Tibet and the Occult
2004, Germany, 53 min.
This German television (ZDF) documentary explores the 1938 expedition to Tibet led by Ernst Schäfer, with the support of Heinrich Himmler. The expedition sought to find proof for some of the more far-fetched mythic theories about Aryan origins.
These theories held that the Nordic master race was descended from former inhabitants of Atlantis who survived and ended up in Tibet. The scientists embarked on a series of racial investigations of Tibetans involving examining and measuring their heads and facial features. Their research was to be used by Himmler's "Ahnenerbe," a department for ancestral heritage, which used history, anthropology and science to find intellectual justification for Nazi expansionism. The film includes footage of the expedition shot at the time.
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. 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 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.
Post-screening discussion by History Professor at Columbia University Volker R. Berghahn.
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Volker R. Berghahn is the Seth Low Professor of History at Columbia University. Before coming to New York in 1998, he was the John P. Birkelund Professor of History at Brown University. He has written widely on modern German History and European-American cultural and business relations. Among the books more directly relevant to this film and panel are: Modern Germany: Society, Economy and Politics in the 20th Century (Cambridge University Press 1988) and Europe in the Era of Two World Wars. From Militarism and Genocide to Civil Society, 1900-1950 (Princeton University Press 2006).