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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Another Seven Years in Tibet

Cover of 1956 documentary

 

8 years ago on this day, Heinrich Harrer, a swashbuckling explorer who told of his magical life of conquering the world's highest peaks and tutoring the young Dalai Lama when Tibet seemed as exotic as Mars, only to have news of his Nazi past mar his final years, died in Friesach in his native Austria, aged 93.

We've all seen the 1997 Brad Pitt version in which Harrer is hailed as a 'German hero', and replies "Thank you, but I'm Austrian". To have said that in 1939 would have been extremely bold, since Austria had been part of Greater Germany since the Anschluss of April 1938. In his book, Harrer says nothing about any such remark. Harrer at the train station in 1939 appears hostile to the Nazi Party, taking their flag with reluctance wheras the real-life Heinrich Harrer was a committed Nazi Schutzstaffel officer.

Heinrich Harrer was born on July 6, 1912, at Hüttenberg, Austria, near the Alps, and grew up mountain-climbing and skiing. The son of a postman, he majored in geography and physical education at Graz University. He won a place on the Austrian Olympic ski team in 1936, and the next year won the downhill race in the world students' championship.

After he and three companions climbed the Eiger, he joined an expedition to climb Nanga Parbat, a 26,600-foot peak in what is now Pakistan. When World War II began, the British captured them and confined them, as Germans and Austrians, to a prison camp.

While he was in captivity, he and his wife divorced. Harrer is survived by their son, Peter, as well as his third wife, the former Katharina Haarhaus.

Harrer escaped from the camp after several attempts. He, a companion and a yak took 20 months to reach Tibet. It was the only avenue of escape, one that would have been impossible to all but trained mountaineers.

They arrived in Lhasa on Jan. 15, 1946, and squatted in the courtyard of a wealthy citizen who welcomed them. They evaded another order to leave by making themselves useful; Harrer worked as a gardener, his friend as an engineer.

The Dalai Lama, then a 10-year-old god king, looked down from his palace and observed Mr. Harrer teaching ice-skating to Tibetans, who called the new sport "walking on knives." Harrer soon became a government employee with responsibilities that included translating foreign news and directing a flood control project. He received a salary, a home and stable and several servants.

He became the Dalai Lama's tutor when he was 37 and his pupil was 14, teaching him about topics ranging from Soviet politics to how a jet engine works. The young man was an eager student: Harrer wrote in his book that when he assigned him 10 sentences to translate, he routinely did 20. The two discussed Buddhism and Western science incessantly.

When Chinese troops invaded Tibet in 1951, Harrer crossed into India by way of Sikkim, shortly before the Dalai Lama himself had to flee. The two met periodically over the years, but the Dalai Lama did not learn of Mr. Harrer's Nazi past until it appeared in the news.

The Dalai Lama told his friend that if his conscience was clear, he had nothing to fear, The Independent, the London newspaper, reported. Harrer said that it was.

Much of this is contained in the 1956 documentary of the same name as the glamourised Brad Pitt version.