Dr Bruno Beger's memoirs of Tibet

The Status of Independence of Tibet in 1938/39 according to the travel reports (memoirs)
by Dr. Bruno Beger

After having travelled twice for research purposes via China to Eastern Tibet with the Brook-Dolan Expedition in 1931/32 and from 1934 to 1936, Dr. Ernst Shaefer planned a German expedition to Tibet of his own in 1937. He was particularly interested in a highly integrated expedition, covering such aspects as the soil, the plants, the animal and the human beings. For this purpose he was in search of suitable expedition members.

Having studied anthropology, geography and ethnography in Jena and Heidelberg, I went to Berlin for the completion of my studies. There I got in contact with Dr. Schaefer at the beginning of the autumn semester in 1937. So did the geo-physician, Dr. Karl Lienert, the photographer and entomologist, Ernst Krause, as well as one technical expert, Edmund Geer. We had already known Schaefer from newspaper reports and his own publications. Tibet and its culture, which I had read about quite a lot, seemed to me a most desirable field of research. That was why I enthusiastically agreed to join the expedition.

Schaefer described to us Tibet as a completely sovereign state that was anxious to preserve its independence and to protect its old culture from foreign influences and ambitious cravings. Tibet was regarded as the "Forbidden Land". It would certainly be difficult to enter it by crossing one of its neighbouring countries, but experience had shown him that it would be possible to achieve this goal. The Schaefer Tibet Expedition of 1938/39 finally chose the route via India and Sikkim, despite all the warnings and difficulties from the British side. A non-permitted frontier crossing in October 1938, leading in from North Sikkim to the King of Tharing, who at the time resided at Doptra-Dzong, brought about our first contact with the Tibetan Government. After causing some trouble, British India had given its permission to the expedition to address a request for entry to the Government in Lhasa. They were very keen on keeping up their limited influence in South Tibet, for they feared the ambitions of China and the Soviet Union. Our expedition considered this an unfounded suspicion. But when we had received the invitation from the independent state of Tibet, we were authorised to travel to Lhasa.

The Schaefer-Expedition explored Southern Tibet from October 1938 to July 1939, thanks to an attestation from the Tibetan Government which proved to be very useful and important: The arrival of our expedition had been announced beforehand in advance, and for this reason we were welcome and well-received everywhere and provided with the necessary things on our way through the Chumbi Valley, then from Gyantse to Lhasa and from there via Samye across the Yarlung Valley to Shigatse and back again to Gangtok via Gyantse. In Lhasa itself we were received in a very friendly way and got into close contact with government officials and other influential people of the country. From numerous talks, the members of the expedition could gather, again and again, how eager the Tibetans were to keep up their rightful state of independence which had been reinforced again by the Treaty of 1912. The minimum foreign influence granted by contact to British India was tolerated reluctantly as a certain counter-measure to keep a check on the ambitious desires and unjustified interests of the Chinese (and to a certain extent of the Russians as well). Nevertheless, the Tibetans could not forgive and forget the provocative attack, as well as the bloodshed, caused by the British-Indian Expedition Corps in 1904. They often talked about that.

The political development in China was a cause for worry and the Chinese representatives in Lhasa were observed with mixed feelings. For a better protection of the country and to maintain their sovereignty, the Government set up a modern army of 10,000 men, whose training could be admired by us in Shigatse. Everything was obviously done with diplomatic skill to preserve their independence. Even our having been invited was probably due to the Tibetans' aim to establish a first contact with the rising "German Reich", which might contribute to the support of their status of independence.

I had among the many contacts in Lhasa a special friendship with the family of H.H. the 14th Dalai Lama, with the Phala family and with the monastery official Moendroe, who was in charge of the city's Police Department. From them I heard about all the worries in the country, even of their economic problems. For instance, every year, when the long caravans were on their way to India transporting wool, their main export article, Indian buyers would manipulate the Tibetan currency to the disadvantage of the Tibetans.

I experienced in Tibet the great pleasure of getting to know very closely the last old culture on this earth and I felt the great wish that it might remain untouched even while having to assimilate external influences, especially in the field of technology. I found the leading personalities sensitive to reforms and modernization, which would have taken place in a harmonious way, instead of being forced upon with cruel bloodshed as it was done by the Red Chinese. I still have the great hope that the freedom movement all over the world will also change the attitude of the Chinese towards the Tibetans and that Tibet will again experience the status of independence.

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Last updated: 2-Feb-96