Heinrich Harrer: Out of Austria, into Tibet

Austrian mountaineering legend Heinrich Harrer is dead at 93. He was a pioneering climber, an Olympic skier, a tutor to the Dalai Lama... and a member of Hitler's SS. He was the subject of the film Seven Years in Tibet. Orville Schell tells Sheilah Kast about Harrer's life.

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SHEILAH KAST, host:

Heinrich Harrer died last week in his native Austria. He was 93 years old. Mr. Harrer was an Olympic skier and champion golfer and explorer and mountain climber, and part of the team that made the first ascent on the Eiger's north wall in the Swiss Alps. During World War II, he escaped from a British prisoner of war camp, trekked across the Tibetan plateau and ended up as a tutor for the young Dalai Lama in Lhasa, a tale recounted in one of his many books, "Seven Years in Tibet." That book was a best-seller and later made into a movie starring Brad Pitt. But the adventurer's exploits were also clouded by his association with the Nazis and the SS.

Orville Schell knew Heinrich Harrer and has written about his life. Professor Schell joins us from UC Berkeley School of Journalism, where he's dean.

Welcome.

Professor ORVILLE SCHELL (Dean, UC Berkeley School of Journalism): Pleasure.

KAST: This man was a real swashbuckler. What seemed to pull him, draw him to adventure: the speed skiing, the Andes, the Amazon, meeting headhunters in New Guinea, escaping from a prison camp? He did all this.

Prof. SCHELL: Well, he did. He came from a very small village in Austria in the Corinthian region in the south and, as you noted in the introduction, was on the team that first climbed the Eiger, had his picture taken with Hitler. And at that point, you know, the Nazis were very fascinated with the Himalayas as a kind of a possible source of the Aryan civilization, the lost continent of Atlantis. And Himmler, in fact, was the one who organized the trip to climb Nanga Parbat, one of the higher mountains in the Himalayas that Harrer went on, and that's how he got there. And they didn't succeed in their ascent, but while they were making it and as they came back out, of course, the war had begun. And being Germans and Austrians and in the Axis Powers, the British arrested them and put them in a camp in Dehradun in India. And it was from that camp that he escaped with one colleague and made that amazing hejira across the Himalayas and across the whole breadth of Tibet.

KAST: How does he get to the Dalai Lama?

Prof. SCHELL: Well, he straggled into Tibet, and being one of the very, very few foreigners in Lhasa at the time, he begin to consort with the sort of aristocracy that lived in Lhasa and ultimately did end up befriending the Dalai Lama and becoming his tutor, teaching him English and geography. And he was a teen-age boy at the time and very curious about the outside world, and it was an amazing relationship that developed. So he became perforce of his seven years in Tibet the progenitor of the tail end of that idea that there were places in the world that were forbidden and mythic in their kind of detached otherness.

KAST: Why did this man join the Nazi SS?

Prof. SCHELL: He claimed belatedly that he'd only put on the uniform and joined because he had to to get married, and it was just a kind of port of convenience. But I think he also did have some very strong predilections towards that sort of militant, heroic pose that the Nazis liked so much and I think used him and other sportsmen of note to exemplify.

KAST: Did he ever repudiate his connection with the Nazis?

Prof. SCHELL: He did. After the fact, he said that he felt that in a certain sense purified by his experience in Tibet and his more than flirtation with Tibetan Buddhism. But I would have to say, you know, I actually went to his village, Hutenburg(ph), and interviewed him, and I wouldn't say that he impressed me as being a person of the soft path, a sort of Buddhist gentleness. There was a kind of a tough, cranky edge to him--again, this idea that he was a self-made man whose will had triumphed in effect, and indeed it had.

KAST: Did Heinrich Harrer stay in touch with the Dalai Lama later in life?

Prof. SCHELL: Yes, he did. And in fact, in his house in Hutenburg up on top of the mountain near where he grew up, there are all sorts of Tibetan prayer flags flying. In his distinctive way, the Dalai Lama never repudiated him even after his Nazi past became evident, which it did. As the film that Jean-Jacques Annaud made about "Seven Years in Tibet" with Brad Pitt came out, the Dalai Lama treated him always as a friend and never did disesteem him or repudiate him.

KAST: Are there are any Heinrich Harrers today, and where can a Heinrich Harrer of today go to have that kind of authentic experience you were talking about?

Prof. SCHELL: You know, I think the world has shrunk and every corner has been--had a microscope put on it. And I think we really miss that idea that in the world there are places we can't get to. And that's what Heinrich Harrer will be remembered as, the last Westerner who could go to a place where no one else could go, that could have a really genuine, authentic adventure, not the sort of potted, touristic adventures that we have these days.

KAST: Orville Schell is the dean of the journalism school at UC Berkeley. He's written about Heinrich Harrer, most recently in "Virtual Tibet: Searching for Shangri-La from the Himalayas to Hollywood."

Thanks very much.

Prof. SCHELL: Nice to be with you.

KAST: And you're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News.

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