Isrun Engelhardt, scholar who probed the truth about the Schäfer prewar expedition to Tibet – obituary

·8 min read
Isrun Engelhardt: warmth, generosity and integrity
Isrun Engelhardt: warmth, generosity and integrity

Isrun Engelhardt, who has died aged 80, was a distinguished independent historian of modern Tibet; although she never held a formal academic position, she was a role model for colleagues of all ages, demonstrating the virtues of careful research and generous collaboration.

She is best known for her work on the 1938-39 German expedition to Tibet led by the zoologist Ernst Schäfer (1910-92) which, she argued in a series of publications, was a scientific expedition in intention and execution.

Schäfer had been on two earlier expeditions to eastern Tibet led by the American naturalist Brooke Dolan. In 1933 he joined the Nazi party, and in 1934 he joined Heinrich Himmler’s paramilitary SS, apparently out of personal ambition. Seeking funding for his expedition he met Himmler in person.

Ernst Schäfer, left and the Tibetan official Möndro, far right, as guests of the Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo in Tibet
Ernst Schäfer, left and the Tibetan official Möndro, far right, as guests of the Abbot of Tashi Lhunpo in Tibet

Schäfer received no financial sponsorship for the expedition from Himmler but he did receive political support, including German diplomatic requests for the necessary permits from the British authorities. The conditions for this support included a requirement that all five members of the expedition should belong to the SS.

In more recent times, the expedition has been cited as evidence of Nazi fantasies concerning alleged Tibetan links with the Aryan master race. Isrun Engelhardt set herself the task of separating fact from the many fictions.

In her publications on the expedition, based on a careful study of the source materials, Isrun Engelhardt concluded that Schäfer had resisted Himmler’s attempts to impose his own pseudo-scientific agenda, which was based on a racist mythology that members of a “pure” Aryan master race had somehow arrived in the Himalayan region.

She noted, however, that on the eve of the Second World War it was inevitable that a German expedition drawing on diplomatic support from Berlin would risk being caught up in political controversy.

Gyantse, Tibet, 1939: back row, left to right, Bruno Beger, Ernst Schäfer, Edmund Geer (German scientists), with Tibetan officials who hosted the expedition
Gyantse, Tibet, 1939: back row, left to right, Bruno Beger, Ernst Schäfer, Edmund Geer (German scientists), with Tibetan officials who hosted the expedition

At the same time, she highlighted the expedition’s importance as a source of first-hand information on Tibet at a delicate period in its history. During their six months in Sikkim and two months in Lhasa, the five members of the expedition had taken as many as 20,000 photographs, of which 17,000 negatives survive.

They also collected 2,000 ethnographic objects, but their main focus was on the natural sciences, including biology, ornithology, physical anthropology and magnetic readings.

Her edited publication, Tibet in 1938-1939: Photographs from the Ernst Schäfer Expedition to Tibet (2007), is notable both for its analysis and for its detailed photographs of Lhasa society. The expedition members would not have been able to take such photographs, she argued, if they had not enjoyed the support and friendship of their hosts.

She was born Isrun Schwartz into an academic family on September 30 1941 in Arnsdorf, a small village in what was then eastern Germany (now Milków, Poland) in the Riesengebirge mountains. Her family was distantly related to Max Weber, the German sociologist.

Her mother chose the name “Isrun”, which is Icelandic in origin. In view of her later researches, the name had a prophetic quality: it means “the one who knows the secret”. The name is not widely known in Germany and in later years she was occasionally annoyed to receive letters addressed to “Mr Isrun Engelhardt”.

Isrun’s parents had moved to Arnsdorf from Berlin hoping that it would be a place of safety during the Second World War. Those hopes were only partly fulfilled. In the final months of the war their part of Germany was overrun by the Russians.

Her family – which now included three brothers – lived precariously until 1953 when their father, Dr Michael Schwartz, secured a position at the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich. They set up home in the village of Icking to the south of Munich, and Isrun was based there for the rest of her life.

Isrun’s student years were spent in Munich and she met her husband Hans Dietrich Engelhardt at a student residence there; Hans Dietrich later became Professor of Sociology and Social Work at the Munich University of Applied Sciences. Their son Emanuel was born in 1979.

Isrun Engelhardt
Isrun Engelhardt

In 1974 Isrun was awarded a doctorate from the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich on the politics of the Christian missionary enterprise in the Byzantine Empire in the sixth century AD, with a particular focus on Persia, Nubia and Ethiopia.

Since there were few job opportunities for Byzantine historians, Isrun at first worked as a careers adviser for high school and university graduates. After the birth of her son she worked at a children’s library, initially as a volunteer. In 1986-87 she undertook professional librarianship training in Frankfurt.

Meanwhile, inspired by her deep lifelong love of mountains and mountaineering, her research interests shifted from sixth century Byzantium to the history of Tibet since the 18th century.

With her husband, also an enthusiastic mountaineer, she went on her first trekking tour to Nepal in 1973. They were supported by porters hired from a Tibetan refugee camp near Pokhara, and they were greatly impressed by their friendliness and religious devotion.

This initial encounter led to a desire to visit other parts of the Himalaya that have been influenced by Tibetan Buddhism. In the late 1970s and again in the 1990s the Engelhardts made a series of visits to Ladakh in northwest India. There they were able to engage with a Buddhist (and partly Muslim) society that had escaped the traumas of the Chinese invasion of Tibet.

In the early 1990s these personal encounters led Isrun to resume her academic career with some four years studying Tibetan at the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität in Bonn.

Since she had already established her academic credentials with her doctorate, she never felt the need to register for a further degree in Tibetan Studies. Instead, she embarked on a series of research projects.

For her work on the Schäfer expedition, she received a grant from the Gerda Henkel Foundation. However, her interests ranged more widely. In the late 1990s and early 2000s she published a series of articles on early European relations with Tibet with a particular focus on the Italian Capuchin monks who set up operations in Lhasa during the first half of the 18th century.

Perhaps her greatest enjoyment came from the study of Gegen Dorje Tharchin (1890-1976), a Christian convert based in Kalimpong, in the Tibetan foothills east of Darjeeling, who published a monthly Tibetan newspaper known in English as the Tibet Mirror, between 1925 and 1963.

As a Christian based outside Tibet, Tharchin enjoyed a kind of “insider/outsider” status. His paper at times received financial subsidies from the British Indian administration but he had an extensive network of subscribers inside Tibet and benefited from close contacts with the Lhasa hierarchy; contributors to the newspaper included many leading intellectuals of the day, including the maverick Tibetan monk Gendün Chöphel (1903-1951).

However, Isrun Engelhardt’s research showed that the Tibet Mirror was very much a personal enterprise of its editor. One of her articles carried the title “Tharchin’s One Man’s War with Mao.”

Isrun Engelhardt was the most encouraging of colleagues, taking as much pleasure in other people’s discoveries as her own. Perhaps her most outstanding characteristic was her generosity in sharing source materials.

To cite one example, she contributed to the Tharchin special collection in the Columbia University archive in New York, using her own funds to purchase photograph albums from the Tharchin family and delivering them to New York in person.

Isrun Engelhardt continued to examine the many myths surrounding Tibet into her 70s. In an article on the “Buddha from Space”, published in the Revue d’Études Tibétaines in 2017, she examined the history of a statue apparently fashioned out of metal deriving from a meteorite which had landed in the border region between Siberia and Mongolia. In 2012 a series of press articles and blogposts had suggested that the statue had been taken from Tibet by the Schäfer expedition in 1939.

Isrun Engelhardt, however, argued convincingly that it had most probably been designed and made for Nikolai Roerich, an eccentric Russian orientalist and artist (1874-1947) who had collaborated with Igor Stravinsky before the First World War and in later life had fantasies of establishing himself as a messianic figure in Tibet.

Isrun Engelhardt kept in touch with her colleagues and friends through an extensive e-mail correspondence and through her participation in conferences and workshops in Europe, India and Mongolia. Never obtrusive, she was always excellent company and greatly appreciated for her personal qualities of warmth, generosity and integrity.

Isrun Engelhardt is survived by her husband Hans Dietrich and their son.

Isrun Engelhardt, born September 30 1941, died March 2 2022