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In Parts 1 & 2 of our story on what the Beatles, Steve Jobs and one former SS Officer have in common, we’ve followed the footsteps of the Liverpool four and one Apple genius. In the last part we will step back in time to World War II to explore the story, facts and myths about one Heinrich Harrer – the former SS Officer who become friends with Dalai Lama and who was portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie “7 Years in Tibet”. His story proves that travel can in fact change you. Profoundly.

Tibet, a land fighting for freedom for decades, occupied by China, tormented for years, mostly recognized by its iconic Dalai Lama, cherished by stars and celebrities, supported by many, abandoned by even more. The magical place where myths and legends sometimes intertwine with the true stories. One such story that is close to a tale, but in fact has a lot of truth and solid facts in it. It’s the story of one former SS Officer who became friends with the Dalai Lama. Sounds familiar? It should, as this story was the basis of one successful Hollywood production “7 years in Tibet” starring Brad Pitt as  Heinrich Harrer – a legendary figure who was yet another person whose life was redefined by this region of the world.

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The story of Heinrich Harrer, the Austrian climber and traveller who died on 7th January 2006 aged 93, concludes of two remarkable feats of daring. In 1938, in one of the greatest mountaineering feats of the time, he was in the first party successfully to climb the notorious North Face – or “Murder Wall” – of the Eiger, in the Swiss Alps. Later, after escaping from a British PoW camp in India, he traversed the length of Tibet, reached the “Forbidden City” of Lhasa and became a tutor to the young Dalai Lama.

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Heinrich Harrer was born, son of a postal worker, 6 July 1912 in Hüttenberg, Austria in the district of Sankt Veit an der Glan in the state of Carinthia. From 1933 to 1938, he studied geography and sports at the Karl-Franzens University in Graz and it was clear back then that mountain climbing was Harrer’s true passion. He realised that an extraordinary feat of climbing could win him a place on a planned german Himalayan expedition, Harrer and a friend, Fritz Kasparek, resolved to be the first to climb the North Face of the Eiger (3,970 m, 13,025 ft) in the Bernese Alps of Switzerland.  The success was unprecedented and it won him a place in a dream expedition. At the outbreak of war in 1939, Harrer was on his way – a member of German expedition in Kashmir, planning an assault on the unclimbed Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest peak, for 1940. Two days after the expedition had began, war was declared, and on 3 September 1939 all members, including Harrer, were put behind barbed wire to be transferred to a detention camp at Ahmednagar near Bombay. He was then subsequently interned at the Dehra Dun camp, in the shadow of the Himalayas. Not willing to be a war prisoner for long, he twice attempted  to escape, but was recaptured. In April 1944 , after nearly 5 years of beind interned, he finally escaped for good, disguised as an Indian workman. With him was his expedition’s German leader, Peter Aufschnaiter. They headed into western Tibet.

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Three weeks later the two men crossed into western Tibet seeking asylum and for the following 20 months they made their way across the roof of the world, negotiating 1,000 miles of terrain above 16,000 feet where winter temperatures dipped below minus 40C! It would have been tough even for the best equipped expeditions, yet the two managed to survive.  Several times Harrer and Aufschnaiter were ordered to leave by Tibetan officials, but they somehow managed to reach Lhasa after a bleak journey across the Changtang plateau in January 1946.

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The Lhasans proved less hostile, and gradually the two men’s presence came to be tolerated. In fact Harrer must have been more that tolarated since in 1948 he became a salaried official of the Tibetan government, translating foreign news and acting as the Court photographer. That is that reason we now have an access to the most intriguing and unique collection of his photographies in the form of Heinrich Harrer Archives. His first contact with the Dalai Lama came when he was instructed to take a cine-film of the novel sport of skating, which he had introduced, as the 14-year old Dalai Lama could not see the rink from the roof of the Potala palace. That was not the only problem as there was no place to screen the film, so… Harrer built a cinema for him. The cinema projector was run off a Jeep engine, from one of only a handful of motor vehicles in Tibet.

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The two become closer as Harrer then became tutor to the Dalai Lama, who was eager to learn about the outside world. The german taught him English, geography and science proved to be a particular favourites of the Dalai Lama. Unfortunately, all good things come to an end – the Chinese invasion of Tibet in 1950 ended Harrer’s stay, forcing him to leave in March 1951. He was then among the first to lobby foreign governments to help the Tibetans – long before Richard Gere and others felt the need to support Tibet freedom. Harrer wrote a record of his adventures, Seven Years in Tibet, which was published in Britain in 1953. tt has since become a classic of travel literature, translated into 53 languages, and resulted in a $70-million Hollywood film adaptation of the book, under the same title. When Harrer saw the movie with Brad Pitt starring as Heinrich he allegedly said - “so handsome, such a sex symbol, not at all like me”. 

Not only good deeds though were brought to life as a result of the interest the project. An investigation undertaken by an Austrian radio presenter, Gerald Lehner, in the German Federal Archives in Berlin and then published in Stern magazine, revealed Harrer to have had a Nazi past. It emerged that less than a month after the Anschluss in 1938, he had joined the SS. Harrer himself, did not attempt to deny this and when asked for an explanation, he said: “Well, I was young. I was, I admit it, extremely ambitious and I was asked if I would become the teacher of the SS at skiing. I have to say I jumped at the chance. I also have to say that if the Communist party had invited me I would have joined. And if the very Devil had invited me I would have gone with the Devil.” Harrer maintained that he had only once worn his SS uniform, on the occasion of his wedding in December 1938; but the revelations of his Nazi associations caused reactions varying from unease to outrage, and led to some changes being made to the film and to the marketing campaign.

What is worth mentioning is that Simon Wiesenthal, always careful to distinguish between war criminals and Nazis, did not consider Harrer to have been guilty of wrong-doing. Heinrich Harrer remained a staunch friend of the Dalai Lama. They even shared the same birthday, and in 2002 the Dalai Lama attended his old tutor’s 90th birthday party in Austria – and presented him with the Light of Truth Award for his unwavering advocacy of Tibetans’ rights.

Make sure to check PART ONE & TWO of our stories of travels that change a man.

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