'Seven Years In Tibet' Author Dies

Austrian mountaineer and writer Heinrich Harrer is seen in Klagenfurt, Austria in this May 8, 2001 file photo. AP (file)

Heinrich Harrer, an Austrian mountaineer and former Nazi who became a friend and tutor of the young Dalai Lama, died Saturday. He was 93.

Harrer's family said in a statement that, "in great peace, he carried out his final expedition" when he died in a hospital. His family, which did not specify a cause of death, said Harrer would be buried Jan. 14.

Actor Brad Pitt played Harrer in the film "Seven Years in Tibet," which was based on Harrer's 1953 memoir of his time in the Himalayan nation.

Born July 6, 1912, the son of a postal worker in the Carinthian village of Knappenberg, Harrer first made headlines in 1938 with the first ascent of Switzerland's dreaded Eiger North Face.

At least nine mountaineers had died trying to scale the sheer wall, long considered Europe's greatest mountaineering challenge. Dozens have perished in subsequent attempts.

"We were never afraid. We never had any idea of returning or giving up," Harrer told reporters on the 50th anniversary of the feat.

His ascent earned him fame and a handshake from Adolf Hitler: Harrer had joined the Nazi party when Germany took control of Austria in 1938. He also joined the SS, the party's police wing associated with atrocities during World War II.

Harrer later said he joined the SS and Nazi party in order to enter a teachers' organization. The membership let him join a government-financed Himalayan expedition, his life's dream.

Harrer and a colleague were arrested by British troops in India at the end of that expedition as war broke out in September 1939.

The two escaped an internment camp in 1944 and trekked through Tibet to Lhasa, where few Westerners had been allowed to enter. They soon endeared themselves to the country's secular elite and to the religious head, the young Dalai Lama.

Harrer taught the Dalai Lama mathematics, English and sports, and became his adviser and friend. Harrer's subsequent book about the experience, "Seven Years in Tibet," was translated into 48 languages.

He later explored other remote areas of the globe, wrote about a dozen books and made some 40 documentary films.

His adventures became known to millions worldwide in the 1997 film starring Pitt. It was only a few months before the movie's release that his Nazi past caught up with him.

Documents cited by the German magazine Stern in an expose just before the release showed that Harrer joined Hitler's underground SA storm troops in Austria in 1933, when he was 21 and Nazi organizations still were banned in Austria.

While he had said he joined the Nazi party to further his teaching and mountaineering careers, Harrer did not explain why he joined the SA when Nazis still were persecuted in Austria.

The revelations prompted some minor changes to the film to depict Harrer with Nazi officials and the Nazi flag, "Seven Years" director Jean-Jacques Annaud told The Associated Press in 1997.

Harrer was interned at the start of the war and never linked to any Nazi atrocities.

"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.

A publicity-shy man who divided his time between Austria and Liechtenstein, Harrer told the Austria Press Agency in June 1997 that he had a "clear conscience."

He said, however, that "from today's view, the former party and SS membership is an extremely unpleasant thing."

He also repudiated his Nazi membership as a "stupid mistake" and an "ideological error."

Harrer was decorated with numerous high awards and honors during his career, including Austria's Golden Humboldt medal and the "Light of Truth" award bestowed by Tibet's government-in-exile in India.

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for CBSNews.com

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