His DiariesIn bloodred letters splashed across the cover of its issue dated April 25, 1983, Germany's weekly magazine Stern announced a publishing exclusive: "Hitler's Diaries Discovered." Inside, illustrated with 10 examples of the Nazi fuhrer's handwriting, were 42 pages of extracts from the diaries, the first of 28 installments to be published over the following 18 months. The sensational material came from 62 notebooks bound in black imitation leather that the magazine had recently acquired. Unknown to his associates at the time and historians of the era, Hitler had kept a handwritten diary from mid 1932 until two weeks before his death amid the ruins of Berlin in April 1945. Or so said Peter Koch, the magazine's editor in chief, at a self congratulatory press conference in Hamburg. The diaries had been obtained for the magazine by its 51 year old investigative reporter Gerd Heidemann.
London's Sunday Times paid $400,000 for British and Commonwealth rights to the diaries. France's Paris Match and Italy's Panorama planned publication in their countries. Newsweek ran a 13 page cover story on the diaries the following week, noting that what its editors had seen "reeks of history ...13 years of the most hideous years in human experience are described by the man who did so much to make them vile." Nonetheless, Newsweek editors had declined to buy American rights to the diaries because they disagreed with Stern's plan to publish in installments over such a long period of time and because they wanted "more systematic and authoritative authentication."
Stern offered the opinions of British historian Hugh Trevor Roper and Gerhard L. Weinberg of the University of North Carolina, both of whom had briefly examined the diaries and were on record as believing them to be genuine.
And Then the DoubtsRising at the press conference in Hamburg, the British historian David Irving asked an embarrassing question: Had the ink in the documents been chemically tested to prove its age? It had not. Stern's two experts began backing away from their endorsements. Weinberg asked Stern to call in handwriting experts and allow scholars to examine the diaries page by page. Trevor Roper announced first that some of the documents in the cache might be fake and then that all were forgeries "until the opposite is proven." German historians were quick to enter the fray, one of them charging that Stern was only out to sell copies of the magazine. Indeed, it had increased its 1.87 million circulation by 300,000 copies with the first installment and had raised its newsstand price from $1.25 to $1.45.
Skeptics asked how Hitler had been able to conceal the diaries from his secretaries, valets, and military assistants. No one in his inner circle had ever mentioned that the fuhrer was keeping a diary. It was pointed out that Hitler had hated to write, invariably dictating his letters to a secretary. When he did write, it was usually in pencil. From January 1943 onward Hitler was known to have been suffering from palsy, subject to severe shaking attacks that made it virtually impossible for him to write in a legible hand.
"Reason to Be Ashamed"A handwriting expert retained by Newsweek studied two of the diaries Stern brought to New York. They were, he said, "not only forgeries, they were bad forgeries."
In Germany scientists were able to prove that the paper in the diaries as well as the ink, the glue in the notebooks' bindings, the imitation leather covers, and the red ribbons hanging from wax seals on some of those covers all dated to the postwar period. Hans Booms, head of Germany's Federal Archives, pronounced the Stern diaries "a blatant, grotesque, and superficial forgery." One of Booms's associates even found a source for the material in the diaries, a 1962 book titled Hitler: Speeches and Proclamations, 1932-1945, by Max Domarus. Whoever compiled the Stern diaries slavishly followed Domarus's work, even picking up some of his errors.
In Hamburg, Stern's outraged staff staged a sixday sit in at the editorial offices, demanding to know how the magazine's top management could so easily have been duped and expressing concern about the damage done to the publication's credibility. Peter Koch was forced to resign. Henri Nannen, the publisher, sadly confessed, "We have reason to be ashamed."
Unmasking the CulpritsStem had placed its trust in Heidemann, a 32 year veteran of the staff. An amateur student of the Nazi era, Heidemann had sold his home in Hamburg in order to buy a yacht once belonging to Hitler's second in command, Hermann Goering. On it he liked to entertain former Nazi officials and through one of them met Konrad Kujau, alias Konrad Fischer, who sold Nazi memorabilia from a shop in Stuttgart. Early in 1981 Kujau told Heidemann that his brother, an officer in the East German army, had smuggled previously unknown Hitler diaries across the border into West Germany and was offering them for sale.
The diaries, Kujau explained, had been put aboard a transport plane in Berlin in late April 1945, as Hitler's reich began crumbling around him. Along with other valuable possessions of the fuhrer they were to be taken to Berchtesgaden in the Bavarian Alps for safekeeping, Hitler presumably would follow in another plane to make a last stand in his mountaintop lair. However, the first plane crashed near Dresden; Hitler, of course, never left Berlin. All but one aboard the plane died in the crash. But a local farmer had been able to salvage some of the cargo, including the diaries, which he had stashed away.
Heidemann accepted Kujau's fantastic tale and in the next two years persuaded his employers to part with 9 million marks ($3.7 million) for the diaries. For his role in the transaction the reporter kept 1.5 million marks ($600,000) of Stern's money. As it turned out, there had been no plane crash, and there had been no diaries hidden in East Germany and spirited across the border. Kujau himself had forged the documents over a period of years.
Kujau confessed, trying to implicate Heidemann in his scheme. The reporter, promptly dismissed by the magazine, maintained that he had been hoodwinked. Two years later, after a lengthy trial, the two men were found guilty of fraud. Heidemann was sentenced to four years and eight months in prison; Kujau's sentence was two months shorter. However, the presiding judge reserved his strongest criticism for Stern's management. Blinded by wanton greed, he said, the magazine's publishers had failed to make a sufficient examination of the diaries before buying them and had actually encouraged the forger and his accomplice by so readily handing over to them such large sums of money.