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by Bamber Gascoigne

Sven Hedin (1865 - 1952)


Swedish explorer of Asia, writer, and geographer, the last person to receive a Swedish knighthood (1902). From 1913 Sven Hedin was a member of the Swedish Academy. Of his journeys Hedin wrote several accounts, which became extremely popular; his fame never rested on "scientific" discoveries. Through Asia, Hedin's famous book, appeared in 1898, and was immediately translated into English. Due to his narrative skills and phenomenal memory, Hedin's works, with their vivid details, are still fascinating reading for anyone who is interested in Asian cultures.

"Din drömska färd över haven
har nått sin säkra hamn
den tysta ensliga graven
och ingen känner ditt namn."

(from a poem written to Mille Lindström)

Sven Hedin was born in Stockholm, the son of Ludwig Hedin, Chief Architect of Stockholm, and Anna Berlin Hedin. About at the age of twelve Hedin decided to pursue the life of an adventurer. He was greatly inspired by the books of James Fenimore Cooper and Jules Verne, and the exploits of Livingstone and Erik Erik Nordenskiöld, whose voyage on the "Vega" through the Bering Strait into the Pacific aroused great enthusiasm in Sweden.  "Happy is the boy who discovers the bent of his life-work during childhood. That, indeed, was my good fortune," Hedin later said of his choice of career.

Hedin attended the prestigious Beskowska school in Stockholm, graduating in 1885. The first opportunity to follow his calling opened up soon after graduation, but it was not Arctic adventure of which he had dreamed.Hedin accepted work as a tutor in Baku, on the Caspian Sea. "During the spring and summer of 1885, I was consumed with impatience for the moment of departure. Already, in imagination, I heard the roar of the waves of the Caspian sea and the clangour of the caravan-bells. Soon the glamour of the whole Orient was to unfold before me." (from My Life as an Explorer, 1930) While teaching his pupil French, German, and Latin, Hedin himself studied Persian, Russian, English, and Tatar. His long rides on horseback led to the travel book Genom Persien, Mesopotamien och Kaukasien: reseminnen (1887, Through Persia, Mesopotamia and the Caucasus), published by Bonnier. During these years he also learned to speak Tatar and Persian. He even spoke Mongolian better than his interpreter, but he later said that he never learned to write Chinese properly. Hedin's grave-robbery began in his second trip through Persia, when he brought skulls to Stockholm. They were displayed at the Ethnographie Museum.

After returning to Sweden, Hedin started his studies of geography at Stockholms högskola (Stockholm University College) under the Norwegian Professor Waldermar Brøgger, becaming a doctoral candidate in 1888. A parft of his education was done in Berlin. In 1890 he served briefly as an interpreter with the Swedish/Norwegian embassy to the Shah of Persia and started a 3 600 mile long journey through Asia. Hedin was blinded in the early 1890s in one eye, and suffered from it until he was 82 – after an operation the sight was restored. Hedin returned home in 1891. He published in the same year Konung Oscars beskicking till schahed ac Persien år 1890.

In 1892 Hedin received his PhD – at the age of 27. Hedin's doctoral thesis was entitled Der Demavend nach eigener Beobachtung. (The Demavend  through Personal Observations). Before setting out on his first real expedition, Hedin met Maria "Mille" Broman, his great love. On the edge of the Taklamakan Desert he received a letter telling that she was engaged to someone else. Mille eventually married Albert Lindström, a successful horse breeder. She died in 1928. "Asia became my cold bride," Hedin wrote – he never stopped loving her, although in 1922 he forgot Mille for a period, when he fell in love, at the age of 57, with "Schwester" Elizabeth. She was 31-years-old and married to Count Fugger.

Hedin began in October 1893 a journey that lasted three years. "The whole of Asia was open before me. I felt that I had been called to make discoveries without limits – they just waited for me in the middle of the deserts and mountain peaks. During those three years, that my journey took, my first guiding principle was to explore only such regions, where nobody else had been earlier." In his account of his famous journey through Asia (1898) Hedin described how he saved one of his servants, named Kasim, by bringing him water in his boots. Later he returned to this episode several times in his drawings and writings. Two servants died in the desert of Takla Makan. Hedin's attempts to climb the Mustagh Ata, called "the father of ice mountains," failed, three of his native guides died.

Between the years 1893 and 1935 Hedin made four expeditions to Central Asia. Sleeping on the ground gave him a certain satisfaction, an intimate connection with the soil of Asia. He charted maps of significant areas in Pamir, Taklamakan, Tibet, Transhimalaya (also called Hedin Mountains). In 1900-01 he made two attempts to reach Lhasa, but the race was won by a Japanese scholar Ekai Kawaquchi, who was a genuine Buddhist monk. However, Hedin met in 1906 Taši Lama, to whom he gave a medicine box made of aluminum. The Dalai Lama had fled in 1904 when the British troops entered Llhasa, and Taši Lama became the most powerful man in Tibet. In 1909 Hedin returned to Stockholm to his family as a celebrated figure. August Strindberg's sudden attack in 1910 was a deep blow to Hedin. The writer called him – unjustly – "an ordinary land surveyor," and considered Hedin's scientific achievements "humbug." As a writer Hedin was more lively and able than most of the novelists of the time.

In 1913 Hedin became a member of the Swedish Academy. During World War I Hedin was on Germany's side, expressing his views in Från fronten i väster (1914). In Kriget mot Ryssland (1915) he depicted enthusiastically the war on the Eastern front. The war prevented further journeys but in 1923 he travelled round the world. American women Hedin called spoilt and uneducated. In Moscow and St. Petersburg he was celebrated by Communist commissars as a guest of honor, although they knew his opinions about Bolshevism. From Peking to Moscow he traveled by Dodge and by train.

With German, Danish, Chinese, and Swedish scientists he travelled in the Gobi Desert and Turkestan between the years 1927 and 1935. During this period Hedin met Chiang-Kai-shek, head of the Nationalist government and generalissimo of all Chinese Nationalist forces, of whom he also published in 1939 an admiring book.

When the American writer Pearl S. Buck was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1938, she met Hedin during her stay in Stockholm. "While walking about in my Asiatic library, we did not lack for topics, and they all circled round China. We spoke not least of Chiang Kai-shek, his heroic defense of his country, and his admirable ability to gather, educate, and inspire his people." (Chiang Kai-shek: Marshal of China by Svenb Hedin, translated by Bernard Norbelie, 1940, p. xiii)

In 1933 Hedin helped the Chinese government retain control of the Sinkiang province, by mapping out the old Silk Road of Marco Polo so that it could be motorized. Hedin's China expeditions provided material for three books, The Flight of Big Horse (1936), The Silk Road (1936) and The Wandering Lake (1940). In 1930 Hedin received the first Hedin medal, which was founded the same year for significant geographic, especially cartographic research of less known areas. From 1937 to 1949 he worked on the thirty-five volumes which detailed his expedition to Northern China. 

Hedin was also politically active. In one of his books he warned of Russian expansion and spoke for strong military defence and a political orientation towards Germany. He kept warm relations with Germany all his life, and was a supporter of the Nazis. In 1929 the German optical company Ernst Leitz in Wetzlar presented a Leica camera to him with the serial number 25000.

Like a number of Hedin's books, Amerika i kontinenternas kamp (1941/1944) was also translated into German (Amerika im Kampf der Kontinente, 1943). Hedin argued in it, that if Hitler's various peace offers had been accepted, the ongoing World War II could have been avoided. Hedin also met Hitler and Göring a few times and in 1940 he had long discussions with Führer about politics. At that time the explorer was 75 but still appeared youthful and vigorous. When Hitler wanted to know his secret, Hedin recommended yoghurt. Behind Hedin's visits to Berlin was his fear that the Soviet Union would again start a war against Finland. It could lead to the situation, where the Red Army would stand on the border of Sweden. To his disappointment, Hitler had his own plans. In 1940 he confessed in a letter: "Även med risk av Hitlers vrede står jag med liv och själ på Finlands sida, ty Finlands undergång betyder ett dödlingt hot mot Sverige och för mig är Sveriges välfärd dyrbarare än vänskapen med Tyskland." There is a street named in 1927 after Sven Hedin in the Zehlendorf district of Berlin. The Sven-Hedin-Platz was added by the Nazi regime in 1939.

In 1945 Hedin wrote to one of his German friends: "Im dritten Reich ist alles schief gegangen. Hitler ist allmählich verrückt geworden." (Everything has gone wrong in the Third Reich. Hitler has gradually become mad.) After the war Hedin remained unapologetic about his Nazi sympathies. He denied that he knew the truth about concentration camps. Hedin was not the only prominent figure who supported Germany – the Nobel writer Knut Hamsun was arrested for some time and placed on trial for his opinions. Hedin continued to follow world politics and in 1949 prophesied: "Mao is the best thing that has happened to China in a thousand years." For the younger Swedish writers he was an easy target – the Nobel writer Harry Martinson said that Hedin was an imperialist who happened to be born in a small country. However, he managed to overcome with his natural charm Per Lagerkvist's negative attitude towards him.

When Sven Hedin died in Stockholm on November 26, 1952, he was almost forgotten. On his table he still had a photograph of Mille Lindström, stuck inside a small religious calendar. Hedin's excellent panoramic drawings have been of significant help, even up to the latest decades, in interpreting satellite photographs. Hedin was buried in the cemetery of Adolf Fredrik church. Tommy Lundmark's book Sven Hedin-institutet - En nationalhjältes fall (2022) brought Hedin's Nazi sympathies back to the spotlight. As a result, the Ethnographic Museum in Stockholm removed part of Sven Hedin exhibition.

For further reading: Sven Hedin-institutet - En nationalhjältes fall by Tommy Lundmark (2022); The Explorer Sven Hedin and Kyoto University: Central Asia Fosters East-West Cultural Exchange, edited by Tanaka Kazuko; photography by Satō Ken'ei (2019); 'Sven Hedin,' in The Great Horizon: 50 Tales of Exploration by Jo Woolf (2017) ; Explorers' Sketchbooks: the Art of Discovery & Adventure by Huw Lewis-Jones, Kari Herbert; foreword by Robert Macfarlane (2016); 'Flandern, Polen och Mesopotamien genom kamerans lins: Sven Hedin som fotograf under första världskriget' by Björn Gäfvert, in Årsbok för Riksarkivet och landsarkiven (2014); Med kungen som verktyg: historien om försvarsstriden, borggårdskrisen & Sven Hedin by Axel Odelberg (2014); Sven Hedin-institutet: en rasbiologisk upptäcktsresa i Tredje riket by Tommy Lundmark (2014); The Explorer's Roadmap to National-Socialism: Sven Hedin, Geography and the Path to Genocide by Sarah K. Danielsson (2012); Äventyr på riktigt: berättelsen om upptäckaren Sven Hedin by Axel Odelberg (2009); The Intellectual Unmasked: Sven Hedin's Political Life from Pan-Germanism to National Socialism: a Dissertation Submitted to the Faculty of the Graduate School of the University of Minnesota by Sarah Kristina Danielsson (2005); Southern Silk Road: In the Footsteps of Sir Auriel Stein and Sven Hedin by Christopher Baumer (2000); World Authors 1900-1950, volume 2, ed. by Martin Seumour-Smith and Andrew C. Kimmens (1996); To the Heart of Asia: The Life of Sven Hedin by George Kish (1984); Sven Hedin: en biografi by Eric Wennerholm (1978); The Great Explorers by P. Pennington (1974); 100 Great Adventures, ed. by J. Canning (1969); Sven Hedin as Artist by G. Montell (1964); Vad fann Sven Hedin? by J.G. Andersson (1935); Sven Hedinin seikkailut Aasiassa by F. V. Härmä (1910) - Note: Sven Hedin appeared in Göran Tunström's novel Juloratoriet (1983).

Selected works:

  • Sven Hedins världsatlas, 1881-1883 (not printed)
  • Genom Persien, Mesopotamien och Kaukasien: reseminnen, 1887 (Through Persia, Mesopotamia and Caucasus)
    - Matkamuistelmia Persiasta, Mesopotamista ja Kaukaasiasta: 120 kuvaa ja 2 karttaa (suom. Kaarlo Jaakkola, 1899-1901)
  • General Prschevalskijs forskningsresor i Centralasien 1870-1885 i sammandrag, 1891 (translation with an introduction)
  • Konung Oscars beskickning till schahen af Persien år 1890, 1891
  • En resa från Teheran till Kaschgar, 1891
  • Der Demavend nach eigener Beobachtung, 1892
  • Genom Khorasan och Turkestan: minnen från en resa i Centralasien 1890 och 1891, 1892-1893
    - A Journey Through the Tekla-Makan Desert, Chinese Turkistan (tr. 1896)
  • Lop-nor-bäckenets vandring, 1896
  • En färd genom Asien: 1893-97, 1898 (2 vols.)
    - Through Asia (with nearly 300 illustr. from sketches and photographs by the Author, translated by J. T. Bealby, 1899)
  • Genom Asiens öknar: forskningsresor och äventyr 1893-1897, 1899
    - Aasian erämaissa: kuvauksia matkoilta Keski-Aasiassa ja Kiinassa (suom. Uuno Helve, 1900) / Aasian karavaaniteillä (suom. ja tekijän matkakirjoista valikoinut Tauno Karilas, 1962)
  • Die geographisch-wissenschaftlichen ergebnisse meiner riesen in Zentralasien, 1894-1897, 1900
  • Summary of the Results of Dr. Sven Hedin's Latest Journey in Central Asia (1899-1902), 1902
  • Asien. Tusen mil på okända vägar 1-2, 1903
    - Central Asia and Tibet: Towards the Holy City of Lassa (translated by J. T. Bealby, 1903)
  • Seen in Tibet, 1903
  • Three Years' Exploration in Central Asia, 1899-1902, 1903
  • Tibetanska äfventyr, 1904
    - Adventures in Tibet (illustrated with drawings and photographs, mostly by the author, 1904)
    - Seikkailuja Tiibetissä: valaistu 145 kuvalla (suom. Kalle Kajander, 1905)
  • Sverige och den stora östern, 1905
  • The Lakes Beside the Lower Tarim, 1905
  • Scientific Results of a Journey in Central Asia 1899-1902, 1904-07 (6 vols., Vol. 1, The Tarim River; Vol. 2, Lop-nor; Vol. 3, North and East Tibet; Vol. 4, Central and West Tibet; with H. Bäckström, H. Johansson et. al.)
  • Scientific Results of a Journey in Central Asia 1899-1902, Maps. 1-3, 1907
  • Dr. Sven Hedin's Journeys in Tibet 1906-1908, 1909
  • Journeys in Tibet: 1906-1908, 1909
  • Transhimalaya: upptäckter och äfventyr i Tibet 1909-12 (3 vols.)
    - Trans-Himalaya: Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet (3 vols., tr. 1909-1913) / To the Forbidden Land: Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet: Selected and Adapted from Sven Hedin's Trans-Himalaya (tr. 1986)
    - Transhimalaja: löytöjä ja seikkailuja Tibetissä 1-2 (suom. 1909)
  • Öfver land till Indien genom Persien, Seistan och Belutjistan, 1910 (2 vols.)
    - Overland to India (2 vols., tr. 1910)
    - Maitse Indiaan: muodostelma Hedinin suuresta matkakertomuksesta "Maitse Indiaan" (suom. 1923)
  • The Kumdanglaciers in 1902, 1910
  • Some Physico-geographical Indications of Postpluvial Climatic Changes in Persia, 1910
  • Svar på "Tal", 1910
  • Ett varningsord, 1912
  • Från pol till pol, 1911
    - From Pole to Pole: A Book for Young People (tr. 1912)
    - Navalta navalle 1-2 (suom. W. Hämeen-Anttila, 1911-1913)
  • Barmhärtighet: prolog, 1912
  • Scoutliv i Tibet. Med 66 bilder och 1 karta, 1913
  • Det militära Försvaret för och mot, 1913 (with Fredrik Ström, K.P. Arnoldson)
  • Andra varningen, 1914
  • Tal till ungdemokrater, borgare och bönder, 1914
  • Ett ord till Norges folk, 1914
  • Fyra tal, 1914
  • Från fronten i väster, september-november, 1914, 1915
    - With the German Armies in the West (translated by H.G. de Walterstorff, 1915)
  • Kriget mot Ryssland. Minnen från fronten i öster mars-augusti 1915, 1915
  • Southern Tibet: discoveries in former times compared with my own researches in 1906-1908, 1915-1922 (9 + 2 vols.)
  • Bagdad, Babylon, Ninive: Med 354 bilder samt 5 kartor, 1917
  • Till Jerusalem, 1917
  • Sveriges öde, 1918
  • Eine Routenaufnahme durch Ostpersien, 1918-1927 (2 vols.)
  • Bengt Bengtsson Oxenstierna: Resare-Bengt: Minnesteckning, 1918
  • Tsangpo Lamas vallfärd, 1920
  • Resare-Bengt: En levnadsteckning, 1921
  • Mount Everest och andra Asiatiska problem, 1922
  • Från Peking till Moskva, 1924
  • Ts'ung-ling: föredrag vid presidiets nedläggande i Kungl. vetenskapsakademien den 8 april 1925, 1925
  • Grand Canyon, 1925 (illustrated by the author)
  • Den buddhistiska senantiken i mellersta Asien, 1925
  • Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld: Minnesteckning, 1926
  • Reports from the Scientific Expedition to the North-western Provinces of China Under the Leadership of Dr. Sven Hedin, 1927-1935 (54 + 20 vols.)
  • Åter till Asien: min expedition 1927-1928 med svenskar, tyskar och kineser genom öknen Gobi, 1928
    - Across the Gobi Desert (translated from German by H. J. Cant, 1933)
  • Mitt liv som upptäcktsresande, 1930 (4 vols.)
    - My Life as an Explorer (translated by Alfhild Huebsch, 1925; with a new prologue and epilogue by Peter Hopkirk, 1996)
    - Elämäni tutkimusmatkailijana (suom. Heikki Väänänen, 1940)
  • Gobiöknens gåtor, 1930
    - Riddles of the Gobi Desert: With 24 Plates and a Map (translated by Elizabeth Sprigge & Claude Napier, 1933)
  • Jehol, kejsarstaden: skildringar från de stora mandschukejsarnas hov, 1931
    - Jehol, City of Emperors (translated by E.G. Nash, 1932)
  • Lop-nor: den vandrande sjön, 1931
    - The Wandering Lake (with 32 illustrations, 76 sketches and maps, translated by F.H. Lyon, 1940)
  • Lop-nor-problemet löst, 1932
  • Erövringståg i Tibet, 1934
    - A Conquest of Tibet (translated by Julius Lincoln, 1934)
  • Stora hästens flykt, 1935
    - Big Horse's Flight: The Trail of the War in Central Asia (translated by F.H. Lyon, 1936, US title: The Flight of "Big Horse": The Trail of War in Central Asia)
  • Sidenvägen: en bilfärd genom Centralasien, 1937
    - The Silk Road: With 31 Plates and a Map (translated by F.H. Lyon, 1938)
  • Tyskland och världsfreden, 1937
    - Germany and World Peace (translated from the German by Gerald Griffin, 1937)
    - Nykypäivien Saksa (suom. Lauri Hirvensalo, 1937)
  • Tyskland: 60 år, 1939
  • Chiang Kai-Shek: marskalk av Kina, 1939
    - Chiang Kai-shek: Marshal of China (translated by Bernard Norbelie, 1940)
  • Amerika i kontinenternas kamp, 1941/1944
  • History of the Expedition in Asia 1927-1935, 1943-1945 (in collaboration with Folke Bergman)
  • På svensk mark. Resor och minnen, 1944
  • Ett nytt varningsord, 1944
  • Utan uppdrag i Berlin, 1949
    - Sven Hedin's German Diary 1935-1942 (translated by Joan Bulman, 1951)
  • Stormän och kungar, 1950
  • Försvarsstriden 1912-1914, 1951
  • Mina hundar i Asien, 1952
  • Karavan och tarantass: Med hästar genom Asien, 1953 (ed. Gösta Montell)
  • Sven Hedin som tecknare: till hundraårsminnet av Sven Hedins födelse, 1964 (med Gösta Montell and Folke Holmér)
    - Sven Hedin as Artist: For the Centenary of Sven Hedin's Birth (revised and with a supplement by Gösta Montell and essay by Folke Holmér, 1994)
  • Central Asia Atlas. Memoir on Maps, Vol. 1, Records on Surveys, 1967 (by N. P. Ambolt and E. Norin)
  • Across the Gobi Desert, 1968 (translated from the German by H. J. Cant; reprint)
  • Central Asia Atlas. Memoir on Maps, Vol. 2, Index of Geographical Names, 1967 (by D.M. Farquhar, G. Jarring and E. Norin)
  • Asiatiska äventyr, 1980 (ed. by Eric Wennerholm)
  • Central Asia Atlas. Memoir on Maps, Vol. 3. Fasc. 3, The Kansu-Hohsi Corridor and the Suloho-Ochinaho Drainage Regions, 1980 (by F. Bergman ... ; comp. by E. Norin)
  • Central Asia Atlas. Memoir on Maps, Vol. 3. Fasc. 1, The Pamirs, K'unlun, Karakoram and Chang T'ang Regions, 1982 (by N. Ambolt and E. Norin)
  • To the Forbidden Land: Discoveries and Adventures in Tibet: Selected and Adapted from Sven Hedin's Trans-Himalaya, 1988
  • Southern Tibet: Discoveries in Former Times Compared with My Own Researches in 1906-1908, 1991 (12 vols)
  • Jehol, City of Emperors, 2000 (translated from the Swedish by E.G. Nash)
  • Mitt liv som upptäcktsresande: 1-5, 2020

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