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"Hitler's Diaries Discovered" (Stern)

In April 1983, the West German news magazine Stern published extracts from what purported to be the diaries of Adolf Hitler, known as the Hitler Diaries (German: Hitler-Tagebücher), which were subsequently revealed to be forgeries. The magazine had paid 10 million German marks for the sixty small books, plus a "special volume" about Rudolf Hess's flight to the United Kingdom, covering the period from 1932 to 1945.

Contents

"Discovery" of the diaries

Stern journalist Gerd Heidemann claimed to have received the diaries from East Germany, smuggled out by a "Dr. Fischer". The diaries were supposed to be part of a consignment of documents recovered from an aircraft crash in Börnersdorf near Dresden in April 1945.

Stern's parent company, Gruner and Jahr, collected the diaries in great secrecy over the course of more than 18 months. Three separate handwriting analyses were arranged, in Europe and the USA, of one page from one of the diaries; all the tests identified the writing as Hitler's. However, Gruner and Jahr delayed forensic analysis; and fear of leaks meant that no experts in World War II history were allowed more than cursory access to the diaries prior to publication. Two historians who did briefly see them, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Gerhard Weinberg, were retained by Times Newspapers and Newsweek respectively to authenticate the diaries prior to bidding for the serialisation rights.

Trevor-Roper, an independent director of Times Newspapers, flew to Switzerland to see the diaries. Stern showed him not only the diary volumes but a large archive of additional Hitler material, said to have been salvaged from the Börnersdorf crash along with the diaries. Trevor-Roper was convinced of the diaries' authenticity, writing in the next day's The Times that:

I am now satisfied that the documents are authentic; that the history of their wanderings since 1945 is true; and that the standard accounts of Hitler's writing habits, of his personality and, even, perhaps, of some public events, may in consequence have to be revised.

Discovery of the forgery

Doubts quickly emerged. A press conference held to launch publication on 25 April 1983 was a fiasco for Stern. Both Trevor-Roper and Gerhard Weinberg qualified their previous endorsements, and writer David Irving held up photocopies of a fake Hitler diary that he said was from the same source as Stern's material.

Within two weeks the West German Bundesarchiv revealed that the Hitler Diaries were "grotesquely superficial fakes" made on modern paper using modern ink and full of historical inaccuracies. Content had been largely copied from a book of Hitler's speeches, with additional "personal" comments. Much of the "archive" that had impressed Trevor-Roper in Switzerland was also discovered to have been forged.

Dr Julius Grant in London confirmed the forensic analysis. The autograph expert Kenneth W. Rendell concluded the Diaries were not particularly good fakes, calling them "bad forgeries but a great hoax" and stating that "with the exception of imitating Hitler's habit of slanting his writing diagonally as he wrote across the page, the forger failed to observe or to imitate the most fundamental characteristics of his handwriting."[1]

Stern editors Peter Koch and Felix Schmidt resigned from the magazine; Frank Giles stood down as editor of The Sunday Times; and William Broyles resigned from Newsweek. The episode was much ridiculed in the UK media (particularly by the Sunday Times' rival newspapers), and historian Hugh Trevor-Roper's reputation was seriously damaged.

The diaries were actually written by Konrad Kujau, a notorious Stuttgart forger. Both he and Heidemann went to trial in 1985 and were each sentenced to 42 months in prison (for forgery and embezzlement).

It was never determined where the missing money went. Kujau certainly received a portion of it, but it is likely that Heidemann pocketed a majority. At the time the fraud was being investigated, authorities learned that Heidemann purchased two villas in Spain, two luxury sports cars, expensive jewelry, rare WWII memorabilia for his collection, and extravagant vacations, amongst other things. All of the items, totaling well over 1.5 million marks, were allegedly paid for out of Heidemann's monthly salary of 5,400 Marks.

After release from prison, Kujau was able to use his new fame as a forger to open a studio and sell "original Kujau forgeries".

Accounts of the hoax

Journalist Robert Harris published an account of the hoax in 1986 — Selling Hitler: The Story of the Hitler Diaries.

In 1991 Selling Hitler, a television drama-documentary mini-series based on Harris's book, was produced for the British television channel ITV. It was directed by Alastair Reid and starred Jonathan Pryce as Heidemann, Alexei Sayle as Kujau, Tom Baker as Stern editor Manfred Fischer, Alan Bennett as Trevor-Roper, Roger Lloyd Pack as David Irving, Richard Wilson as Henri Nannen and Barry Humphries as Rupert Murdoch.[2]

Reception in popular culture

  • Schtonk!, a 1992 film by German director Helmut Dietl featured fictional characterizations which mirrored many of the events.
  • Berke Breathed's comic strip Bloom County satirized the incident by having Opus create The Elvis Diaries, the supposed lost diaries of the late Elvis Presley, after being pressured by Milo Bloom in order to gain funds for the Bloom County political party. A panel of fellow comic strip characters (including Dagwood Bumstead) declared them authentic, shouting in unison: "It's the real McCoy!". The diaries were eventually declared fraudulent after experts discovered they were written on "official Dukes of Hazzard stationery."
  • In the novel Good Omens, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett describe the fictional prophecy book around which the novel's story revolves, "The Nice and Accurate Prophecies made the Hitler Diaries look, well, like a bunch of forgeries."
  • In the novel The Growing Pains of Adrian Mole, Adrian becomes ecstatic at the news of the "find" (ironically reported in a newspaper page that was going to be used to clean up his dog's excrement) and ends up betting with Pandora that the diaries are genuine. Naturally he loses, claims he will save the newspaper for the original purpose and is saddened by not getting the chance to find out "what maniacs eat for breakfast and how they behave in private".
  • A sketch on the UK comedy series Carrott's Lib featured a hoaxer (played by Nick Wilton) offering to sell the diaries to a Sunday Times editor ( played by Chris Barrie ). On inspection, the diaries are found to contain, among other things, reminders for "Auntie Marlene's Birthday", "Martin's Birthday" and "Herman's Wedding Anniversary". The hoaxer seems genuinely surprised when told that Hitler "died in 1945", but decides to sell the post-1945 diaries to Private Eye.

References

  1. ^ Kenneth W. Rendell, Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters and Documents, p.112.
  2. ^ Selling Hitler at the Internet Movie Database

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