- BBC News World
a A team of five researchers was dispatched in 1938 by Heinrich Himmler, a prominent member of the German Nazi Party and a key architect of the Holocaust. Author Vaibhav Purandare tells the fascinating story of this expedition that passed through India.
Just over a year before World War II began, a group of Germans landed secretly on the eastern borders of India.
His mission was to discover the “source of origin of the Aryan race“.
Adolf Hitler believed that the Nordic “Aryans” had entered India from the north about 1,500 years before and that they had committed the “crime” of mixing with the local “non-Aryan” peoples, losing the attributes that “had made them racially superior” to all other peoples on earth.
Hitler regularly expressed a profound dislike for the Indian people and his fight for freedom, articulating his feelings in his speeches, writings and debates.
Nevertheless, Himmler, a close associate of the Nazi leader, was convinced that the Indian subcontinent deserved a close look.
Those who followed the idea of a white Nordic superior race, believed in the tale of the imaginary lost city of the Atlantis, where apparently people of “the purest blood” had lived.
The mythical island, believed to be located somewhere between England and Portugal in the Atlantic Ocean, supposedly sank after being struck by divine lightning. All the Aryans who survived would have moved to safer places, including the Himalaya, specifically in Tibet, which was famous for being “the roof of the world”.
The interest was so great that in 1935 Himmler created the Ancestral Heritage Office, a unit within the SS to find out where the inhabitants of Atlantis had gone after the flood and where traces of the great race still remained.
Three years later, he sent a team of five Germans to Tibet to carry out this “search operation.”
Two of the team members stood out from the rest. One of them was Ernst Schafer, a talented 28-year-old zoologist who had been to the India-China-Tibet border twice before.
Schafer had joined the SS shortly after the Nazi triumph of 1933 and long before Himmler became his sponsor for the expedition to Tibet. He was crazy about hunting and he loved to collect trophies in his Berlin home.
The fondness for this activity ended up taking away his wife. On one of his expeditions, while trying to shoot a duck from a boat in which he and his wife were, he slipped while aiming and accidentally shot the woman in the head, killing her.
The second key man was Bruno Beger, a young anthropologist who had joined the SS in 1935. Beger took measurements of the skulls and facial details of the Tibetans and made face masks to, as he himself said, “collect material on the proportions, origins, importance and development of the Nordic race in this region.”
The ship carrying the five Germans docked in Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka, early in May 1938. From there, the scientists took another to India, where they entered through Madras (present-day Chennai) to finally reach Calcutta.
The arrival was not easy. British authorities in India they distrusted the Germans who traveled and were considered spies.
The passage of the group of investigators through the country was even followed by the then British media Times of India, which even published a rather accusing headline: “A Gestapo agent in India.”
In their attempt to enter Tibet they were also met with the refusal of a British political official in Gangtok, in the northeastern Indian state of Sikkim, an independent mountain kingdom at that time and the final step to reach the desired destination.
Finally, the determination of the Nazi team won.
At the end of the year, the five Germans, carrying swastika flags attached to their mules and luggage, entered Tibet.
The swastika was a widespread sign in Tibet and known locally as “yungdrung”.
It is likely that Schafer and his team have also seen it during their stay in India, where, among Hindus, it has long been a symbol of good fortune.
Even today the symbol is visible outside houses, inside temples, on street corners, and on the back of cars and trucks.
In Tibet, meanwhile, things were changing.
The thirteenth Dalai Lama he had died in 1933 and the new one was only three years old, so the Tibetan Buddhist kingdom was being controlled by a regent.
The Germans were treated exceptionally well by the regent and ordinary Tibetans, and Beger, who made face masks, even acted as a kind of surrogate doctor for the locals for a time.
What the Tibetan Buddhists did not know was that in the wicked imagination of the nazis, Buddhism like Hinduism was a religion that had weakened the Aryans who came to Tibet, and that had also caused the loss of their spirit and strength.
The plan was working and everyone there thought that the foreigners were conducting scientific research in areas such as zoology and anthropology.
But at the time, when it seemed like Schafer and the others could spend more time exploring for their actual “investigations”, the German expedition was abruptly interrupted in August 1939 by the detonation of war.
By then, Beger had measured the skulls and features of 376 Tibetans, had some 2,000 photographs, some “casts of heads, faces, hands and ears of 17 people” and had collected “the fingerprints and manuals of another 350.”
He had also collected 2,000 “ethnographic artifacts” and another member of the contingent had taken 18,000 meters of black and white film and 40,000 more photographs.
As soon as the investigation was interrupted, Himmler arranged for the team to fly out of Calcutta as soon as possible and was present to greet them when their plane landed in Munich.
Schafer, the hunting lover, took most of his Tibetan “treasures” to a castle in Salzburg to which he moved during the war. But once the Allied forces arrived in 1945, the place was stormed and most of the paintings and other material were ruined.
The other so-called “scientific results” of the expedition suffered the same fate in the war: they were lost or destroyed. Furthermore, the shame of the Nazi past made no one, after the war, try to trace the material.
Vaibhav Purandare es el autor de Hitler And India: The Untold Story of His Hatred For the Country And Its People (Hitler and India: The Untold Story of His Hatred for the Country and Its People), published by Westland Books
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.