The Nazi Expedition
By Robin Cross
In the 1930s, Adolf Hitler's Germany presented a glittering surface sheen of technological modernity. At the annual Nuremberg rallies, fleets of sleek bombers roared over the upturned faces of the Nazi Party faithful. A system of autobahns carried traffic at speed the length and breadth of the Reich. In Berlin in 1936, a magnificent stadium housed the Olympic Games.
Ernst Schäfer, leader of the Nazi expedition to Tibet in 1938.
But beneath the tread of marching feet and the rumble of tanks on Nuremberg's Zeppelin Field, there pulsed the rhythms of a different and much older set of beliefs, a philosophy that animated the Nazi Party's early ideologues and, crucially, the man who stood behind Hitler himself – Heinrich Himmler, chief of the SS.
These beliefs were anything but technological. They were a curious mixture of ancient Teutonic myth, Eastern mysticism and late 19th-century anthropology. Whether Adolf Hitler took them wholly seriously is open to debate. But Heinrich Himmler certainly did. They lay at the heart of the SS empire he created and which became the most dreaded arm of the Nazi state. They were also the mainspring behind a Nazi expedition to secure the secrets of a lost super-race in the mountains of Tibet.
The Thule Society
Heinrich Himmler was a member of the Thule Society, an extreme German nationalist group founded in 1910 by Felix Niedner. It was named after the mythical land of Hyperborea-Thule, which some of the society's devotees identified with Iceland and Greenland, said by them to be the remnants of the lost kingdom of Atlantis. Others claimed that the people of Thule had survived to become a subterranean super-race. They were brought to life by the English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in his 1871 science fiction novel The Coming Race, as the 'Vril-ya', would-be world conquerors imbued with psychokinetic power (vril).
At the turn of the century, the notion of the Ubermensch (superman) was taken up by many philosophers, notably Friedrich Nietzsche. It also found favour with the peddlers of a perverted form of Darwinism: another Englishman, the philosopher Houston Stewart Chamberlain, believed in the racial superiority of the 'Aryan' people who inhabited northern Europe.
This struck a chord with the Thule Society. Its members identified the Teuton tribes who, in AD 9, had defeated the Roman legions in the Teutoburg forest as descendants of the lost super-race of Hyperborea-Thule, guardians of the secrets of vril.
An ancient Indian symbol of good luck, the swastika was also the traditional symbol of Thor, the Norse god of thunder, and was favoured by German neo-pagan movement of the early 20th century, who called it the Hakenkreutz. In similar fashion, the Hakenkreutz was adopted by the Thule Society, whose members, like the neo-pagans, had a strong anti-Christian streak.
In 1920, a member of the Thule Society, Friedrick Krohn, suggested to Adolf Hitler that the nascent Nazi Party adopt the Hakenkreutz as its 'logo'. Hitler placed it on a white circle against a red background, to compete with the hammer and sickle of the Communist Party. Thus an ancient and beneficent sign of good luck became one of the most potent and evil designs of the 20th century.
Origins of the Aryan race
By the early 1920s, a toxic mix of racial theory and Teutonic mysticism had seeped into the philosophy of the Nazis, who were then jostling with a range of rivals for supremacy on the political far right of the Weimar Republic.
A savage twist was given to Nazi thinking in 1923. While incarcerated in Landsberg Prison, Hitler immersed himself in the writings of Professor Karl Haushofer. Hitler's close associate Rudolf Hess then introduced him to Haushofer, a former soldier, a scholar and the founder of the Vril Society, which sought contacts with subterranean super-beings to learn from them the ancient secrets of Thule. The Vril Society also asserted a central Asian origin of the Aryan race, and Haushofer claimed to have visited Tibet in pursuit of evidence for this.
Haushofer was also a persuasive advocate of Lebensraum (living space), a theory that had been a prominent strand of German imperialist ideology since the 1890s and had gained common currency on the German political right. Proponents of Lebensraum demanded the German recolonisation of the Slav lands conquered by the Teutonic knights in the Middle Ages and the reuniting of the ethnic German populations of eastern Europe and European Russia.
Hitler was already familiar with these theories, but Haushofer's work undoubtedly provided some of the ideological underpinning of what would evolve into Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.
Hitler, the arch-propagandist, recognised the powerful appeal to the German mind of the antediluvian primitivism espoused by the followers of Thule and Vril. It legitimised the desire of a defeated people (the Germans in 1918) to reassume the mantle of greatness (of the Teuton victors over the Romans). And it dovetailed with the oft-stated Nazi belief that that its creed was 'more than a religion: it is the determination to create a new man'.
Moreover, there was one plank in the creeds of both the Thule and the Vril societies on which Hitler and Himmler were in complete accord – an absolute determination to destroy the Jews, who were seen as the racial enemy of the Volk, the German people.
Enforcer of racial doctrine
In 1933, when Hitler became chancellor of Germany, the fantasies of Himmler and the Thule Society became reality. Tasked with the imposition of the Nazi diktat – and, in particular, racial purity – was Himmler's SS (an abbreviation of Schutzstaffel, protection squadrons), which had begun life as Hitler's 300-strong personal bodyguard. By 1939, the SS numbered some 500,000 men, and in World War II, its armed formations (collectively known as the Waffen SS) would fight alongside the regular armed forces of the Third Reich – seen by Himmler as the reincarnation of the Teutonic knights and the knights of the Round Table celebrated in Arthurian legend.
The Camelot of the SS was to be the castle at Wewelsburg, near the Teutoburg forest, which became a shrine to Himmler's belief in a new world order. Wewelsburg was to be at its epicentre, a pagan powerhouse that some thought would eventually house the Holy Grail for which King Arthur's knights had quested.
There was an overpoweringly dark side to this vision. In World War II, the SS was the principal enforcer of Nazi racial doctrine. They staffed the Reich's concentration and extermination camps, where they conducted cruel experiments to demonstrate 'Aryan' racial superiority, and formed the core of the Einsatzgruppen (special formations) that were responsible for cleansing eastern Europe of Jews.
The Ahnenerbe and Tibet
The SS had another arm, the Ahnenerbe Forschungs und Lehrgemeinschaft (Ancestral Heritage Research and Teaching Society). Founded in 1935 with Hitler's blessing, Himmler merged it with the SS two years later. The Ahnenerbe's overriding task was to provide scientific, anthropological and archaeological evidence to support the theories of the Thule Society and, in so doing, determine the origins of the 'Aryan' race.
Some devotees of Nazi racial theory believed that the answer to this mystery lay in the lost city of Atlantis. This they identified as the mythical land of Thule, lying between Greenland and Iceland, and it was the putative destination of at least one Nazi expedition.
However, Karl Haushofer was convinced that the key to the harnessing of the power of vril lay in Tibet. He was supported by the Swedish explorer and Nazi sympathiser Sven Hedin, who had led several expeditions to Tibet. Hitler thought so highly of Hedin that he had invited him to give the opening address at the Berlin Olympics of 1936. In January 1943, Hedin was present when the Ahnenerbe's Lehr und Forschungsstätte für Innerasien und Expeditionen – Institute for Inner Asian Research – was formally established.
The expedition to Tibet
Ernst Schäfer (left) and an Ahnenerbe colleague collecting data.
In 1938, the Tibetans were putting out feelers to Germany, and to Germany's allies, the Japanese, as counterbalances to the influence in the region of Britain and China. In that year, the Ahnenerbe mounted an expedition to Tibet led by Ernst Schäfer, a German hunter and biologist who had made two previous expeditions to that part of the world. He would later publish his report of the expedition as Festival of the White Gauze Scarves: A research expedition through Tibet to Lhasa, the holy city of the god realm (1950).
One of the members of the Nazi expedition was the anthropologist Bruno Beger, a supporter of the theory that Tibet was home to the descendants of a 'northern race'. Beger's role was to undertake a scientific investigation of the Tibetan people. During the expedition, he examined the skulls of more than 300 inhabitants of Tibet and Sikkim, and logged their other physical features in minute detail.
He concluded that, in anthropological terms, the Tibetans represented a staging post between the Mongol and European races, with the European racial element manifesting itself most strongly among the Tibetan aristocracy. He believed that, after the final victory of the Third Reich, the Tibetans could play an important role in the region, serving as an allied race in a world dominated by Germany and Japan.
No more Nazi expeditions are known to have been undertaken. However, some writers have advanced theories that there were both earlier and subsequent missions to Tibet.
In his book Spear of Destiny (1973), Trevor Ravenscroft argued that the Germans mounted a series of expeditions between 1926 and 1943. These were, says Ravenscroft, intended to allow the Nazis to maintain contact with their Aryan ancestors, guardians of the occult powers of vril, who were hidden in underground cities beneath the Himalayas. It is a scenario that evokes Bulwer-Lytton.
Mud huts and stone axes
During World War II, Heinrich Himmler's obsessive search for the origins of the Aryan race led to crackpot archaeological digs in western and southern Russia, the trophies discovered being transported to the SS headquarters at Wewelsburg. The agents of the Ahnenerbe arrived in the wake of the Wehrmacht to ransack these regions for proof of their German origins.
Even Hitler became testy with Himmler's obsession, protesting: 'Why do we call the world's attention to the fact that we have no past? It isn't enough that Romans were erecting great buildings when our forefathers were living in mud huts. Now Himmler is starting to dig up the villages of mud huts, enthusing over every potsherd and stone axe he finds.'
Sentenced to death
The secret power of the Vril-ya could not save the Third Reich. After the Nazis' defeat, the head of the Ahnenerbe, Dr Wolfram Sievers, was brought before a war crimes tribunal. He had been closely involved not only with the Ahnenerbe's archaeological activities but also with the grisly racial experiments in the death camps designed to demonstrate the superiority of the 'Aryan' race. He was found guilty, sentenced to death and executed on 2 June 1948 – the only member of the wartime Ahnenerbe to suffer this punishment.
The archaeological world of the Ahnenerbe died with Hitler, Himmler and Sievers. After the war, many of its leading academic supporters returned to university life, re-emerging in post-war Germany as leading professors. Himmler's Camelot, Wewelsburg Castle, remains a sinister reminder the twisted powers of a perverted philosophy.