Nazis on the Roof of the World: A Bizarre SS Expedition to Tibet
In 1938, an SS expedition led by German zoologist Ernst Schäfer trekked to Tibet, returning with priceless animal specimens. Many believe they had actually been sent to search for a lost Aryan race, but a new book argues that the truth is more complicated.
The Berlin Museum of Natural History, even beyond the famous Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton in its exhibition hall, is well known for its treasured natural artifacts and is considered a world-class collection. It is one that includes some 3,500 mummified birds kept in tall cabinets — highly valued items that were acquired some 80 years ago by an SS officer on the snow-covered roof of the world.
“On the southern slope of the Himalayas, the tropical Indian subcontinent drifts up against icy central Asia,” explains curator Sylke Frahnert. “As a result of the clash between these ecological zones, completely different groups of fauna have intermingled there.” Taxonomists and geneticists frequently make the pilgrimage to the Berlin collection, where 10 previously unknown bird species have been discovered over the years.
But the artifacts’ history is unfortunately a dark one. Shortly before the outbreak of World War II, zoologist Ernst Schäfer traveled to Tibet on behalf of SS leader Heinrich Himmler and despite a government ban, he promptly began killing birds to take back home as samples.
The German expedition of 1938-39 is regarded as one of the most controversial forays in modern science. Schäfer’s team measured human heads, sat in tents made of yak hair and downed East Prussian caraway schnapps in one gulp with local officials, who called the German drinking frivolities “dry cup.”
The expedition returned with 7,000 seed samples from wildflowers, grain varieties and other flora. These are now at the Leibniz Institute of Plant Genetics in Gatersleben, a town in central Germany. The men also brought back wooden masks and odd-looking furniture, 17,500 meters (57,400 feet) of used film and a letter from the Tibetan head of state to “His Excellency, Mr.Hitler.”
The question as to why the letter never arrived at its destination (and is now at the Bavarian State Library) is as mysterious as the rest of the expedition. Himmler had reportedly ordered the group to search for a “root race” with blond, curly hair — the original Aryans. The Germans were also interested in finding cold-resistant horse breeds for the war economy.