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Ernst Schäfer

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Ernst Schäfer
Ernst Schäfer during his last expedition to Tibet in 1938
Born(1910-03-14)14 March 1910
Died21 July 1992(1992-07-21) (aged 82)
SS career
Allegiance Nazi Germany
Service/branch Schutzstaffel
Battles/warsWorld War II

Ernst Schäfer (14 March 1910 – 21 July 1992) was a German explorer, hunter and zoologist in the 1930s, specializing in ornithology. His zoological explorations in Tibet served as a cover for his role in the German secret service. He was also a scientific member in the Ahnenerbe and held the rank of an SS-Sturmbannführer.

Early life[edit]

Schäfer was born in Cologne, and even as a young boy, he spent time in the outdoors shooting with an air gun and rearing birds, insects and reptiles. After high school (Abitur 1928 from Mannheim), he worked at Vogelwarten in Denmark and Heligoland. He then joined the University of Göttingen and studied zoology, botany and geology. He was a fan of the Swedish geographer Sven Hedin. He met Hugo Weigold on a study trip to Helgoland, which led him to join Weigold and American Brooke Dolan II from the Philadelphia Academy of Sciences on a trip to China in 1930–31. He published Berge, Buddhas und Bären (Mountains, Buddhas and Bears) in 1933, based on the trip and gained wide recognition. In 1934, Dolan invited Schäfer for a second trip into Tibet in 1934, which affected his studies in the University of Göttingen under Professor Alfred Kühn. He then transferred to the Friedrich Wilhelm University in Berlin. He determined the yeti to be a Tibetan bear (Ursus arctos pruinosus).[1]

Schäfer married in 1937, but his wife died in a hunting accident in November, which emotionally affected him for months. He completed his Ph.D. in 1938, based on his studies of the birds of Tibet. Schäfer joined the Schutzstaffel in 1933 but, after World War II, he claimed to have been an unwilling recruit who joined only to advance his scientific career.


In 1936, he was appointed Untersturmführer in the personal staff, and in 1942 he was promoted to Sturmbannführer.[2] He led the third expedition to Tibet in 1938–39 under the patronage of Heinrich Himmler, the SS, and various sponsors. As many as 3,300 bird specimens were collected in these expeditions.[3] A film was produced on the expedition titled Geheimnis Tibet (Secret Tibet).[1] Himmler was personally interested in the project due to various pet pseudo-scientific theories that he subscribed to including ideas such as human origins, and Hanns Hörbiger's Welteislehre ("World Ice Theory").[4]

In July 1934, during his second expedition in Asia, he met the then exiled Panchen Lama, Thubten Chökyi Nyima, at a mountain temple near Hangzhou, China. He describes the Lama as a kindly, sympathetic man who enquired about how far Germany was and whether he had been waylaid by any robbers on the way.[5]

The SS Ahnenerbe Expedition to Tibet during the 1930s was also successful for the German naturalists "Meanwhile, Ernst Schäfer and Bruno Beger, Edmund Geer and Krause carefully packed up the voluminous natural history collection- animal and bird skins; butterflies, bees, ants, wasps and other insect specimens; fragile dried plants for the herbarium; packets of seeds containing one thousand, six hundred varieties of barley, seven hundred varieties of wheat, and seven hundred varieties of oats; not to mention hundreds of seeds from other potentially useful plants."[6]: 175  These seeds collected during the Tibetan expeditions were important, as Heinrich Himmler planned to develop hardy new varieties of crops in order to boost the agricultural yields of colonies across the Eastern territories of the Ukraine and Crimea. Himmler ordered the Ahnenerbe to found a teaching and research institute in plant genetics, assigning the task to Dr. Ernst Schäfer, who he found to be an ideal young German zoologist who could also lead the Tibet Expedition. Schäfer set to work with characteristic vigor. He obtained a staff of seven research scientists, including a British prisoner of war, and set up an experimental research station in Lannach, near the city of Graz in Austria. There the new institute went to work, experimenting with samples of grains that Schäfer had acquired from the granaries of the Tibetan nobility.[6]: 220 

A statue in a German private collection which has come to be called the "Iron Man" is speculated to have been obtained by Ernst Schäfer during the Tibet expedition in 1938[7] as part of the Tibet mission that was supported by Himmler. There is no proof that this was indeed obtained during the expedition but it has been a subject of considerable speculation. Analysis showed that it was made from iron of meteoric origin, specifically of an ataxite class, an extremely rare type, of meteorite and possibly carved from a piece of the Chinga meteorite.[8] The statue is believed to portray the god Vaisravana. Speculation that it belongs to the pre-Buddhist Bon culture that existed in Asia about 1,000 years ago has been brought into question due to certain incoherent features of clothing and style.[9]

In 1945, Schäfer was awarded the War Merit Cross, 2nd class with Swords.[2] He was made an honorary member of the German ornithologists federation (DO-G) on 7 December 1939, his wedding day, a gift from Erwin Stresemann.[10]

Postwar career[edit]

Ernst Schäfer in Allied internment

After the 1939 expedition he returned to Germany and he married Ursula in December. In 1945 Schäfer was interned by the Allied Military Government but was exonerated for war crimes in June 1949 and released. In 1950 he moved with his wife and daughter to Venezuela and conducted studies there while also teaching in Maracay and Caracas.[1] From 1949 to 1954 he was a professor in Venezuela, when he returned to Europe to become an adviser to the Belgian King Leopold III.[2] With film-maker Heinz Sielmann, he produced Herrscher des Urwalds (Rulers of the Wild) (1958) in the Congo forests. Schäfer served as the curator of the Department of Natural History at the Lower Saxony State Museum from 1960 until 1970.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Gonzalez, Jorge M. (2010). "Ernst Schäfer (1910-1992) - from the mountains of Tibet to the Northern Cordillera of Venezuela: a biographical sketch" (PDF). Proceedings of the Academy of Natural Sciences of Philadelphia. 159: 83–96. doi:10.1635/053.159.0106. S2CID 131114714.
  2. ^ a b c Klee, Ernst (2005). Das Personenlexikon zum Dritten Reich (in German). Fischer Taschenbuch. p. 523.
  3. ^ Abs, Michael; Pascal Eckhoff; Jürgen Fiebig; Sylke Frahnert (2010). "The bird collections in the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin resulting from Ernst Schäfer's three expeditions to Tibet and Sikkim". Zoosystematics and Evolution. 86 (1): 49–80. doi:10.1002/zoos.200900014.
  4. ^ Engelhardt, Isrun (2003). "The Ernst-Schaefer-Tibet-Expedition (1938-1939): New light on the political history of Tibet in the first half of the 20th century.". In McKay, A. (ed.). Tibet and her Neighbours. Berkeley, California: University of California Press. pp. 187–195.
  5. ^ Hale, Christopher (2003). Himmler's crusade: the true story of the 1938 Nazi expedition into Tibet. Bantam. p. 63.
  6. ^ a b Pringle, Heather Anne (2006). The Master Plan: Himmler's Scholars and the Holocaust. New York: Hyperion Books.
  7. ^ "Ancient statue discovered by Nazis is made from meteorite". BBC News. September 27, 2012.
  8. ^ Buchner, Elmar; Schmieder, Martin; Kurat, Gero; Brandstätter, Franz; Kramar, Utz; Ntaflos, Theo; Kröchert, Jörg (1 September 2012). "Buddha from space-An ancient object of art made of a Chinga iron meteorite fragment*". Meteoritics & Planetary Science. 47 (9): 1491–1501. Bibcode:2012M&PS...47.1491B. doi:10.1111/j.1945-5100.2012.01409.x.
  9. ^ http://info-buddhism.com/Bayer_2012-Trousers.pdf [bare URL PDF]
  10. ^ "Ernst Schäfer (1910-1992)". Journal für Ornithologie. 134 (3): 368–369. 1993.
  11. ^ Danny S. Parker (24 May 2016). Hitler's Warrior: The Life and Wars of SS Colonel Jochen Peiper. Da Capo Press. p. 396. ISBN 978-0-306-82455-5.[permanent dead link]

Further reading[edit]