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Home > Advanced Meditation > Kalachakra > Russian and Japanese Involvement with Pre-Communist Tibet: The Role of the Shambhala Legend

Russian and Japanese Involvement with Pre-Communist Tibet: The Role of the Shambhala Legend

Alexander Berzin
April 2003

Badmaev’s Proposals for Russian Annexation of Tibet

The Manchu Qing Dynasty of China (1644-1911) declined during the nineteenth century. Many countries sought to take advantage of its weakness to gain either trade or territorial concessions. They included not only Britain, France, Germany, and Portugal, but also Russia and Japan.

For example, in 1893, the Buryat Mongol physician Piotr Badmaev submitted a plan to Czar Alexander III for bringing parts of the Qing Empire under Russian sway, including Outer and Inner Mongolia and Tibet. He proposed extending the Trans-Siberian Railway from the Buryat homeland at Lake Baikal through Outer and Inner Mongolia to Gansu, China, next to the Tibetan border. When completed, he would organize, with Buryat help, an uprising in Tibet that would allow Russia to annex the country. Badmaev also proposed establishing a Russian trading company in Asia. Count Sergei Yulgevich Witte, Russian Finance Minister from 1882 to 1903, supported Badmaev’s two plans, but Czar Alexander accepted neither of them.

[ View Map.]

Upon the death of Alexander, Badmaev became the personal physician of his successor, Czar Nicholas II (r. 1894-1917). Soon, the new Czar approved the founding of a trading company. Its focus, however, was the Pacific coast, where Russia and Japan competed for control of Port Arthur, an ice-free port at the southern tip of Manchuria. At first Japan gained Port Arthur, but soon Russia took over. The Czar extended the Trans-Siberian Railroad through northern Manchuria to Vladivostok and connected it to Port Arthur. Nicholas, however, did not take up Badmaev’s proposals concerning Tibet.

[For more detail, see: Exploitation of the Shambala Legend for Control of Mongolia.]

Dorjiev and Czar Nicholas II

The Buryat Mongol monk Agvan Dorjiev (1854-1938) studied in Lhasa Tibet from 1880 and eventually became one of the Master Debate Partners (Assistant Tutors) of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. He also became the Dalai Lama’s most trusted political advisor.

The Anglo-Chinese Convention of 1890 had established Sikkim as a British protectorate. The Tibetans did not acknowledge the convention, and were uncomfortable with both British and Chinese designs on their country. Thus, in 1899, Dorjiev visited Russia to see if he could secure help to counter these threats. Dorjiev was a friend of Badmaev and hoped that Russia’s expansionist policy in Northeast Asia at the expense of China would extend to the Himalayan region. Count Witte received him on this and his next several visits. On behalf of the Buryat and Kalmyk Mongols living in St. Petersburg, Dorjiev also petitioned permission for building a Kalachakra temple there. Although the Russian authorities were not interested in either proposal, Dorjiev sent a letter to the Dalai Lama reporting that the prospects for assistance looked hopeful.

At first, the Dalai Lama and his ministers were hesitant but, on his return to Lhasa, Dorjiev convinced the Dalai Lama to turn to Russia for protection. He argued that Russia was the Northern Kingdom of Shambhala, the legendary land that safeguarded the Kalachakra teachings, and that Czar Nicholas II was the incarnation of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug tradition. As evidence, he pointed to the Czar’s protection of the Gelug tradition among the Buryats, Kalmyks, Tuvinian Turks in the Russian Empire. Swayed by his argument, the Dalai Lama dispatched him back to Russia in 1900.

At that time, Prince Esper Ukhtomski was the head of the Russian Department of Foreign Creeds. The Prince was deeply interested in “Lamaist” culture and later wrote several books about it. He invited Dorjiev to meet the Czar, which was the first of several audiences that Dorjiev had on behalf of the Dalai Lama. In the following years, Dorjiev traveled back and forth several times between the Czar and the Dalai Lama. He was never able, however, to secure Russian military support for Tibet.

In Sturm über Asien (Storm over Asia) (1924), the German secret agent Wilhelm Filchner wrote that between 1900 and 1902 there was a large drive in St. Petersburg to secure Tibet for Russia. This drive, however, seems to have been restricted to the efforts of Dorjiev, with the support of Badmaev and Witte. The Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, an ardent admirer of Germany, had an audience with Czar Nicholas II on route back to Europe from his Second Tibetan Expedition (1899-1902). Later, he wrote that he had the impression that Prince Ukhtomski was pushing the Czar to make Tibet a Russian protectorate. The Prince’s writings, however, reveal no such interest.

Intrigues between Japan, Russia, Britain, and China, and Their Effect on Tibet

The Japanese Zen priest Ekai Kawaguchi visited Tibet from 1900 to 1902 to collect Sanskrit and Tibetan Buddhist texts. On his return through British India, he falsely reported a Russian military presence in Tibet to Sarat Chandra Das, an Indian spy for the British who had visited Tibet in 1879 and 1881. Japan, at the time, was preparing for war with Russia over Manchuria. It had recently signed with Britain the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902-1907), under which both sides agreed to remain neutral if the other were at war. By fomenting discord between England and Russia, it seems as though the Japanese priest was trying to insure that Britain would not support Russia in the upcoming war. He probably also was hoping that British protests over Tibet would distract Russia’s attention from Manchuria.

In his book, Three Years in Tibet, published in Benaras by the Theosophical Society in 1909, Kawaguchi reported that he had heard of Dorjiev’s pamphlet in Tibetan, Mongolian and Russian claiming that Russia was Shambhala and the Czar was the incarnation of Tsongkhapa. He, however, had never personally seen it. Kawaguchi also spoke of a Japanese-Tibetan Buddhist Coalition, but neither side ever drew plans to implement it.

Kawaguchi’s report and later his book became well known among the British authorities in India. Sir Charles Bell, British Political Officer in Sikkim, for example, cited it in Tibet Past and Present (1924). He wrote that Dorjiev had swayed the Dalai Lama to Russia’s side by telling him how Russia controlled and protected part of Mongolia (Buryatia), how increasingly more Russians were embracing Tibetan Buddhism, and how the Czar was likely to embrace it too.

Lord Curzon, the British Viceroy of India at the time of Kawaguchi’s report, was extremely paranoid of the Russians. Fearing a Russian takeover and monopoly of the Tibetan trade, he ordered the British invasion of Tibet with the Younghusband Expedition (1903-1904). Together with Dorjiev, the Dalai Lama fled to Urga (Ulaan Baatar), the capital of Mongolia. After suffering defeat, the Tibetan Regent signed the Lhasa Convention in 1904, acknowledging British control of Sikkim and granting the British trade relations and the stationing of troops and officials in Lhasa to protect the trade commission.

A few months later, the Russo-Japanese War (1904-1905) broke out in Manchuria, in which the Japanese defeated the Czar’s forces. The Dalai Lama stayed on in Mongolia, since in 1906 the British and Chinese signed a convention reaffirming Chinese suzerainty over Tibet. The Convention quickly prompted a Chinese attempt to annex Tibet. The Dalai Lama sent Dorjiev once more to the Russian court to seek military aid.

In 1907, Dorjiev submitted a report to P. P. Semyonov-Tyan-Shansky, the Vice-President of the Russian Geographic Society, entitled “On a Rapprochement between Russia, Mongolia and Tibet.” In it, he called for the unification of the three states to create a great Buddhist confederacy. The Russian authorities flatly rejected it.

In the Anglo-Russian Convention of 1907, Britain and Russia agreed to stay out of Tibet’s internal affairs and deal only through China. Undaunted, Dorjiev petitioned the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs in 1908 at least to build a Kalachakra temple in St. Petersburg, which the authorities had rejected when he first had proposed it in 1899. This time, however, the Czar approved the plan. That was in 1909.

The Dalai Lama returned briefly to Lhasa at the end of 1909, but Chinese troops soon arrived. In early 1910, the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he stayed in Darjeeling, just south of Sikkim, under British protection. There, he befriended Sir Charles Bell, who influenced him about modernization.

Events Following the Chinese Nationalist Revolution of 1911

In 1911-1912, the Manchu Qing dynasty of China fell. The new president of the Chinese Nationalist Republic, Yüan Shih-k’ai (Yuan xi-kai), continued the Manchu expansionist policy toward Tibet and welcomed the Dalai Lama to join “the Motherland.” The Dalai Lama refused and cut off all ties with China. He created a War Department to lead an armed rebellion against the Chinese. Due primarily to the chaotic situation in China, the Chinese troops soon surrendered. As soon as the soldiers left Tibet in early 1913, the Dalai Lama returned to Lhasa.

Later in 1913, the first public ceremony took place at the St. Petersburg Buddhist Temple – a long-life prayer to celebrate the 300 th anniversary of the House of Romanov. The Dalai Lama sent congratulatory gifts and a rumor spread that he had recognized Alexis, the Heir Apparent, as a bodhisattva who would enlighten the non-Buddhists of the North. Still, however, no military aid was forthcoming from the Romanovs.

After driving back the Chinese forces from some sections of Kham (southeastern Tibet), the Tibetans negotiated the Simla Convention of 1914 with the British. Since the British would not support the complete independence of Tibet, the Dalai Lama compromised. The British guaranteed Tibetan autonomy under only nominal Chinese suzerainty. The British also agreed that they would not annex Tibet and would not allow China to do so either.

The Chinese never signed the convention and, in continuing border skirmishes with the Chinese in Kham, the British never came to the aid of the Tibetans. The Dalai Lama began to look elsewhere for support.

Tibet Receives Japanese Military Guidance

The Japanese victory in the Russo-Japanese War had impressed the Dalai Lama. He now became interested in the Meiji Restoration and modernization of Japan as a model for the modernization of Tibet within a Buddhist framework. Therefore, in the face of a continuing Chinese military threat and lack of Russian or British support, Tibet turned to Japan to update the Tibetan army. Especially keen on establishing a close connection with Japan was Tsarong, the head of the Tibetan mint and armory and the Dalai Lama’s favorite.

Yajima Yasujiro, a veteran of the Russo-Japanese War, came to Lhasa and, from 1913 to 1919, trained troops and advised on defense against the Chinese. Aoki Bunkyo, a Japanese Buddhist priest, translated Japanese army manuals into Tibetan. He also helped design the Tibetan National Flag by adding to traditional Tibetan symbols a rising sun surrounded by rays. This motif comprised the Japanese cavalry and infantry flags of the day and later became the design for the Japanese Navy and Army Flag during World War II.

Japanese Navy and Army Flag
Tibetan National Flag

 

The Dalai Lama was unsuccessful, however, in securing further Japanese military support. In 1919, the Japanese army became deeply engaged in suppressing an independence movement in Korea, which Japan had annexed in 1910. Then, in the 1920s, Japan turned its attention more toward Manchuria and Mongolia and remained interested in Tibet only for Buddhist scholarly studies. The last Japanese left Tibet in 1923, when the Great Kanto Earthquake destroyed Tokyo and Yokohama.

The next year, the British established a police force in Lhasa. A clash occurred between the police and the Tibetan military, resulting in the death of one policeman. Tsarong severely punished the murderer, but the antimodernization faction in the Tibetan government used this as a pretext to turn the Dalai Lama against him. They pointed out that Tsarong had acted without the Dalai Lama’s consent and they accused the military of plotting to take over the government. The Dalai Lama demoted Tsarong in 1925 from his position as commander-in-chief of the army and dismissed him from the cabinet in 1930. Thus, the main Tibetan proponent of Japanese alliance was silenced.

In December 1933, the Dalai Lama passed away. Tibet did not resume contact with Japan until 1938, when Tsarong reemerged to play a role in dealing with an official expedition from Japan’s allies against the spread of international Communism, the Germans.

Efforts to Win Communist Tolerance of Buddhism in Russia and Mongolia

The Russian Revolution of 1917 established the Soviet Union. Lenin, at first, did not enforce the Communist antireligion policy. In the face of widespread civil war, consolidating his power had greater priority. Even when Communist rule became stable, the state lacked the infrastructure in the 1920s to replace the educational and medical systems that the Buddhist monasteries were providing in Buryatia, Kalmykia, and Tuva. Therefore, the Communist Party tolerated Buddhism during this period.

At the end of 1919, several Mongol princes renounced the autonomous status of Outer Mongolia and submitted themselves to Chinese rule. Chinese troops entered Mongolia on the pretext of protecting it from the Soviets. In late 1920, the fanatical anti-Bolshevik Baron von Ungern-Sternberg invaded Mongolia from Buryatia, overthrew the Chinese, and reinstated the traditional Buddhist leader, the Eighth Jebtsundampa, as head of state. He proceeded to slaughter indiscriminately any remaining Chinese and suspected Mongol collaborators he could find.

In 1921, the Mongolian revolutionary Sukhe Batur established the Mongolian Communist Provisional Government in Buryatia. The Kalachakra teachings had a long history of popularity in Mongolia. Taking advantage of the Mongols’ faith in them, Sukhe Batur twisted its teachings and told his followers they would be reborn in the army of Shambhala if they fought to free Mongolia from oppression.

With the help of the Soviet Red Army, Sukhe Batur drove Ungern from Mongolia later in 1921. He limited the powers of the Jebtsundampa and allowed the Soviet Army to keep control. The Russians used the pretext that the Soviet Union was guaranteeing the independence of Mongolia and protecting it from further Chinese aggression. The Soviet Army remained until the Jebtsundampa’s death in 1924 and the declaration of the People’s Republic of Mongolia shortly thereafter.

During this period, Barchenko, a Russian scholar of parapsychology with connections to the Soviet Politburo, spent several months in Mongolia. There, he learned something about Kalachakra. He became convinced that its emphasis on material particles and its discussion of historical cycles and the battle between the Shambhala army and the invader forces foreshadowed the Communist teachings of dialectical materialism. He wanted to introduce this to the higher Bolshevik functionaries and so, upon his return to Moscow, organized a Kalachakra study group among some of its members. Most influential among the participants was Gleb Bokii, the Georgian head of a special department of the Soviet Military Intelligence Service (the OGPU, forerunner of the KGB). Bokii was the chief cryptographer of the Service and employed deciphering techniques connected with paranormal phenomena.

Other Russians also felt that Communism and Buddhism could accommodate each other. Nikolai Roerich (1874 – 1947), for example, was a Russian Theosophist who traveled through Tibet, Mongolia, and the Altai region of Central Asia between 1925 and 1928 in search of Shambhala. He conceived of the legendary home of the Kalachakra teachings as a land of universal peace. Due to his connections with Barchenko and their shared interest in Kalachakra, Roerich broke his journey in 1926 and visited Moscow. There he dispatched a letter, through the Soviet Foreign Minister Chicherin, to the Soviet people. Reminiscent of Blavatsky’s letters from mahatmas in the Himalayas, Roerich said the letter was also from the Himalayan mahatmas. The letter praised the Revolution for eliminating, among other things, “the misery of private property,” and it offered “help in forging the unity of Asia.” As a gift, he delivered from the mahatmas a handful of Tibetan soil to sprinkle on the grave of “our brother, Mahatma Lenin.” Although there is no mention of Shambhala in this letter, it continued the theosophical myth of benevolent help from the masters of Central Asia to establish world peace, this time in accord with the messianic mission of Lenin.

[See: Mistaken Foreign Myths about Shambhala.]

Through Bokii’s influence, the OGPU wanted to sponsor Roerich to return to Central Asia to continue his contacts, but they were overruled by Chicherin. The OGPU did, however, sponsor two expeditions to Lhasa, later in 1926 and in 1928, led by Kalmyk Mongol officers in the guise of pilgrims. Its main purpose was to gather information and explore the possibilities for further spreading international Communism in Central Asia and for extending the sphere of power of the Soviet Union. Thus, the Kalmyk officers proposed to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama that, in return for his alliance, the Soviet Union would guarantee Tibet’s independence and protect the country from the Chinese.

During this period, Buddhist leaders in the Soviet Union and Mongolia also tried to accommodate Buddhism to Communism by showing similarities between the two systems of belief. From 1922, the Leningrad (St. Petersburg) Buddhist Temple became the center of the Revival of Faith Movement. Led by Dorjiev, the movement was an attempt to reform Buddhism to adopt to Soviet reality by communalizing the lifestyle of the monks in accordance with early Buddhism. At the First All-Union Council of the Buddhists of the USSR in 1927, Dorjiev further emphasized the similarity of Buddhist and Communist thought in working for the people’s welfare. Thus, as a follow-up to the first OGPU expedition to Lhasa, Dorjiev sent a letter to the Thirteenth Dalai Lama praising Soviet policy toward its minority nationalities. It said that Buddha was actually the founder of Communism, that Lenin had held a high opinion of Buddha, and that the spirit of Buddhism had lived on in Lenin. Dorjiev was once more trying to use his influence to convince the Dalai Lama to turn to the Soviet Union, as he had previously tried by associating Russia with Shambhala and Czar Nicholas with Tsongkhapa.

Dorjiev’s main concern, however, was undoubtedly the protection of Buddhism in the Soviet Union and the Peoples’ Republic of Mongolia. Buddhist leaders in Mongolia, such as Darva Bandida and the Buryat Jamsaranov, were following Dorjiev’s lead in also trying to reconcile Buddhism with Communism. Thus, Dorjiev created a Mongol-Tibetan Mission at the Leningrad Temple in 1928, in conjunction with his aim of safeguarding Buddhism. In the same year, OGPU sent its second expedition to Lhasa.

Communist Persecution of Buddhism and the Rise of Japan as a Buddhist Patron 

By the end of 1928, Stalin consolidated his control over the Soviet Union. He began his collectivization and antireligion program in 1929, extending it to his Buddhist population as well. Mongolia soon followed suit, but implemented Stalin’s policy in an even more fanatic and aggressive manner. Dorjiev informed the Dalai Lama of all that took place, convincing him not to trust the Soviets. Many monks in Mongolia rebelled against the persecution and instigated the so-called Shambhala War of 1930-1932. Stalin sent in the Soviet army in 1932 to put down the rebellion and to temper the “leftist deviation” of the Mongolian Communist Party.

The Japanese conquest of Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia earlier that year and the establishment there of the Puppet State of Manchukuo also prompted Stalin’s decision. He was worried that Japan would try to rally the Buddhists of Buryatia and Outer Mongolia to its side as parts of a Buddhist empire. Moreover, Stalin needed Mongolia as a buffer state between the Soviet Union and the growing Japanese Empire. Thus, for the next two years Stalin ordered the Mongolians to relax their antireligion program so as not to drive their Buddhist population into the Japanese camp. Under the New Turn Policy, the Mongolian Communist Party even permitted the reopening of several monasteries. Armed with propaganda from this official sanctioning of Buddhism, the OGPU planned another expedition to Tibet in the winter of 1933 – 1934. The expedition, however, never took place because Stalin soon changed his mind and gradually took a more severe position toward Buddhism. 

In 1933, Japan expanded Manchukuo by annexing Jehol (Chengde) to the south. Jehol had been the summer capital of the Manchus, who had tried to make it the center for Tibetan and Mongolian Buddhism under the rule of their Qing Dynasty. At the end of that year, Stalin closed the St. Petersburg Buddhist Temple for public ceremonies. Stalin began his persecution in earnest, however, in both the Soviet Union and Mongolia, when his second-in-command, Kirov, was assassinated in 1934. This marked the start of the Great Purges.

When border skirmishes between Japanese Manchukuo and Outer Mongolia broke out in 1935, Stalin made his first arrests of Buddhist monks in Leningrad. In 1937, Japan captured the rest of Inner Mongolia and northern China. To gain Mongol allegiance, the Japanese proposed to reinstate the Ninth Jebtsundampa, the traditional political and religious head of the Mongols, and to establish a pan-Mongol state that would include Inner and Outer Mongolia and Buryatia. In their effort to win the Mongols to their side, they even claimed that Japan was Shambhala. Faced with Communist oppression, many monks in Mongolia and Buryatia spread the Japanese propaganda.

The Soviet Communist Party newspaper Izvestiya blamed the tactic on Dorjiev and accused him of being a Japanese spy. Stalin had Dorjiev arrested later in 1937, all the remaining monks at the Leningrad Temple shot, and the Mongol-Tibetan Mission there closed. Dorjiev died in early 1938.

[See: Exploitation of the Shambala Legend for the Control of Mongolia.]

Chinese Efforts to Gain Tibet and British Ineffectiveness in Offering Protection

Kept informed by Dorjiev, the Tibetans watched on warily during this period of Communist oppression of Buddhism in the Soviet Union and Mongolia. They were also worried about Chinese designs on their land. When the Chinese Nationalist Government of Chiang Kai-shek was inaugurated in late 1928, it continued to claim Tibet and Mongolia as parts of China. One of its first acts was to establish the Commission for Mongolian and Tibetan Affairs. It also supported the Ninth Panchen Lama’s position in his dispute with the Tibetan Government. The Panchen Lama had been living in China since 1924. He was insisting on relative autonomy from Lhasa, exemption from taxes, the right to have his own armed forces, and permission to be escorted back to Tibet by the soldiers the Chinese Government had provided him. The Dalai Lama did not accept his demands.

Between 1930 and 1932, the Tibetans and Chinese fought for control of parts of Kham. The Dalai Lama asked the British to petition China for a cease-fire and Britain made overtures to Chiang Kai-shek with no result. Only when Japan conquered Manchuria and eastern Inner Mongolia and established Manchukuo did China declare a truce in Kham, so as to turn its attention to the northeastern front. Once more, the British proved themselves ineffective protectors of Tibet, despite the Simla Convention of 1914.

The Thirteenth Dalai Lama died in December 1933 and Reting Rinpoche became the regent. The Chinese sent a delegation with lavish offerings to see if Tibet was now willing to join the Chinese Republic. The Tibetan Government declined the offer and reasserted Tibetan independence. One of the Tibetan ministers recommended seeking Japanese military assistance to keep the Chinese at bay, but the National Assembly ignored the suggestion for the time being.

The Reting Regent was willing to compromise on some of the Panchen Lama’s demands, but refused to allow the Chinese escort. When he asked the British for military help in case the Chinese forces came anyway, the British declined. They would only request the Chinese to withdraw the troops, and Chiang Kai-shek refused.

Early in 1936, the Panchen Lama left for Tibet with his Chinese military escort. Fighting between the Nationalist forces and the Chinese Communists insurgents during their Long March prevented his progress through Kham. During the ensuing months, complex negotiations took place between the Tibetan, Chinese, and British Governments over the Panchen Lama’s case. In the end, Reting agreed to allow the Chinese escort provided that the British guaranteed that the Chinese troops would leave through India immediately after their arrival. China objected strongly to the idea of a foreign guarantee and the British hesitated. A stalemate ensued.

In 1937, Japan captured the rest of Inner Mongolia and northern China. Fully engaged now in war with Japan, China suggested that the Panchen Lama wait in Chinese-held territory, which he did. At the end of that year, the Panchen Lama fell ill and died, thus ending the incident. Its continuing legacy on the Tibetan Government, however, was deep distrust of the Chinese and conviction that Britain was a totally unreliable source of support.

Renewed Tibetan Interest in Japan and Contact with Nazi Germany

Hitler became chancellor of Germany in 1933, the same year as the death of the Thirteenth Dalai Lama. In the face of border skirmishes between Manchukuo and Outer Mongolia and the stationing of Soviet troops in the latter, Japan signed the Anti-Commintern Pact with Germany in November 1936. The Pact declared their mutual hostility toward the spread of international Communism. They agreed that neither would make a political treaty with the Soviet Union and, if the Soviets attacked either, they would consult on what measures to take to safeguard their interests.

In 1937, Japan took the western half of Inner Mongolia and northern China. Germany annexed Austria and part of Czechoslovakia in the same year. With Stalin’s purges at their height, Chinese intentions of a military presence in Tibet as a prelude to annexation, and British diffidence to offer substantial help, Tibet once more looked elsewhere for military assistance and protection. The most reasonable alternative was Japan. Thus, in 1938, the Tibetan Government, controlled now solely by the Reting Regent, resumed contacts.

Many Tibetans admired Japan as a Buddhist nation that had become a world power and new patron of Buddhism, especially in Inner Mongolia. Moreover, the Japanese had helped to train the Tibetan army twenty years earlier; the Tibetan army manuals were translations from the Japanese. Japan, in turn, had a strategic interest in Tibet. As it expanded its Greater East Asian Coprosperity Sphere, it saw Tibet as a useful and necessary buffer against British India. This fit well with the Tibetan wish to remain independent from China.

The Nazi Expedition to Tibet

Because of the Japanese-German Anti-Commintern Pact, Tibet also thought to make official contact with the German Government. The decision had nothing to do with support for Nazi ideology or policy, but was due to practical necessity and the vicissitudes of the times. The conservative Tibetan government, however, proceeded cautiously. It invited an exploratory delegation from the Nazi Government to visit Tibet for the Losar (New Year) celebration, which led to the Third Tibet Expedition of Ernst Schäffer in 1938-1939. The British objected, but the Tibetans ignored the protest.

Schäffer was a hunter and biologist. His two previous expeditions to Tibet, 1931 – 1932 and 1934 – 1 936, had been for sport and zoological research. This third expedition, however, was sent by the Ahnenerbe (Bureau for the Study of Ancestral Heritage). The Germans were not interested in offering military assistance or protection to Tibet. This is obvious from the choice of the members of the delegation. In addition to Schäffer, the team included an anthropologist, a geophysicist, a filmmaker, and a technical leader. Its primary mission seems to have been measuring the skulls of Tibetans in order to establish them as ancestors of the Aryans and therefore acceptable as an intermediary race between the Germans and the Japanese.

According to Nazi occult sources, the expedition was also seeking support for the Nazi cause from the masters of Shambhala who were the guardians of secret psychic powers. Shambhala refused to help, but the occult masters of the underground kingdom of Agharti agreed and thousands of Tibetans went to Germany. These claims do not, however, seem to be fact. Although the Germans brought back with them numerous skulls for further study, none of their reports indicates that any Tibetans accompanied them to Germany. Moreover, no further German expeditions followed.

[See: The Nazi Connection with Shambhala and Tibet.]

Developments Subsequent to the Schäffer Expedition

Within a few months of the Schäffer Expedition, the political and military landscapes changed dramatically. In May 1939, Japan invaded Outer Mongolia, where it faced stiff resistance from the Soviet army. While the battle was still raging in Mongolia, Hitler broke the Anti-Commintern Pact with Japan in August 1939 and signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact to avoid war on two European fronts. The next month, he invaded Poland, at about the same time as Japan was defeated in Mongolia. The events demonstrated to the Tibetans that neither Japan nor Germany was a reliable source of protection against the Soviets. Moreover, because Japan was making little headway in conquering the rest of China, it turned its attention instead to Indochina and the Pacific. Japan did not appear anymore as a protector against the Chinese. Thus, Tibet was left no choice but the British and the weak protection that the Simla Convention afforded her. 

In September 1940, Germany, Japan, and Italy signed a military and economic alliance. In June 1941, Hitler broke his pact with Stalin and attacked the Soviet Union. Neither event, however, swayed the Tibetans to reconsider seeking protection from the Axis Powers. Tibet remained neutral during the Second World War.

Japan’s interest in Tibet, however, continued and grew even stronger after its invasion of Burma at the start of 1942. Planning to enter Tibet through Upper Burma, the Japanese Imperial Government organized a Greater Asian Bureau. As its advisor for Tibetan affairs, the Government appointed Aoki Bunkyo, who twenty years earlier had translated Japanese army manuals into Tibetan. Under his guidance, the Japanese prepared maps and Tibetan-Japanese dictionaries. They even printed Tibetan money in anticipation of including Tibet in its Coprosperity Sphere. With Japan’s defeat in 1945, however, the Japanese were never able to implement their plans for Tibet.