploring for their true “research” under the guise of carrying out scientific investigations in areas such as zoology and anthropology.
Beger had measured the skulls and features of 376 Tibetans, taken 2,000 photographs, “made casts of 17 people’s heads, faces, hands, and ears,” and collected “the finger and hand prints of another 350” by that point.
He had also collected 2,000 “ethnographic artefacts,” and another member of the group had shot 18,000 metres of black-and-white film and 40,000 photographs.
Because their journey had been cut short, Himmler arranged for the team to fly out of Calcutta at the last minute and was present to greet them when their plane landed in Munich.
Schafer moved the majority of his Tibetan “treasures” to a castle in Salzburg where he lived during the war. However, when the Allied Forces arrived in 1945, the place was raided, and most of the Tibetan paintings and other materials were destroyed.
The expedition’s other so-called “scientific results” met the same fate during the war: they were either lost or destroyed, and the shame of the Nazi past meant that no one tried to trace the material after the war.
Vaibhav Purandare is the author of Hitler And India: The Untold Story of His Hatred For the Country And Its People, published by Westland Books