Seven Years in Tibet: True story — Heinrich Harrer’s secretive life

Seven Years in Tibet

Seven Years in Tibet tells the story of an unlikely friendship between an Austrian mountaineer and the 14th Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama and Heinrich Harrer meet after Harrer escapes a British prisoner-of-war camp in India during World War II. Harrer and his compatriot Peter Aufschnaiter arrive in Tibet after trekking the treacherous high plateau. 

When Harrer arrives, the 14th Dalai Lama, who’s still a boy, accepts the foreigner as a friend, advisor, and confidant. Harrer’s seven years in Tibet end when Chinese communist forces invade and occupy the country. 

Seven Years in Tibet is based on Heinrich Harrer’s true experience in the country

After fleeing Tibet, Harrer wrote an autobiographical book titled Seven Years in Tibet: My Life Before, During and After. Jean-Jacques Annaud adapted the text into the 1997 film Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt. 

Seven Years in Tibet is based on a true story, but Jacques took some creative liberties in telling the story. For instance, Harrer didn’t describe himself or his life in Germany before his imprisonment, so Annaud had to give him a backstory.

The 14th Dalai Lama and Heinrich Harrer

Heinrich shared a son, Peter Harrer, with his first wife Charlotte Wegener. The couple’s marriage was dissolved while Harrer was captured in India. 

The film falsely alleges that Harrer entrusted his friend Horst Immerhof to take care of Peter and Charlotte. In reality, Peter was raised by Wegener’s mother. Annaud gave Harrer a made-up backstory because of the many holes in the Austrian’s life. The film’s director said:

“What fascinated me were the secrets. I wanted to invent what Harrer was not saying. The book is very interesting. But the man never talks about his past, he never talks about his roots, he never talks about his family, he never talks about his Germany.”

On the other hand, the film’s description of Harrer’s friendship with the Dalai Lama is accurate. The pair remained friends until Heinrich’s death in January 2006.

Harrer was criticized when it emerged that he was a Nazi SS soldier

A crucial aspect of Heinrich Harrer’s life that’s missing in Seven Years in Tibet is his service in the Nazi SS. Perhaps Heinrich refused to divulge his past in his autobiography because he didn’t want people to learn of his association with the Nazis. 

“No one forced him to join the SS,” Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a human rights group for Holocaust studies, told The New York Times. Rabbi Cooper added:

“Here is someone who insists on the public limelight and has never utilized that opportunity to make a definitive statement saying: ‘I wasn’t a kid. I made a terrible mistake. I voluntarily embraced a racist ideology that nearly brought this planet to ruin.’”

Heinrich Harrer at Dover Heights. December 8, 1961. | Photo by Antony Matheus Linsen/Fairfax Media

The Simon Wiesenthal Center found no evidence that Heinrich engaged in any atrocities when associated with the SS. Rabbi Cooper stated that Harrer was suffering from ‘Waldheimer’s disease,’ in reference to Kurt Waldheim, the former UN Sec. Gen., who hid his Nazi past for decades. 

Harrer referred to the revelation as ‘extremely unpleasant,’ adding that he had a clean conscience. His association with the Nazis was unfortunate, Harrer said, but he just had to ‘grin and bear it.’

Jean-Jacques Annaud suspected Harrer was involved with the Nazis but took comfort in his life after the war. He told The New York Times:

“When he returned after the Second World War and seven years in Tibet, he devoted his life to nonviolence, human rights and racial equality. The film, ‘Seven Years in Tibet,’ revolves around guilt, remorse and redemption.”