The Strange Journey of Heinrich Harrer

The Austrian mountain climber escaped from a prison camp in 1944, slipped into forbidden Tibet, tutored the Dalai Lama and wrote a famous book

In 1939, a young climber named Heinrich Harrer, who had achieved fame for being a member of the first team to scale the north face of the Eiger in the Swiss Alps, traveled to India on a climbing expedition. Then World War II broke out, and Harrer and all other German and Austrian nationals in India were rounded up and imprisoned by the British.

In 1944, Harrer and a fellow POW escaped and headed up into the mountains of Tibet. Two years later — after an exhausting journey on foot over 65 mountain passes and across the Tibetan plateau in the dead of winter — they arrived in the forbidden city of Lhasa, where they were warmly welcomed. Harrer stayed for five years, eventually becoming a friend and tutor to the teenage Dalai Lama. In 1951, soon after the Chinese Communists invaded Tibet, Harrer left. In 1953, he wrote a book about his experiences, Seven Years in Tibet, which was translated into 48 languages and sold three million copies. Harrer, now 85, has explored and written about other parts of the world but has always remained a champion of Tibet.

 Now, just as the film version of Seven Years in Tibet — starring Brad Pitt as the young Harrer — is about to be released, the German magazine Stern has published evidence that Harrer joined the Nazi Party as a young man in Austria. Writer Lewis M. Simons reports on the story underlying the book and the film, and the impact of the Stern revelations. He talks at length with Heinrich Harrer and his wife, with the Dalai Lama, and with Jean-Jacques Annaud, the director of Seven Years in Tibet. What results is a penetrating examination of an extraordinary man who, as Simons writes, "spent the second part of his life hiding the awful truth of the first."

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