Mon, Jan 09, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Acclaimed author of `Seven Years in Tibet' dies at 93


Austrian mountaineer Heinrich Harrer, left, stands with the Dalai Lama in Graz in Austria's southern Styria province in this Oct. 15, 2002 file photo.


Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer and former Nazi 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 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 next Saturday 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 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 expose 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 troopers in Austria in 1933.

The revelations prompted some minor changes to the film to depict Harrer with Nazi officials and the Nazi flag, Seven Years in Tibet director Jean-Jacques Annaud said in 1997. But Annaud credited Harrer for his postwar commitment to human rights and racial equality.

"This is a man who ... feels a tremendous shame," Annaud said at the time. "I respect him as a man who has remorse."

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

In a statement on Saturday, Austrian Chancellor Wolfgang Schuessel publicly thanked Harrer "for many beautiful and intriguing discussions."

"His life fascinated me," Schuessel said.

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