Edward West applauds a new study that reveals Heinrich Himmler's obsession with all things Tibetan — and the sinister roots of certain 'alternative' beliefs
Himmler's Crusade: The true story of the 1938 Nazi expedition into Tibet by Christopher Hale, Bantam £20
Ffllowers of organised religion often acc the charge that their beliefs are responsible for all the evil in the world, this view gaining momentum in the past two years, for obvious reasons. So it is refreshing to discover that in this book Christopher Hale, the television producer behind numerous myth-busting documentaries, forges a different sort of link between New Age spiritualism and genocide,
Long before Mind, Body and Spirit became a common shelf title in bookshops, the SS were testing herbal medicine on their concentration camp victims, while Heinrich Himmier was promoting alchemy as a serious science. Moreover, Hale finds common ground between National Socialism and the late Victorian mania for Tibetan mysticism.
While the 19th century in many ways marks the start of the modern era, it was also the heyday of a certain sort of crank. Darwin may not have killed religion, but he placed it in a straitjacket, and a variety of beliefs sprang up to fill the void in empty urban souls. Among these was a fascination with Tibet, perhaps the last place on earth that was left an empty white in atlases. A secretive mountain theocracy between British India and the wild Chinese interior, it was the country's very obscurity that allowed imaginative western writers to fill in the blanks.
The Tibet movement was gaining popularity at the same time as another postDarwin school of thought, scientific racism, and it was only a matter of time before the two visions would interact. Ironically, in view of who it inspired, it was a Russian who brought the two together. Helena Blavatsky, owner of an occult salon in New York and perhaps the first modem guru, visited Tibet some time in the 1870s (she
claimed) and afterwards published The Secret Divine, a 1,500-page account of human origins in Tibet which "explained" the world's seven races. Its cover was decorated with swastikas.
Perhaps the greatest devotee of both movements was Heinrich Himmler, whose murderous racial views went hand in hand with beliefs straight out of a cheap paperback, among these the World Ice Theory. According to this school of thought, it was the destruction of Earth's second and third moons that killed the dinosaurs, destroyed Atlantis and sent its survivors scattering to South America. Himmler's character is best illustiated by the fact that, as the Reich was crumbling, he ordered one of his top scientists to lead an expedition to find a red horse that he had read about in a Nordic fairy tale.
It was natural that Himinler would take an interest in Ernst Schafer, the hunter and explorer who had entered Tibet with an American expedition in the early 1930s. Schafer and four other German scientists (all five members of Hinunler's organisation) headed east with a mixture of motives, innocent, sinister and mysterious.
His second in command was Bruno Berger, known to the locals as "doctor sahib", who became a legend in the region through his application of western medicine to impoverished locals (and syphilitic monks). His real task, however, was to measure the natives' skulls, in order to prove that this far-off land was the cradle of the Aryan race. Berger would later measure the heads of freshly murdered men and women from Auschwitz.
The ostensible purpose of the expedition was to acquire animal carcasses, conduct anthropological studies and bring home seed samples; but there was also some suspicion that Shafer hoped to forge Nazi des with the Himalayan kingdom, which might explain the British attempt to thwart him. As Hitler made yet more territorial demands, Foreign Office men such as Hugh Richardson played every trick possible to make Schafer's journey uncomfortable. Yet, in the end, the SS scientists were allowed to proceed.
Schafer, who died in 1992, comes to life as a thoroughly German character arrogant, ruthlessly ambitious and argumentative, yet also tragic. Less than a year • before the adventure, he had killed his wife, Hertha, in a hunting accident, and the close friendship he formed with Nepalese guide Kaiser (so called as his father was less than well disposed towards the British) is touching. One gets the impression that the five Germans fell in love with the country, despite its appalling public sanitation and the violent tendencies of its monks, most noticeably at Tibet's New Year festival, which seemed to resemble a Millwall football match.
tiale writes with passion and rage, not just about the inhumanities of the 1940s, but about the continued human willingness to believe what is manifestly untrue. My only complaint is that the chapters could have been arranged differently — the history of Tibet, for exam-. pie, appears randomly half way through the book, and the expedition members' war crimes seen to be almost an epilogue. But Hinunler:s Crusade conveys a useful point, namely that myth is never harmless.
Conspiracy theories allow the silly to be led by the sinister. Especially in this age of the Internet, we should remember the line attributed to G K Chesterton : that when people cease to be religious, they.do not believe in nothing; they believe in anything.