Seven Years in Tibet mountaineer dies

Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer and writer with a Nazi past who fled a British prisoner-of-war camp in India for the northern Himalayas, where he befriended and tutored the Dalai Lama, died on Saturday. He was 93.

Harrer’s family in the Austrian province of Carinthia did not mention a cause of death, saying only that “in great peace, he carried out his final expedition” when he died in a hospital in Friesach. His family said he would be buried on January 14 in the town of Huettenberg.

Actor Brad Pitt played Harrer in the film Seven Years in Tibet, which was based on his 1953 memoir about fleeing Tibet’s holy city of Lhasa after Chinese forces invaded.

A renowned explorer, Harrer had close links to the Nazi party, but he was known better for the years he spent as an adviser, teacher and friend of a young Dalai Lama after escaping from British custody in India and trekking to Tibet in 1944.

His adventures became known to millions worldwide in the 1997 film starring Pitt, and it was only a few months before the movie’s release that Harrer’s deepest, darkest secret—his Nazi past—finally caught up with him.

Born on July 6 1912 in the Carinthian village of Knappenberg, Harrer joined the Nazi party when Germany took control of Austria in 1938.
The son of a postal worker, the prominent Austrian mountaineer also joined the SS, the party’s police wing associated with atrocities during World War II, though he was interned by the British in India at the start of the war.

Documents cited by the German magazine Stern in an exposé on Harrer just before the film’s release showed that at a time when Nazi organizations still were banned in Austria, Harrer—then just 21—joined Adolf Hitler’s underground SA storm troops in Austria in 1933.

Simon Wiesenthal, the famed Nazi hunter who died last year, said Harrer was not involved in politics and was innocent of wrongdoing.

Although Harrer was never linked to any Nazi atrocities, many questioned why he took such pains to conceal his Nazi past.

A publicity-shy man who divided his time between his native Austria and Liechtenstein, Harrer told the Austria Press Agency in June 1997 that he never carried out any activities for the SS and that he had a “clear conscience.” He conceded, however, that “from today’s view, the former party and SS membership is an extremely unpleasant thing”.

Harrer was decorated with numerous high awards and honours during his career, including Austria’s Golden Humboldt medal and the “Light of Truth” award bestowed by Tibet’s government-in-exile in India.

Harrer said he joined the party to further his teaching and mountaineering careers, but did not explain why he had joined the SA in 1933, when Nazis still were persecuted in Austria.

The mountaineer first made headlines in 1938 with the first ascent of Switzerland’s dreaded Eiger North Face, which earned him fame and a handshake from Hitler.

Harrer later became a sports instructor, and he said he joined the SS and Nazi party in order to join a teachers’ organisation.

Harrer told Stern that without this membership he would have had no chance to join a government-financed Himalaya expedition, his life’s dream. At the end of that expedition, Harrer and a colleague were arrested by British troops in India as war broke out in September 1939.

The two escaped an internment camp in 1944 and trekked through Tibet to Lhasa, where few Westerners had been allowed to enter. They soon endeared themselves to the country’s secular elite and the religious head, the young Dalai Lama.

Harrer taught the Dalai Lama mathematics, English and sports, and became his adviser and friend. Harrer’s subsequent book about the experience, Seven Years in Tibet, was translated into 48 languages.

He later explored other remote areas of the globe, wrote about a dozen books and authored about 40 documentary films.—Sapa-AP

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