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The Hitler Diaries

Hitler in Paris: Did he keep a diary?

It would have been one of the greatest historical buys of the 20th century: Sixty-two handwritten volumes of a secret diary kept by Adolf Hitler. Der Stern Magazine thought they had the exclusive rights into one of the darkest minds of all time. Instead, they paid millions of dollars for a hoax.

In the autumn of 1979 an investigative reporter for the German magazine Der Stern, Gerd Heidemann, was invited to the house of a man named Fritz Stiefel, a collecter of Nazi memorabilia. Stiefel had paintings and letters created by Hitler laid out in a glass case like a museum display. Heidemann, a Nazi enthusiast, studied each of them carefully. Finally he noticed something else in the case: A black book. When he asked about it he was told that it was a secret diary kept by the Nazi leader. One of supposedly six volumes.

Heidemann was shocked. He'd been fascinated by the life of Hitler for years but never heard that the man had kept a diary. The inner thinking of the Nazi leader had always been a mystery even to other leading members of the Third Reich. A true diary would give historians insight into the thinking of a man who had, for evil, changed the face of the world. Heidemann realized that if the diaries were authentic and if he could get a hold of them, he would have one of the biggest journalistic scoops of the 20th century. To buy the diaries Heidemann knew he would have to have the economic backing of his magazine Stern, but before they would give him the money he would have to make a case for the diaries being authentic.

Tracking the Diaries

One of Heidemenn's first steps was to try and determine how the Stiefel's volume of the diary had gotten into his hands. Stiefel had been told the diary had been aboard a plane carrying some of the Fuehrer's belongings that had crashed in the village of Boernersdorf at the end of the war. The first thing that Heidemann did was to travel to Boernersdorf to confirm the story. There he found that indeed there had been a plane crash in April of 1945. Records indicated that a Junkers 352 transport went down carrying some of Hitler's personal effects. When he heard of the crash Hitler had stated, "In that plane were all my private archives that I had intended as a testament to posterity. It is a catastrophe!"

A German transport plane similar to the one that crashed in Boernersdorf.

Heidemann also found that a chest of papers had supposedly been recovered from the wreck and this was rumored to be the source of the diaries. He also learned there were 27 more volumes of the diaries in the hands of a man named Konrad Fischer.

Equipped with this information, Heidemann made a proposal to his bosses at Stern that they purchase the diaries. Stern said it would pay as much as 2 million marks (approximately $800,000) to obtain the diaries. With this money behind him, Heidemann went searching for Fischer. Fischer turned out to be hard to find. Eventually Heidemann contacted him through intermediaries. Fischer seemed reluctant to sell the diaries, but the amount of money involved won him over. He did inist that Heidemann promise to keep his identity a secret.

The first diary was delivered to Stern editorial offices in January of 1981. Surprisingly more and more diaries kept showing up. Heidemann told his bosses that after the plane crash the diaries had come into the possession of an East German general and were being smuggled out of that country one by one (supposedly inside pianos). With each new volume Stern paid more money and stood to make more money when they resold the story to other news media. The final tally was 62 volumes (covering the period from 1932 to 1945) for which Stern paid 9.9 million marks (almost $4 million).

Before Stern could resell the story they needed to make sure the diaries were authentic. To do this they had handwriting experts compare the diaries with copies of material found by Heidemann in the German Federal Archives at Koblenz. Without question the handwriting was identical and Stern's editors enthusiasm for the project soared, perhaps blinding them to the need for additional authentication checks.

Breaking the Story

The April 25, 1983 cover of the German magazine Der Stern.

On April 25th, 1983, Stern magazine broke the story. The cover, showing one of the black bound volumes, proclaimed "Hitlers Tagebucher Entdeckt" or "Hitler's Diary Discovered." The news media around the world jumped on the story. Newsweek, ParisMatch and London's Sunday Times and Times newspapers all made bids to get the rights to reprint all or part of the diaries. Stern stood to make a fortune on the reprint rights.

What the diaries showed was surprising. If one were to believe the diaries, Hitler was a much more kinder and gentler man than the historical record showed. In particular, the diary entries suggested that he had little knowledge of what was happening in the concentration camps scattered around Europe. He also expressed a desire to deport the Jews to other countries rather than put them to death.

Even before skeptics got a look at the material they expressed doubts that the diaries were real. Historians familiar with Hitler pointed out that he loathed to write and that none of his intimates in the Nazi organization, including his secretary, had believed he had kept a diary. When the critics actually got to look at the material their objections to its authenticity only increased. Historian David Irving pointed out that what was recorded in the diaries did not correspond to known historical events and the materials that the books were composed of appeared to be too modern for the era. Most damaging of all was the claim by experts of Hitler's writing that the script in the diaries did not resemble his at all, especially since the handwriting had been at the heart of Stern's authentication procedure.

The Hoax Revealed

West Germany's Federal Archives decided to get involved and ran several scientific tests on the books. On May 6, 1983, they released their findings: the paper, ink and glue of the diaries was undoubtedly manufactured after the end of World War II and Hitler's death. The volumes for which Stern had paid millions of dollars were worthless forgeries.

Stern realized that it had been taken and heads began to roll. Several members of the staff (including Heidemann) were fired. In addition Stern's founder, Henri Nannen, filed fraud charges against Heidemann several days later and the police began to investigate. It quickly became clear that Heidemann had not forged the diaries himself. Heidemann gave up Fischer's name and the investigation soon focused on him. The police soon discovered that Fischer's real name was Konrad Kujau. Kujau was a petty criminal who specialized in forgery. He had started by taking legitimate Nazi memorabilia and adding the names of important Nazis to increase the value. Later on he started forging entire works including letters, documents and even paintings and sketches allegedly done by Hitler. In a 1983 book by Billy Price called Adolf Hitler: The Unknown Artist a quarter of the works pictured were actually forgeries by Kujau.

Kujau's prolific forgery solved the mystery of how the Stern handwriting experts had been fooled. When they had compared the handwriting in the diaries to the handwriting found in letters by Hitler, they pronounced it identical. Indeed it was. The letters that they had used for comparison turned out to be previous forgeries by Kujau, not actually letters written by Hitler.

Kujau, Heidemann and Kujau's wife, Edith, were brought to trial. Kujau claimed that Heidemann was completely aware that the documents were forgeries but bought them anyway paying 1 million marks. Heidemann claimed he hadn't know they were forgeries but admitted that he had seen the possibility of some historical discrepancies. Kujau and Heidemann were given four and one half years in prison and Edith eight months. The judge stated that while there were only three defendants, the Stern's publishing firm should be the fourth. He said that Stern had "acted with such naiveté and negligence that it was virtually an accomplice in the fraud."

Nobody ever found out what happened to the bulk of the money paid out by Stern. According to Kujau, Heidemann skimmed much of it before paying him. Clearly both Kajau and Heidemann's lifestyle took a turn for the better at the time of the fraud and most of the money never made it back into Stern's hands.

Could Stern really have avoided the loss of millions of dollars and its international reputation? It seems clear in retrospect that the publishing firm could have found out the truth if they had simply subjected the diaries to a few scientific tests. Examination of the books themselves showed that they contained whiteners and threads not manufactured until the 1950's. Chemical tests revealed that the ink was modern and only recently applied to the paper.

A careful reading of the text would have also revealed historical inaccuracies that might not have proved the diaries fake by themselves, but should have raised suspicions. Much of the material Kujau stole from a book called Hitler's Speeches and Proclamations written by Max Domarus. This also should have raised a red flag to anyone carefully trying to authenticate the diaries.

As the judge indicated, the owners and editors of Der Stern may have been as much to blame as Kujau and Heidemann. They were too ready to believe that they had scooped every news organization in the world on the the story of the Hitler diaries, and much too ready to profit from it.


A Partial Bibliography

Selling Hitler by Robert Harris, Pantheon Books, 1986.

The Hitler Diaries: Fakes that Fooled the World by Charles Hamilton, The University of Kentucky Press, 1991.

The Hitler Diaries, a Notorious Case of Forgery, The Crime Library, (http://crimelibrary.com/criminal_mind/scams/hitler_diaries/index.htm), 2005.

 

Copyright 2005, Lee Krystek. All Rights Reserved.