|The Sunday Times, UK[Monday, August 04, 2003 10:30]
|Reviewed by MICHAEL BURLEIGH
Himmler's Crusade by Christopher Hale
As the Indiana Jones films showed, Nazis, new age mumbo-jumbo and exotic locations are a formula that works. Christopher Hale's gripping and well-researched tale of an SS-sponsored scientific mission to Tibet in 1938-39 has the whole shebang: mad occult beliefs, mountains, strange characters called Bruno or Ernst and stomach-churning concentration camp experiments to round things off.
In 1935, the Reichsführer SS Heinrich Himmler founded an organisation called Ancestral Heritage to uncover the hidden past of an imaginary Aryan race he and his Führer regarded as the noblest and most vital force in human history. That fact that there had never been an Aryan race - a philological category (the Indo-Germanic language group) had been construed into a "people" - was no impediment to someone who also believed Aryans had been unleashed on the world after divine thunderbolts shattered the primordial ice in which they were imprisoned. Himmler was also pretty keen to find gold in the river Isar or a red horse with a white mane, but that need not detain us.
Ancestral Heritage became a magnet for cranks (one senior figure was interested in establishing whether Tibetan women hid magical stones in their vaginas) and ambitious young scientists who were moving too slowly up the academic career ladder - notwithstanding the number of Jews that Nazi scholars and students had thrown off it to make their ascent quicker.
The claim that Sanskrit underlay most modern languages focused 19th-century minds on the general area of northern India and Tibet as the ancestral home of the mythical Aryans. Hence one of the scientific missions Himmler sponsored was a multitasked expedition to Tibet under the leadership of ornithologist Ernst Schäfer. An expert on rare Tibetan birds, Schäfer was a fanatical hunter who liked smearing the blood of exotic kills on his craggy features. This enthusiasm, manifest in boyhood when Schäfer killed rats in the cellar with a catapult, was undiminished by the fact that while on a duck-shoot in 1937 he managed to trip over, inadvertently blowing his young bride Hertha's brains out.
Schäfer recruited an anthropologist, Bruno Beger, to measure noses and skulls and to make face-masks; a geographer who specialised in the earth's geomagnetism; and a botanist who was also handy with a film camera. Once they had conned their way into Tibet, past the British - who thought they were spies - there were some comic moments.
Their mules were decorated with fluttering swastika pennants - superfluous in a society where that symbol of good fortune is ubiquitous. The first attempt at making a gypsum mask failed when the poor Tibetan subject had an epileptic seizure and nearly choked to death inside the white plaster blob that sat on his shuddering shoulders. When Schäfer decided to commemorate the death of his wife by going onto a ridge to fire a symbolic shot, he forgot to remove the cleaning brush so the breech exploded, throwing him off his feet and burning his face with gunpowder. All sorts of rare creatures, whether eagles or animals that look like rugs with horns, paid for that indignity as the mad explorer blasted anything with a pulse.
The ulterior purpose of the expedition echoed the ancient historian Tacitus's treatise Germania, in which he ascribed to the primitive German tribesmen virtues his Roman contemporaries had long lost. The Nazi scientists sought to show that the Tibetan theocracy had destroyed the vitality of an earlier warrior culture, as Christianity had supposedly had an emasculating effect on the ancient pagan Germans. To clinch the point, the team dwelt on homosexuality among Buddhist clergy - precisely the aspersion they were using in Germany against Catholic monks and nuns they were persecuting. Anti-Catholicism was as pervasive as racism among the Nazi leadership, although Hale is possibly unaware that this was more inspired by mainstream liberal Protestant theology than by Himmler's idiosyncratic neo-paganism.
On returning to Germany, Schäfer was feted by Himmler and appointed head of an institute for Central Asian research in Munich. His career was not blighted by the fact that, when on an overnight sleeper to Berlin in June 1942, Schäfer had tried to strangle the man who shared his compartment.
Munich meant proximity to the more lethal aspects of Ancestral Heritage, since the camp in suburban Dachau was where its scientists conducted experiments on human beings on behalf of the German armed forces. The man who filmed the Tibet expedition was soon recording people turning blue in freezing water or choking in decompression chambers used to solve high-altitude problems for the Luftwaffe. The expedition's erstwhile anthropologist was subsequently deployed acquiring the skeletons and skulls of prisoners in Auschwitz for an anatomical institute in Strasbourg.
So Hale's book is a slippery-slope sort of story. Whether it will deter those who lap up books of a new age variety that draw on the same swamp as the Nazis seems over-optimistic, but Hale is certainly to be commended for immersing himself in it for so long.